The Derbyshire village that sacrificed itself to save a nation in lockdown - and the lessons it can teach us

The irony of the coronavirus emergency is not lost on David Bell who lives in Eyam.David is a popular guest speaker who for the past six years has been travelling the length and breadth of the UK entertaining audiences with his tongue–in–cheek take on avoiding disease 350 years ago.

Tuesday, 21st April 2020, 9:58 pm
David is a popular guest speaker who for the past 6 years has been travelling the length and breadth of the UK entertaining audiences

“The Derbyshire village of Eyam has never been shy making capital from its famous plague heritage.

Never imagining what could be around the corner, tens of thousands of visitors have been flocking to this beautiful corner of the Peak District for generations to see for themselves where a unique exercise in self- isolation was played out with such tragic consequences 355 years ago.

During the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665 the population of Eyam agreed to be locked-down voluntarily to prevent the spread of an invisible killer disease.

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

The story of the Eyam plague began with the arrival of a consignment of cloth and second-hand clothes from London, where the disease had already killed 30 per cent of the population. In the London consignment there were fleas from infected black rats carrying the deadly plague bacteria.

A tailor’s assistant called George Viccars was said to have opened the delivery unwittingly stirring the disease-ridden fleas. He became the first of the plague’s victims in the village some 10 days later.

The pestilence, as it was known, began its unrelenting surge through the community. Between September and December 1665, almost 50 villagers died

and by the following spring with more deaths - and increasing alarm - many were on the verge of fleeing their homes and their livelihoods to save themselves.

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

It was at this point that the newly appointed vicar, William Mompesson, intervened. Believing it his duty to prevent the plague spreading to other towns and cities he sought to quarantine Eyam.

However, as if persuading his flock to sacrifice their lives was not difficult enough, he had another problem – Mompesson was already deeply unpopular with the villagers.

Realising he would need help, the vicar decided to reach out to his popular predecessor Thomas Stanley in the hope that together they could persuade the villagers to carry their controversial lockdown plan.

Mompesson persuaded his parishioners that the village must be enclosed, with no-one allowed in or out. The Earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby at Chatsworth House, had offered to send supplies if the locals agreed to the plan.

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

By the end of the outbreak, 260 of the village’s population of 350 were dead. 79 out of 90 families recorded the death of an immediate family member. The plague outbreak however had been contained after a 14 month long grim struggle.

The Eyam Plague Story has endeared itself to the British public with its stirring accounts of personal sacrifice for the greater good. Two pandemics - one historical and another current - both strangely with powerful parallels of lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation.

All of a sudden life as we know it has almost stopped in its tracks.

Our village - normally heaving with tourists and day trippers – is now eerily quiet. Although locals are stoically getting on with their new normal as best they can there is a distinct feeling of déjà vu hanging in the air.

Unique acts of self- isolation were played out with such tragic consequences 355 years ago

If the truth were known, rather like the 1600s none of us knows what the end game will look like when we come out of this lockdown.

Eyam’s 2020 lockdown will be the second in its history; let us all pray and hope and take comfort from our wonderful NHS.

Can we learn anything from the original Eyam Plague quarantine?

Almost certainly.

Medical experts then had no idea of the existence of the basic medical concepts we take for granted nowadays. Oxygen for example had yet to be discovered; most doctors still thought that blood was pumped around our bodies by the magnetic force of the moon; and the dangers of bacteria and the value of hygiene were still a couple of hundred years away.

Eyam in 1666 did however show the value of love, compassion, togetherness and leadership; all powerful traits we should take into our current plight.

David Bell

“Although I do wonder what Piers Morgan would have made of William Mompesson sending his young children to live out of harm’s way in Yorkshire whilst going on to persuade the ordinary inhabitants of Eyam to stick with his lockdown plans!”

Graves of those who lost their lives in the Great Plague
The plague cottage where families lost their lives in the 17th century Great Plague