Eyam: The Courageous Plague Village in Derbyshire

by JoHarrington

In 1666, around 800 people chose to sacrifice themselves, in order to save the lives of thousands of strangers. Could you have done that?

Our first instinct is for self-preservation. Our second is a feeling so powerful, that it may even over-ride the first. It's the protection and survival of our children and spouses.

So what if you were asked to sacrifice yourself, your family, your neighbors, your friends, your whole community, in order that a multitude of others would live.

Could you do it? Could you take that path of greater good? The people of Eyam did it. Their remarkable courage and altruism is celebrated there to this day.

The Isolation of Derbyshire's Eyam

I visited this famous village in August 2012. It is a very beautiful place above and beyond its history.

Derbyshire is a long way from London.  Its Peak District, with those soaring hills and sweeping dales, might as well be another world.

While the affairs of state are enacted way down south, amidst the bustle of the capital city, the sheep around Eyam nibble the grass.  Life goes quietly on.

This is a pastoral place, nestled amongst the foothills of the northern Pennines. It is part of the Backbone of Britain.

Image:  Eyam in Derbyshire
Image: Eyam in Derbyshire
Jo Harrington

There has been small scale mining there since Roman times - the village pub, built in 1630 (and still doing a roaring trade), is called The Miner's Arms.  In later times, there has been leather-working and shoe-making too.

But most of all, there are farmers.  Even today fields fill the landscape, hemming in the houses right through to the far horizon.  You can see for miles here, across moors and valleys. In August and September, that means a patchwork of harvested hay in giant rolls, livestock grazing and the chiseled cliffs of quarried stone.

For all of its considerable views, Eyam is an isolated place.  Traveling there today means weaving along country miles, an hour or so from the nearest motorway.  Even then, it's a turn off from a main road, through a dense woodland curtain, twisting upwards and traversing a hairpin bend.

Then you are in the historic village of Eyam.  So many of its famous 17th century homes are intact.  Modern families live there now, in the same rooms wherein their ancestors took their stand.

It was Eyam's isolation which, in 1665, gave its people the option to be heroic.  They had learned that they just weren't isolated enough.

Where is Eyam?

It's a small village in the Peak District of Derbyshire, in England.
Beautiful views over the Derbyshire Dales and 17th century buildings greet visitors to Eyam. It's a little village with an awe-inspiring historical tale to tell.

The Horrors of London During the Great Plague of 1665

This wasn't the first nor last time that the capital city of England would experience the Black Death. But it was one of the worst outbreaks in its history.

In London, the streets were awash with scenes of horror.  Doors marked with thick, red crosses.  Hollow-eyed people wracked with exhaustion and desperation.  Death everywhere.

Ponies and traps clomped along the roads, with their grisly loads of piled high bodies. Occasionally a driver would slump in his seat, dead at the reins. 

With no human being to navigate and issue instructions, the horses went where they will.  Skittish with the scent of death, they towed their cargo of corpses aimlessly around the city, or made for freedom beyond the bounds.

The graveyards were swollen; the grave-diggers overwhelmed.  In little St Olave's churchyard, so many dead were thrown into its pit, that the ground became a hill.  Several steps had to be cut into the mound, in order to access the church doorway.

While many survivors trembled at the perceived End of Days, and waited their turn to die, life had to go on.  In the trading capital of Europe, that meant commerce.

In a plague-ridden back road, a haberdasher fulfilled an order. A length of cloth was parceled up, ready for postal delivery.

The address on it was Church Street, Eyam.

Learn About the Great Plague of London 1665

Buy these books to discover more about that devastating, dark period in London's history.

Map of Eyam

This is a 21st century map, but the main streets (and houses) were there in the 17th century too.

A Deadly Delivery from London to Eyam

Ordering cloth from the capital ensured that even remote villages had access to the latest fashions. This was one that Derbyshire could have done without.

Alexander Hadfield was an Eyam man with a bright future.  He had recently married the widowed Mary Cooper and become step-father to her two young boys.

As a tailor, his trade was so brisk, that he'd been able to take on an assistant.  George Viccars lodged with the family in their Church Street home. 

