"Boris Johnson should be mindful not to ask too much of us for too long"

“Parallels are being made by some between our current COVID19 lockdown and the 17th century quarantine endured by the little Peak District village of Eyam.

Saturday, 25th April 2020, 2:59 pm

Comparing the COVID19 restrictions with that of the plague lockdown in Eyam is fraught with problems as the popular story of the famous plague village is largely built on legend and flimsy half-remembered truths.

There is however one surprising lesson we may want to take from 355 years ago.

By the time the plague reached Eyam in September 1665, London had already been devastated by the disease. More than 50,000 people had died in our capital city of the dreaded pestilence in a year.

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Graves of those who lost their lives in the 17th century Great Plague

Even then the authorities were never in any doubt about the severity of the threat; it had happened several times before.

Separating the sick from the healthy was widely understood to be the most effective strategy. The Lord Mayor of London with his Plague Orders was well versed in its application. It is unsurprising that Eyam followed suit with a broadly similar approach the following summer.

The village’s central claim to heroic self-sacrifice: its choice to cut itself off, is highly questionable in the eyes of some historical purists.

That the village was quarantined is not in question. But the notion that the locals heroically imposed isolation on themselves has little foundation in any of the primary sources.

The plague cottage where families lost their lives in the 17th century Great Plague

None of the original evidence, including the village Rector’s surviving letters, actually mention Eyam choosing its own quarantine; although the trauma and the leadership from the church features largely.

That of course is not surprising, from the narrow perspective of the author.

By the 1660s quarantine was a well-established public health technique, but it was always something enforced by the State, certainly not enacted willingly by public spirited communities – because, for the most part, survival was always too strong a personal instinct.

If the story of Eyam sounds like a romantic novel, that’s because large parts of it is.

Graves of those who lost their lives in the Great Plague

The spirit of the story owes much initially to the juvenile imagination of Anna Seward whose description of the plague – in a poem written as a young girl more than 100 years after the event – appeared in an obscure publication edited by no other than her family friend Sir Walter Scott, the

historical novelist.

Other references to the plague story didn’t appear until a further 100 years later when William Wood, an amateur historian and self-confessed romanticist published a local guide book.

Even Wood eventually grew concerned and embarrassed about the accuracy and validity of some of his tales in his publication and was later forced to substantially edit future editions.

The Bishop of Derby addresing the record crowd from the rock pulpit in Cucklet Dell, Eyam, Derbyshire. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Nonetheless over the years the William Wood publication and the local church continued to nurture Eyam’s place in popular legend to the point where more than 10,000 people attended an annual outdoor remembrance service in 1934.

By the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the village’s plague heritage had grown to become a fixture in popular British history that the Town Council commissioned plaques - listing names of villagers who had perished in the plague outbreak - to be arbitrarily placed on the walls of existing village properties.

There is inconsistent historical evidence of who had lived where; the layout of the buildings or indeed how many or how much of them remain.

Most of these plaques continue to be on display to this day and have become the public face of the Eyam Plague Story for tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Only a few thin strands of primary evidence connect the miriad of rich personal stories that have been woven over the years. The sum-total of records is scanty: a handful of letters by the Rector written in 1666; the parish’s haphazardly compiled burial register and vague inscriptions on a few

graves scattered around the village.

Eyam was one of the few places outside London to be infected with the Great Plague in 1665

Only two other written sources have credible claims drawing on actual witnesses, and even they are weighted and are second-hand statements, from the sons of the two senior churchmen of the time, Mompesson and Stanley. Two old men recalling their very early childhood memories of their fathers some 60 years later.

Pointedly there is no strong source for the claim that the village uniquely isolated itself voluntarily.

There is evidence that points in the other direction however. People did flee Eyam to escape a killer disease.

Deaths were concentrated among poor households, suggesting that many wealthier villagers who could afford to leave had made a run for it before the quarantine was imposed.

Even the Rector had sent his own children to relatives in Yorkshire just before quarantine.

Tellingly, one of the few sources surviving from a neighbouring town suggests that Eyam’s remaining villagers may have been reluctant prisoners.

There are records showing that Sheffield employed officials to restrict movement, paying constables to keep people who had escaped the confines of Eyam from setting foot in the Fullwood area; sending them back to where they came from.

There are also other accounts of Eyam residents being forcibly returned to their village from Tideswell and other places nearby.

If it took force to keep Eyam in lockdown could this I wonder offer a realistic guide to how it might become with us ? . . . . . . Boris Johnson and his UK Government should be mindful not to ask too much of us for too long.”

David Bell