This 17th-Century British Village Became a Plague Quarantine

Eyam “Plague Cottages”. The group of cottages in Eyam where the plague outbreak is believed to have started. They are now major tourist attractions. Crossbrook Multimedia

Mompesson and Stanley convinced the people of Eyam to stay and help each other, instead of leaving the town and spreading the plague further into the district of Derbyshire and points beyond. How they managed to convince everyone to stay and face certain death is in itself an incredible feat, but they stayed. They established some ground rules to keep exposure to a minimum. Families would bury their dead family members near their homes, not in the communal churchyard. They moved the church’s religious services out of the closed-in church to the open-air amphitheater at Cucklett Delph to give everyone spiritual guidance, but to also allow people to separate the sick from the healthy.

Boundary Stone. People from neighboring villages would leave food and supplies for the people of Eyam at boundary stones like this one along the outskirts of the village. The people of Eyam would then leave money soaked in vinegar, which was believed to kill infection. Wikipedia Commons

Eyam’s neighbors recognized the efforts that Eyam went through to prevent plague outbreak to save others. People from neighboring villages would leave food and supplies near boundary stones at the outskirts of town for them. The people of Eyam would then leave vinegar-soaked money, which was believed to kill the infection, on the same boundary stones as payment for the goods. Eyam effectually became a plague quarantine for over a year, closing itself off from the outside world. The town suffered greatly, losing ¾ of their inhabitants. Church records claim that 273 people died of the disease from 1665-1666.

Everyone who lived in Eyam lost someone. In some cases, people survived despite repeated exposure, while in others, whole families were wiped out. A woman named Elizabeth Hancock survived the plague but buried six of her children and her husband within an eight-day period. Marshall Howe, the town’s gravedigger, also survived, although he handled many infected dead bodies in a single day. However, the Reverend’s wife Catherine Mompesson, who spent her last days visiting the sick, was one of the last people who died during the outbreak.

We now know that the steps that Eyam took probably did them more harm than good. By isolating themselves the way they did, they probably increased the number of people that died. Plague still reached other areas of Derbyshire, with many deaths recorded in some areas. This was exactly what the people of Eyam were trying to avoid. Still, we will never know how much worse the death tolls in Derbyshire would have been if Eyam hadn’t taken the steps that they did.

Eyam now owns its history as the “plague village.” Since 1866, the two-hundred year anniversary of the outbreak, the people of Eyam have celebrated Plague Sunday to honor the dead, and they lay a wreath on Catherine Mompesson’s grave. Eyam Museum has an exhibit that focuses on the town’s plague history. Eyam Parish Church houses many records from the time. The cottages where the outbreak is believed to have started, the boundary stones where people left food and vinegar-soaked money, and the gravestones where people had to bury their dead are now tourist attractions. So, was it worth it? To the people of Eyam, it is.

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