It was he who took possession of the parcel from London. It had been carried on the back of an open cart for the final leg of its journey. In typical British summer fashion, it was raining.  The cloth within arrived damp, so George's first job was to stretch it all out in front of the hearth to dry it off.

That was on September 3rd 1665.  Four days later, he was dead. 

The cloth had been infested with fleas. Half-starved from their incarceration in the package, they had feasted upon George Viccars. The fleas were carrying the same bubonic plague, which was currently devastating London.

By the time it had finished its rampage through Eyam, only Mary would be left standing in that house. She would have lost not only her two boys, her husband and lodger, but another ten relatives besides.

Next door, Jane Hawkworth would bury her husband and baby son, alongside twenty-three more relations.  On the other side of the Hadfield house, the entire Thorpe family were wiped out.  All nine members of them.

They weren't alone.

Throughout Eyam people were dying, as the pestilence spread.  From September 7th 1665 until November 1st 1666, the tiny population would be decimated. But most of them did not run.

Eyam Church, Derbyshire

This photograph was taken in 1890. Mine (below) was taken from almost the same spot in 2012.

Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13

Greater Love Hath No Man Than This

Rev William Mompesson gave a sermon which delivered much of his congregation to their deaths. They did it voluntarily.

17th century Eyam was a God-fearing place.  This was a Puritan strong-hold, though not everyone followed that faith. A large proportion were Anglicans instead.

Until 1661, the pulpit of St Helen's Church had been filled by Rev Thomas Stanley.  He was a staunch Puritan, who had demanded strict adherence, even from the Anglicans there. 

In 1662, Reverend Stanley had refused to support the Act of Uniformity, hence had been ejected from the Church.

His parishioners were largely in agreement with him, so he'd been persuaded to stay on in Eyam. Though not officially their minister, many of his flock still came to him for their spiritual needs.

As far as the Church of England was concerned, the village was now under the care of Rev William Mompesson. He was a learned man, recently graduating from Oxford University.  His wife Catherine was minor nobility. 

Once it was clear that plague was in the village, the Mompesson children were sent to relatives in Sheffield.  Catherine had the opportunity to go with them, but she refused.  She saw her duty as being with her husband, as he dealt with this crisis.

Her decision killed her.  She is buried in a prominent grave in the churchyard of St Lawrence's Church, Eyam.  (This is St Helen's Church.  It has been renamed over the years.)

Image:  Grave of Catherine Mompesson, Eyam
Image: Grave of Catherine Mompesson, Eyam
Jo Harrington

The wealthier families all evacuated at the first sign of trouble.  That left around 800 people in the village.  They were surrounded by moorland and open country lanes.  They could all have fled, even if their homes, livelihood, family and community were all here.

That they didn't is due to a sermon delivered by Mompesson, supported throughout by Stanley. It was given in the Spring of 1666, after dozens of the villagers were already dead.

The rest of Derbyshire was largely untouched by plague.  If the people of Eyam were all to flee, then they would take the pestilence with them.  They might save themselves at the expense of thousands of lives.

No guards stood at the entrances to the village.  No bars were erected across the roads. The freedom of the fields lay in all directions.  But the majority of the people stayed.

They were going to save Derbyshire from the plague, at the potential cost of their own lives. For way too many, it would be payment in full.

Would you have stayed with your family in Eyam in 1666?

Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
No, I couldn't have risked the lives of myself and my family
Keith Winter on 09/27/2012

I don't think that I would have risked the lives of my family. The villagers of Eyam were very courageous and the memory of their bravery should live on.

TiaMariaMartini on 08/26/2012

I would have run for the hills.

Kate on 08/16/2012

I wouldn't have been brave enough not to run away

Yes, I would have risked the lives of myself and my family
FrancesSpiegel on 07/05/2013

I have family living there now. If they had been there in 1666 I would have stayed to support them.

JoHarrington on 08/14/2012

I like to think that I would have stayed. For myself, I hope that I would agree. The difficulty would have been in also agreeing for my family and friends to stay.

Getting Supplies into Derbyshire's Plague Village

The people there couldn't go to market. They couldn't sell their wares outside the boundaries. In many families, the main breadwinner had died.

