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Late in the summer of 1665 infected materials from London were delivered to the house of the village tailor, Alexander Hadfield. They were opened by his assistant, George Viccars, who shortly afterwards became ill and died most violently. His death was quickly followed by that of his two stepsons, Edward and Jonathan Cooper, and his immediate neighbours, and eventually by that of the tailor himself.
The infection spread rapidly throughout the autumn, slowing down in the winter only to return with greater vigour in the spring and summer, reaching a peak in August when 78 people died in the month. In the fourteen months the danger lasted, it claimed 260 lives out of a population of around 800.
Under the leadership of the rector, Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, the villagers agreed to accept strict quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease beyond the village boundary. They were supported by the Earl of Devonshire, and by other charitable but less wealthy neighbours, who provided the necessities of life during their period of isolation.
To control the infection within the village they agreed firstly to bury their own dead, close to their homes, rather than in consecrated ground, in the belief that unburied corpses were a major hazard in the spread of the pestilence, so that speed was essential, and secondly to worship in the open air, where it would be possible to maintain corporate worship without being in close proximity with their neighbours and thus expose themselves to danger.
Apart from the wife of the rector, whose grave is near the church door, there are now no graves of any other victims to be seen in the churchyard, though some of the early victims would have been buried there before their decisions were made.
Eyam is best known for an event which happened in the 17th century. The plague which was a highly infectious and very unpleasant disease widely known and experienced in Britain and Europe, came to Eyam in the summer of 1665, possibly in a bale of cloth brought up from London. The people in the house where it came to, caught the disease and died in a short space of time. Before long, others had caught the disease and also died, after a short and very painful illness. It spread rapidly. The local rector, The Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, led a campaign to prevent the disease spreading outside the village to the surrounding area. This involved the people of the village remaining in the village and being supplied with necessary provisions by people outside. There is still on the outskirts of the village a location called the Boundary stone, where traditionally, money was placed in small holes for the provisions which those from the local area brought for the villagers. As a result of this action, the disease did not spread but almost a third of the villagers died. Interestingly some of the villagers who were in contact with those who caught the plague, did not catch it. This was because they had a chromosome which gave them protection. This same chromosome has been shown to still exist in those who are direct descendants of those who survived the plague, and who are still living in the village at the present time. The action of the villagers in staying in the village is almost unique and makes the village the place of significance that it is. The nursery rhyme, "Ring-a-ring-of-roses" is associated with this event. The "ring" referred to in the rhyme represents the mark on the cheek that those who caught the plague exhibited. "Atishoo, Atishoo, we fall down" refers to the death of those who caught the plague. There is an excellent local museum which shows in detail what was involved in the plague.
original website ©2000 J.F.Day. Updated and edited ©2005 Infinity Junction
Map design ©2000 The Eyam Map project