Visiting the Plague Village of Eyam is a sobering experience. Kate had heard about the heroism and sacrifice of the villagers here in 1665 – 6, and in 2019 she went to see what could still be seen and what lessons could be learnt in this pretty Derbyshire village.
Humphrey Merrill’s grave is in a field behind his house. He was the village herbalist and died in September 1666, just before the outbreak was over. Photograph © Simon Norfolk
The small village of Eyam, which means ‘place between streams’ has been around since the Bronze Age, although the presence of stone circles and barrows nearby hint at longer occupation. Relatively prosperous due to lead mining in the area, the village had a population of around 600 people. There is a 14th century church, St. Lawrence, which has Norman pillars built atop much earlier Saxon foundations, with a Saxon font inside and an 8th century Celtic cross in the churchyard.
In the late summer of 1665, Alexander Hadfield, a tailor from Eyam ordered a parcel of cloth from London and unwittingly triggered a chain of events that led to over 270 of the villagers dying from bubonic plague. The tailor’s assistant, George Viccars, unpacked the box and, seeing that the cloth was damp, hung it by the cottage fire. The cloth was flea-infested, bringing the Great Plague of London to this small Derbyshire village.
George Viccars died in September 1665 and the disease spread rapidly. Initially the villagers wanted to flee but were persuaded not to do so by their rector, the Reverend William Mompesson, and his predecessor, Thomas Stanley. These foresighted men believed that such dispersal of the village population would only spread the plague more widely. Instead they convinced the villagers to quarantine the entire village to slow the spread of the illness.
Stones were put around the village to mark the boundaries beyond which people could not v