Despite being in Derbyshire, the Lord of the Manor was the Earl of Devonshire. He lived in Chatsworth House, only a few miles away from the Eyam border.  He was alerted to the crisis, and the intentions of the villagers, by a letter from Reverend Mompesson.

The Earl swore an oath to provide enough food and medicine for the population of Eyam, for as long as they remained in quarantine.  Each day, his cart would be driven to the boundary stone, at the south-east corner of the village.  His servants would deliver provisions, while also taking note of a list of the dead posted up beside it.

These were only basic supplies.  Anything extra could be purchased and brought the next day. The people of Eyam would order those with a second list nailed up beside that of the dead. 

Image: Boundary Stone Between Eyam and Stoney Middleton
Image: Boundary Stone Between Eyam and Stoney Middleton

Into the top of the boundary stone had been drilled several wide holes.  These were filled with vinegar, and the coins to pay for their orders would be dropped into that. It was thought that the vinegar would disinfect the coinage, thus preventing the spread of plague. It seemed to work!

(Incidentally, some histories state that the benefactor was the Duke of Devonshire.  It's an easy mistake to make!  The Earl's grandson was awarded that title.  But he didn't become Duke until 1694, twenty-eight years after his grandfather provided for the people of Eyam.)

It wasn't just the nobility prepared to help the villagers in their plight.  After all, the neighboring populations had much to be grateful for, plus much to gain from them staying put.  Further provisions were left by the boundary stone, but also in a second location.

Up on the hillside above Eyam is a spring.  Crystal clear water bubbles out of the rock and down into the village itself.  The same procedure with lists, gifts and purchases was made there. Only the money was left in the water itself, where the flowing stream would wash the plague clear.

This is now known as Mompesson's Well and it's become something of a tourist attraction just outside Eyam.

Because of these two systems, no-one in the village actually starved nor went without, even as plague ravaged their lives.

Books Dramatizing the Story of Eyam

Experience the drama and utter tragedy of those times in these semi-fictitious tellings of Eyam's story. Geraldine Brooks's novel is the most well known.
When plague came to Eyam, the villagers chose to quarantine themselves to save their neighbors. This is a novel about what it was like to be there, trapped within deadly streets.

Fourteen Months in Self-Imposed Quarantine

Visitors to the village afterwards said that only a quarter of the population survived. The whole of Eyam was strewn with gravestones.

As well as asking the people to stay within the borders of Eyam, there were two other requirements.

The first was that each family buried their own dead, wherever they could.  This is the reason that Eyam today has gravestones dotted throughout gardens, greens and up in nearby fields. It stopped plague victims being carried through the streets and deposited in the center of the village.

The second was that no-one met in St Helen's Church.  The proximity of each other, while in the pews, could result in the healthy being infected with plague.

Both requests would have terrified these people.  They were all God-fearing Christians. They were sacrificing themselves because of that sermon, because of John 15:13.  Now, at the moment of their greatest need, they were being asked to bury their dead in unhallowed ground; and not step foot in a Church.

They did it.

It's unrecorded how Reverend Mompesson and Reverend Stanley assuaged the spiritual dread of the burials.  In Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders - a semi-fictitious account of that year - she has a sermon given stating that God would find them.  They'd hallowed the entire of Eyam with their actions. It sounds plausible.

We do know that a compromise was reached with the services.  All of the congregation met instead in a field called Cucklett Delph, just a few yards from the Church.  In the open air, they could stand in family groups, far apart from each other.  Rev Mompesson spoke to them from an outcrop of rocks.

The field later became known as Cucklett Church.  Since 1666, a memorial service is held there, in the open air, on the last Sunday in August.

Image: Cucklett Church, Eyam
Image: Cucklett Church, Eyam
Jo Harrington

Love on the Rocks in Plague-Ridden Eyam

Romance knows no boundaries. Give or take the odd large stone.

Those rocks are famous for another story from the plague months.  This time it is a romance.  Emmot Sydall was betrothed to Rowland Torre, a young man from the neighboring village of Stoney Middleton.  They were naturally parted by the quarantine.

