By Ethan Battison
‘The desolation of Eyam by the plague, in years 1665 and 1666’, wrote the Victorian William Wood, ‘has no parallel; not even that of the “Black Death” of the fourteenth century’. According to Wood, it was the severity of the scourge in Eyam, being ‘more dreadful and fatal … than of any other pestilence hitherto recorded’, that has guaranteed its place within the history books. Nowadays, the Derbyshire village is at the epicentre of Britain’s plague heritage.
The current coronavirus pandemic has only revived interest in Eyam’s past, as numerous newspapers consider whether the village’s battle with plague can teach us any lessons today. The story of the Eyam plague, reiterated in these recent articles, is one of heroism and self-sacrifice in response to the catastrophe; accounting for the fame of the epidemic within the nation’s popular historical narrative might therefore seem self-evident. Yet, the Eyam plague had been almost forgotten for a century before it found widespread popularity amongst a Victorian audience. The story we are told today was consciously constructed around this time by romanticists who reinvented the tale, fabricating a narrative tenuously rooted in historical evidence. It seems only right to set the record straight and separate fact from fiction.
As the standard account goes, the plague arrived from London in 1665 concealed in a box of old clothes and some tailors’ patterns of cloth. It was not until the following year, however, that the village felt the full devastation of the plague. The death toll mounted rapidly throughout spring so that by June the villagers made the selfless decision, at the suggestion of rector William Mompesson, to quarantine themselves as to prevent the spread of the disease to neighbouring settlements like Sheffield. The isolation was devastating and by the end of the epidemic 260 inhabitants or more had perished. Yet, under the heroic leadership of Mompesson and with supplies left by outsiders at “boundary stones”, payment for which was left soaking in vinegar, the village survived. The act of self-sacrifice had saved countless more lives.
The account above is an abridged version of the story popularised during the nineteenth century and which has endured throughout the twentieth by evading academic review until rather recently. According to this traditional narrative, the Eyam plague was exceptional on account of both the extraordinary self-imposed quarantine, and its unrivalled mortality rate which made the disease-ridden London look like a comparative paradise. Scholarly attention has worked to diminish the sense of exceptionalism. Quarantine was not an outlandish measure nor is it likely the villagers were the agents of their own isolation, since numerous towns and parishes had been subjected to similar controls during, and before, the 1660s in return for foodstuff. Though the suffering cannot be easily put into words, the statistics can be; modern estimates of the mortality rate are around a third of the population, with 257 victims from an overall population of 700 or so. The Victorian accounts had grossly underestimated the population size, approximating that five-sixths had succumbed to the illness.
Further speculation has concerned how stringent the quarantine was, since the more affluent inhabitants suffered disproportionately less deaths than their poorer neighbours, suggesting the rich had perhaps fled. Indeed, Mompesson had sent his children away to the safety of Yorkshire before the establishment of the quarantine. We might well wonder how accepted he was within the community after such an action, and we would not be alone in doing so. Many have posited that his relationship with the villagers was an uneasy one and that only an alliance with his predecessor, Thomas Stanley, a man trusted by the locals, had convinced the inhabitants to agree to the quarantine.
Little research into the Victorian narrative has been needed to expose the cracks in the story’s façade but it seems that, despite being historically inaccurate, its decades of unchallenged circulation within the popular sphere has assured its continued celebrity. The fiction has become so intertwined with the history that it is now presented as fact. For example, the heart-breaking tale of rustic lovers, Emmot Sydall and Roland Torre, who met at a distance every day on the village edge until the day Emmot died from the plague, is frequently retold. Needless to say, this story was entirely invented, and is one example of the many new elements added to Eyam’s plague story in the nineteenth century.
It might seem then that there are few historical lessons to be learnt from Eyam; little is known from the primary sources and what we have so often been told is merely Victorian fiction. However, understanding the history has been essential to the epidemiological studies of the Eyam plague. Research has concluded that quarantine was an effective method at preventing further spread of disease, and that the steps made by the villagers such as outdoor church services decreased the risk of person-to-person transmission within the village. As we deal with a deadly disease of our own, we would do well to remember the Eyam plague and the actions taken to curb the infection-rate.
Beaumont, Peter, ‘Eyam recalls lessons from 1665 battle with plague’, The Observer Online, 15 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/15/eyam-derbyshire-coronavirus-self-isolate-1665-plague
Didelot, Xavier, ‘Heroic sacrifice or tragic mistake? Revisiting the Eyam plague, 350 years on’, Significance 13.5 (2016), https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-9713.2016.00961.x
Drury, Colin, ‘Inside Eyam, the heroic plague village where battle with deadly disease saved thousands’, The Independent Online, 22 March 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-latest-eyam-bubonic-plague-village-lessons-parallels-a9414306.html
Wallis, Patrick, ‘A Dreadful Heritage: Interpreting Epidemic Disease at Eyam, 1666-2000’, History Workshop Journal 61 (2006), pp. 31-56
Watson, Greig, ‘Coronavirus: What can the ‘plague village’ of Eyam teach us?’, BBC News (22 April 2020), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-51904810
Wood, William, The History and Antiquities of Eyam; With a Full and Particular Account of the Great Plague, Which Desolated that Village, A.D. 1666 (London 1842)