Our Church Administrator, Madeleine, who told me about a remarkable historic example of a village choosing self-isolation during the bubonic plague, the Black Death, which raged in England in 1665-67. Eyam (pronounced “eem”) is a village in the Peak district of Derbyshire, known in the seventeenth century as a lead mining village.
In the late summer of 1665, the village tailor received a bolt of cloth that he had ordered from London. Because it was damp, the cloth was dried in front of the fire, causing fleas carrying the bubonic plague to be released from the cloth into the village. The tailor who opened the parcel died within a week; by the end of September there were five more deaths, followed by 23 in October. People began to talk of fleeing the village.
It was at this point that the villagers made a courageous decision. Led by the Rector, the Rev William Mompresson, and his immediate predecessor who was living on the outskirts of the village, they decided to quarantine themselves in the village; no-one was to leave and no-one to come in. Perhaps even more remarkable, the villagers stuck to the decision until the end of the plague was declared in November 1666. By this time as many as 260 people had died, including many children and Mompresson’s wife, out of a population of 350 (some sources say 800).
How did the villagers survive over these 12 months? Mompresson arranged that people from neighbouring villages would leave food at the stones that marked the parish boundary. The Eyam villagers would pay for the food by leaving money in a water trough that was filled with vinegar to sanitize the coins. In this way people from the surrounding villages helped those in Eyam to survive without having contact with anyone and being exposed to the plague. Sunday worship at Eyam was continued throughout this period, but the services were held in a sheltered outdoor area.
As a result of the self-isolation of the Eyam villagers, all the surrounding farms and villagers and the nearby town of Sheffield were saved from the ravages of the plague. The most remarkable feature about their decision was that it was made not to protect themselves from the plague, but to confine it to their village, accepting for themselves the consequences of the horrific suffering and high death rate that are the marks of bubonic plague. The stained-glass windows now in the Eyam church pay tribute to the villagers’ self-sacrifice four and a half centuries ago and to the leadership of the Rector throughout their self-isolation.
This account draws heavily on C.N. Triceman, Eyam and the Great Plague of 1665. The History Learning Site, 3 January 2020.
Dr Margaret Secombe
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