The village that saved hundreds of lives

Beset by plague, in 1665 the villagers of Eyam self isolated to save others

Reading time: 5 min

Lying in the Peak District National Park, Eyam is a beautiful historical village of under 1,000 people. Officially first opened in 1994 its museum is now past its planned spring 2020 opening of last Saturday, 21 March.

As the coronavirus crisis sweeps the nation the museum’s closure is appropriate as it lies in the centre of various plague related sites in Eyam, where in 1666 hundreds died and residents quarantined themselves off from the rest of society in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Riley Graves

Eyam reveals how pandemics are anything but ‘natural’. In 1665, a flea-infested cloth bundle from London arrived for the local tailor, whose assistant George Vicar was dead within a week with more dying in the household soon after.

As the disease wiped out villagers they turned to their rector, Reverend William Mompesson, and Puritan minster Thomas Stanley, who introduced precautionary methods to halt the spread of the disease. These  included the dead being buried by the families. In time it was agreed to quarantine the entire village to help prevent the disease spreading into surrounding areas.

The number that perished in Eyam is uncertain but the local church has a record of 273 plague victims. Survival seemed random. Elizabeth Hancock lived despite losing six children and her husband in eight days.

Amongst the plague-related sites is Alice Hancock’s headstone which stands in the Riley graves plot whilst Catherine Mompesson’s tabletop grave is in the churchyard. There are house plaques bearing the names of those who died in them. Display boards explain the momentous events.

Eyam Museum is a small building. Each visit, which takes no more than an hour, starts with a short film on the building and the village. The volunteers who run the project are happy to help anyone interested in researching the plague and its effects. 

The website at states, “We believe that passing on our knowledge of the plague story to today’s generation is our most important function.” 

The Black Death or Plague that killed Eyam residents was the result of expanding trading networks. In the first outbreak, around a third of Europe was killed between 1346-50 as shipping routes spread across the continent bringing with them black rats and the plague. Regular bubonic plague outbreaks continued in Europe into the nineteenth century.

Early cities in Britain were often overcrowded slums. When British Troops returned from the Crimea in the 1850s with cholera, which had been prevalent in India for decades, it swept like wildfire across the nation. Port areas were especially affected. Karl Marx’s great political comrade, Frederich Engels, detailed the devastating impact of cholera on Manchester citizens.

In 1918 ‘Spanish’ flu, which is believed to have first come from China, soon became a pandemic especially as millions of military personnel returned home to housing often little better than those witnessed in Manchester decades before by Engels. Medical facilities that were already depleted by the war efforts could not cope with cases of pneumonia. In Britain 228,000 died while worldwide the estimated figures are between 50 and 100 million, many more than were slaughtered in WWI.

Just after WWI it was difficult to plan for such events. Should that be the case today when it has been an accepted fact for decades that a pandemic was certain one day?

You would hope any government would ensure there were sufficient hospital beds, ventilators and an advanced plan to support anyone following in the footsteps of those brave Eyam residents – who chose to go into their own form of self isolation. A sacrifice we can all learn from.

A memorial in the church yard

Read more
David Paul’s, ‘Eyam, Plague Village’, has bounced up the book sales chart in the last few traumatic weeks. 

In his (currently sold out) book, Paul, a well-known local historian and author, has combined fact with an element of fiction to convey the tragedy of Eyam. Paul has also done the Rev Thomas Stanley a great service by recognising his incredible role in 1665-66.

The book, containing photographs of Eyam and the surrounding areas, includes extensive maps that, once the current plague of the coronavirus has been dealt with, can be walked upon to follow in the footsteps of Eyam’s heroes. 

Only digital versions are available of the book – see

By Mark Metcalf, pics by Mark Harvey. This feature was to have appeared in Unite Landworker

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