Being young and in love, it would take more than an outbreak of bubonic plague to keep them apart. 

Rowland used to come to a field on the other side of the rocks.  Emmot would stand on them.  Their yelled conversations kept the relationship alive.

That is until the end of April 1666, when Emmot didn't turn up.  Rowland kept coming, fearing the worst. It wasn't until the quarantine was eventually lifted that the truth was confirmed.

She had died of plague along with five of her family.  Only two of the eight Sydalls lived to grieve with him.

Some of the Graves and Memorials in Eyam

There are lots of these, dotted within the streets and out in the surrounding landscape.
Image: Heald Family Memorial, Eyam
Image: Heald Family Memorial, Eyam
Jo Harrington
Image: Hancock Family Graves, Eyam
Image: Hancock Family Graves, Eyam
Jo Harrington
Image: Darby Family Graves, Eyam
Image: Darby Family Graves, Eyam
Jo Harrington
Image: Torre Family Memorial, Eyam
Image: Torre Family Memorial, Eyam
Jo Harrington

Eyam's Catastrophic Death Toll

So many died in the finish that records became confused.  At least 260 people were buried during those fourteen months.  Many by their own families, in their own backyard.  Other estimates have gone as high as over 300. 

The usual figure given for the population of Eyam in 1665 is 800, though that included the fleeing nobility too.  Of those who stayed, perhaps only a quarter survived.

But they were successful. The Great Plague did not escape their boundaries.  The rest of Derbyshire (and Northern England) was saved.

More Articles on British History

History is an on-going tale, which directly affects the modern day. Each event is part of a domino effect causing ripples across the world.
It's quirky and so frightfully British! All that can be said of a stiff, upper lip is in this war-time slogan. But it was never seen at the time.
In 1653, most British churches were being smashed up by Roundheads. But in Leicestershire, one was being built.
If you thought hacking was a new phenomenon, then you haven't met Nevil Maskelyne! LulzSec's great-grandfather exposed Marconi.
Updated: 04/23/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
Veronica on 08/01/2015

A great article and it is spot on accurate. Thank you.

Eyam is one of my favourite places and I visit once a year as it is only 40 minutes or so drive away. Each year they hold the Derbyshire well dressings and they are definitely worth a visit if you get an opportunity to do so.

Eyam has a very spiritual feel to it as you walk around. Did you know that the descendants of Eyam plague survivors are immune to AIDS, something to do with their altered immune systems ?

JoHarrington on 07/05/2013

So you could have had family there during the plague? If so, your family has my major respect.

FrancesSpiegel on 07/05/2013

Hi Jo - we have ancestry there but there was a gap of over 200 years between one lot moving out and the next lot moving in.

JoHarrington on 07/05/2013

Do you have ancestry there, or family who moved to Eyam? Either way, it must be an amazing place to leave. Scenery alone would make it worth it, but that astounding history just ices the cakes.

FrancesSpiegel on 07/05/2013

Eyam is a place I've visited many times because I have family who have lived there for 30 years or more. Your article has revived so many old memories - thanks for sharing.

JoHarrington on 01/14/2013

Welcome to Wizzley! You'll find a very friendly and encouraging bunch of people here.

Thank you for your kind words about my article. Having visited the village, it's hard not to become moved by their story. It was a terrible situation, but with a very courageous response.

I like to think that I'd have stayed, but as you said, we can't know unless we're ever in that situation.

JoHarrington on 09/27/2012

Thank you very much. <3

Keith Winter on 09/27/2012

Opps! forgot to subscribe. Bookmarked and shared.

JoHarrington on 09/27/2012

You're very welcome. It's a fascinating place to visit as well, if you're ever in the area.

Keith Wintr on 09/27/2012

Fascinating, well written story. It's not often that I read a complete webpage, but this one had me completely transfixed. Thank you very much for sharing.

You might also like

Visit Eyam - Historic Plague Village in the Peak District

Beautiful views over the Derbyshire Dales and 17th century buildings greet vi...

How Scotland was Forced into Union with England

On May Day 1707, a group of politicians huddled in secret to sign the Act of ...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...