Like pretty much everywhere else in Britain, the village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Dales breathes with history. But even by British standards, this village has such a grand, tragic story, that it will remain with you long after you leave it.
Eyam is also called the “plague village” because the deadly bubonic plague of 1665-66 claimed many lives here. The plague traveled here all the way from London in a consignment of cloth meant for a local tailor. George Viccars, the tailor’s assistant, opened the roll of cloth but found it damp and smelling foul and so he put the cloth to dry near the fire. Unfortunately for him, the cloth had come from the plague-infested parts of London and the warmth from the fire caused the fleas to settle on his person instead. The poor man was dead in seven days.
In the next few weeks following Viccars death, five other people from neighbouring cottages also died. Everyone realized that the plague had arrived in Eyam.
At this point, it would seem perfectly natural for people to start fleeing the village. But what followed is a story of courage, nobility and sacrifice that are bound to move any visitor today.
The local vicar, an intelligent and noble soul by the name of Reverend Monpesson, took hold of the situation and the brave villagers of Eyam followed. Rev. Monpesson decided that given the highly infectious nature of the disease, the village would have to quarantine itself. Noone was allowed to enter and noone was allowed to leave. He also decreed that families should bury their dead themselves and within their own plots of land instead of the church burial ground. And finally, he suspended all services inside the church and only allowed gatherings in open-air.
Over the weeks and months that followed this decision, scores of
people died. The sadness of these deaths was compounded by the randomness with which the plague chose its victims. We visited the Riley Graves which lie a little outside the centre of the village on a hill. These graves belong to the Hancock family, where the father and all his six children perished. I had this vision of a bent and broken woman, Mrs. Hancock, who would have had to dig the graves herself to bury what seems like her whole world. Incidentally, she was one of the only persons to have broken the quarantine when she went to live with her sole surviving son in Sheffield. Luckily she was not carrying the germs with her.
Although you don’t really need a reminder, a little notice to the entrance of the Riley graves says, “Visitors are requested to treat this burial place with reverence.” So imagine my complete shock, indeed horror, when I entered the little circular enclosure to find a group of hikers had haphazardly placed their lunch boxes on one of the graves, treating it more as a table top! It was a truly jarring sight in a country where people generally adore and respect their history.
But returning to the story, Eyam was in quarantine for over a year
and during this time its method of contact with the outside world became very interesting. To discover it you have to go in search of the boundary stone. This is really just an ordinary stone, in an ordinary field on one of the rolling hills outside the center of Eyam but full of meaning and pathos. The only creatures around are a few curious sheep grazing close-by. The boundary stone has six holes in its surface. During the plague, people from neighbouring villages would leave food and other necessary items near this stone and the villagers would leave their payment in the little holes filled with vinegar to disinfect their coins. A similar method of contact was established at the other end of Eyam as well. That point was called Monpesson’s Well, after the local vicar and villagers threw their money into a pool of vinegar and collected the goods left there by outsiders.
Again, I had this vision of the tragic figures who walked to this boundary to collect a few basic necessities. They probably returned home to dying families, wondering on whom the cold hand of death would settle next.