Analysis: the residents of Eyam took drastic measures in 1666 to prevent the spread of the plague and save thousands in lives in the rest of England

By Rachael Scally, University of Oxford

The sleepy village of Eyam lies in the unspoilt Derbyshire Peak District in the middle of England. Today, tourists stroll through its charming streets and idyllic countryside. But around 355 years ago the village was in the grips of a terrifying epidemic and life in Eyam was anything but tranquil or picturesque.

In a letter dated November 20th 1666, the village rector, William Mompesson, summed up what everyday life in Eyam was like for its inhabitants, "My ears never heard such doleful lamentations", he wrote, "my nose never smelled such horrid smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles".

The Great Plague of 1665-6 was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England. It decimated the population of London, killing an estimated 100,000 in just 18 months (nearly a quarter of the capital’s entire population).

The Riley Grave on the outskirts of Eyam. Photo: Simon Norfolk

As the plague raged through the crowded and unsanitary streets of London, a fateful consignment of fabric was sent from the capital to Eyam’s tailor in September 1665. George Viccars, the tailor’s assistant, gratefully received the package and lost no time in setting the bundle of cloth to dry before the fire. Unfortunately, inside the bale of cloth were fleas carrying the plague and Viccars become Eyam’s first victim within a week. Within the space of six weeks, a further 29 of Eyam’s inhabitants died and a sense of fear seized the village.

As the harsh winter of 1665 passed by, the number of deaths from the plague declined, but it returned with a vengeance in the summer heat of 1666. By August 1666, the number of deaths in the village peaked at eight at day. A walled enclosure, known as the Riley Grave, on the outskirts of the village, holds the bodies of Elizabeth Hancock's husband and six children, all of whom perished within eight days of each other. Due to the risk of infection posed to other villagers, Elizabeth had to drag each body from the farmhouse and bury them herself in a nearby field.

The majority of Eyam's plague victims lie in unmarked plots dotted around the countryside. One exception is the grave of Catherine Mompesson, the rector’s wife, who died on August 25th 1666 and was buried in the St Lawrence’s graveyard.  On her tomb, a weathered Latin inscription translates as "Death is my Reward".

List of plague victims at St Lawrence's Church, Eyam. Photo: WikiTree

Like Covid-19, the disease spread with startling rapidity. It showed no preference for the old and infirm and caused a variety of horrifying visible symptoms. The characteristic buboes, which were tumour-like growths, would typically appear under the arm but could also surface on the neck or groin. Gangrenous blotches would develop on the hands and feet causing the skin to turn black and die. The victims would develop a fever, spasms, and begin coughing up blood.

Again, like the coronavirus, there was no known cure for the bubonic plague. Although there were several different theories about the cause of the plague, the most prevalent belief was that it was spread by bad air, known as miasma, and that these invisible miasmas were sent by God as a punishment for sin. This theory was supported by the fact that the buboes caused by the disease and the breath of the dying smelt foul.

Fumigating torches, in which sweet smelling herbs burnt in the top of torch, were believed to protect the carrier from the plague. Those who could afford to would carry pomanders stuffed with sweet herbs and spices or carry sweet smelling flowers. The plague doctor, who was paid by the town to treat the afflicted, likewise wore a beak-like mask, stuffed with herbs, straw, and spices, which was designed to protect him from the putrid air. Close contact between people was also identified as a possible risk.

From BBC News, Fergal Keane reports on how the coronavirus crisis is particularly poignant for the small Derbyshire village of Eyam

In a similar way to how some of today's rich preferred to fly off in their private jets or travel to one of their luxury holiday homes to avoid infection, many with the means fled as Eyam's epidemic continued to spread. The village rector sent his children to stay with his uncle in Yorkshire. Disease and sickness often run along existing fault lines of social and economic inequality and Eyam’s experience was no different. Records show that deaths appeared to be concentrated among Eyam’s poorer households. Recognising the severity of their plight, the remaining villagers turned to their local Reverends, the pillars of the community, for leadership.

Eyam had two Reverends. Thomas Stanley, Eyam’s original Reverend, had been dismissed for refusing to take the Oath of Conformity and use the Common Book of Prayer. He was replaced by the Reverend William Mompesson, who had worked in the village for only a year at the time of the outbreak. Together with the villagers, Stanley and Mompesson designed a plan to prevent the plague spreading to nearby cities, such as Sheffield and Manchester.

A cordon sanitaire or quarantine was established by placing rocks in a one mile circle around the village and no Eyam resident was allowed to pass beyond it. Signs were erected along the boundary to warn travellers not to enter. The village was supplied with food and essentials from surrounding villages. The Earl of Devonshire, who lived at nearby Chatsworth House, freely provided supplies that were left at the southern boundary of the village. For all other goods, money was either purified by the running water of Mompesson's Well or was left in vinegar soaked holes, at places such as the boundary stone.

How we respond to the threat of epidemics and pandemics today is a direct legacy from events such as the plague  

Other measures included banning churchyard burials. People were instead advised to bury their dead as quickly and as near to their place of death as possible. The church was closed and services were instead held in the open air, mostly at a place called Cucklett Delf, where families could stand at safe distances from each other, rather than being jammed into church pews.

Population numbers from before the plague vary, with accounts stating anything from 350 to 800. We know that 260 Eyam villagers died over the 14 months of the plague and that it affected 76 families. Therefore, even the most charitable figure would mean the village lost nearly a third of its inhabitants, more than double the known mortality rate of London. Many families were wiped out entirely.

Some critics argue that Eyam's self-imposed quarantine was little more than a myth. They point out that quarantine was a well-established public health technique by the 17th century and something prescribed by the state. They also note that the surrounding villages would not have welcomed plague victims.

 The grave of Catherine Mompesson in St Lawrence's graveyard, Eyam. Photo: Simon Norfolk

Yet there is no evidence to suggest that the villagers were forcibly prevented from leaving the village, like those in Wuhan who were blocked from leaving the city by Chinese troops during the lockdown. There is no evidence to suggest that the boundary was even policed or that the villagers attempted to escape.

Instead it seems far more probable that, much like our own quarantine today, the villagers of Eyam adhered to their self-isolation due to a variety of factors and certainly not just because it was sanctioned by the state. Whether Eyam's quarantine was enforced or self-imposed, the important point to remember is that this small village, which bravely endured such terrible suffering, undoubtedly prevented the spread of the plague some 355 years ago. This action saved the lives of thousands in the surrounding area and the rest of England.

Today, Eyam is a mecca for medical historians and epidemiologists. About 10% of Europeans have a gene mutation known as CCR5 delta 32 that disables a protein the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV-1) uses to enter into immune system cells. Scientists have discovered that CCR5 delta 32 is 10 times more common than normal in the population of Eyam and has been studied as a possible path to a cure for diseases such as HIV and Ebola.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, Irish harpist talks about being quarantined onoboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship in New South Wales, Australia for over four weeks

How we respond to the threat of epidemics and pandemics today is a direct legacy from events such as the plague and history continues to shape modern medicine. More recently, a team of medical historians at the University of Michigan Centre for the History of Medicine studied the strategies employed during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic or Spanish flu, which killed at least 40 million people around the globe. The team visited over 130 libraries, archival repositories and special collections across the nation to gather tens of thousands of newspaper articles, public health reports, federal, state and municipal bulletins.

They evaluated the nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) employed in 43 US cities during the autumn and winter waves of the pandemic. They specifically focused on inventions such as isolating the ill, quarantining suspected cases, banning public gatherings, shutting down roads and railways, and closing schools.

Their research successfully demonstrated that cities who acted early, before the virus had a chance to spread widely in a community, employed multiple NPI’s simultaneously and used these interventions for long durations, enjoyed far lower morbidity and mortality than those cities that did not. In other words, they discovered that social distancing measures could help flatten the curve, results that have since been verified by several historical and epidemiological studies. History has much to teach us about confronting pandemics and it begs the question as to what other valuable information could be tucked away in the archives waiting to be mined by new generations of historians and scientists.

Dr Rachael Scally is an historian of 18th-century Ireland and medicine at the University of Oxford

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