It started at the end of August, when apprentice tailor George Viccars received some cloth from London. A few days after its arrival he fell ill, and within a week he was dead (killed, we now know, because of infected fleas living in the cloth). The family he lodged with, and then the Thorpe family next door, and then the Wragg family across the road, became horribly ill, and the villagers realised the plague was among them. A few left. But, under the guidance of rector, William Mompesson and the previous incumbent, Thomas Stanley, rather than risk spreading the disease, the vast majority of the villagers bravely decided to place themselves under quarantine.
As the plague took hold, neighbouring villagers left food and other supplies at boundary markers outside Eyam or at Mompesson’s well (as it is now called) above the village. Money was left in pools of vinegar in hollowed-out stones. To reduce the risk of cross-infection, families were tasked with the awful job of burying their own dead, either in their gardens or nearby fields. Elizabeth Hancock buried the bodies of her husband and six children within eight days of each other; she carried them half a mile away to Riley’s farm. It was also decided to hold church services outside, at a natural amphitheatre on the outskirts of the village called Cucklett Delf, rather than everyone crowding into the church.
Cucklett Delf was also where Emmott Sydall would meet her sweetheart Rowland Torre, who was from the nearby village of Stoney Middleton. They would call to each other across the rocks that separated them, until one day Emmott did not appear.
Some 14 months after the death of George Viccars, the outbreak eventually burnt itself out. Estimates of how many of the villagers died vary, but Eyam church has records of 273 victims. The population of Eyam was thought to be about 350. William Mompesson lived, although his wife Catherine, who nursed the sick, did not. Elizabeth Hancock, too, survived. The first person to enter Eyam from outside in the wake of the plague was Rowland Torre, looking for Emmott. But she had succumbed to the disease six months earlier.
Eyam had paid a terrible price, but the villagers achieved their aim. The plague did not spread to surrounding towns and villages, and a major outbreak had been averted. Today, the last Sunday in August is ‘Plague Sunday’ in Eyam. An open-air service is held at Cucklett Delf to commemorate the sacrifice of the villagers.
Little Bess and a kind man’s grave
A few years before the events at Eyam, Congleton in Cheshire was suffering its own outbreak of a particularly virulent plague. First to be affected were the Laplove family, but the disease spread like wildfire. Mayor John Bradshaw (later to become infamous as the judge who sentenced King Charles I to death) banned all alehouses and lodging houses from taking in travellers from Derby and other areas suspected of being the source of the disease. A man was employed to shoot all dogs seen in the streets.
At the start, the sick were shut up in their own houses, guarded by wardens. Later, they were taken to specially built ‘pest-houses’, which were purged with pitch, tar and frankincense. They were each awarded twopence a day by the town for their care.
Heroine of this story is ‘Little Bess’ (also referred to in some quarters as ‘Lancashire Bess’, so presumably she was not a native of Congleton), who alone devotedly nursed the sick with no thought for her own safety. The town accounts show Little Bess was given small amounts of money for ‘necessaries for the sick or the dead’ (including a bowl to hold liquorice and wine vinegar), and to support herself and her mother through the crisis.
The outbreak lasted two years and Congleton became so deserted that, it is recorded, grass grew in the streets. In spite of Little Bess’s efforts the Laplove household was almost completely wiped out – Astbury parish registers show that five of them were buried in two days. John Bradshaw’s accounts book shows that he sent money for ‘Laplove’s little girl in her weakness’, and his wife sent blankets. With the help of Little Bess, this child survived, but we do not know how many others did.
The parish register of Malpas, in the west of Cheshire, has a poignant entry regarding one man’s death at the hands of the plague. It reads: ‘Richard Dawson, being sick of the plague, and perceiving he must die, rose out of his bed and made his grave, and caused his nephew to cast straw into the grave, which was not far from the house, and went and laid down in the said grave, and caused clothes to be laid upon him, and so departed out of this world. This he did because he was a strong man, and heavier than his said nephew and a serving-wench were able to bury. He died about the 24th of August. This was I credibly told he did, 1625.’
Some cures for the plague
The panic felt by our ancestors when they realised the plague had arrived must have been overwhelming. Powerless though they were against it, ‘cures’ abounded. Here are a couple –
Take Walnuts, when the green Husk is on them, and before the shell is hardened underneath, put them, when bruised to steep in white Wine eight days: then with some Baum, Rue and Tops of Fetherfew and Wormwood a little bruised, put them in an Alembick and distil them: then when you drink an ounce and a half of water, which you may do, morning, noon and night, put it into some perfumed Comfits, and stir them well about till they are dissolved.
Take water of Scabious, Endive, Rue and red Roses, of each, four ounces, white Dittany, Tormentile, white Coral, Gentian and Bole Armoniack, with Terrfigillata – reduce those that are to be powdered separately; infuse them in the warm water in a glass vessel, and drink about an ounce at a time pretty warm, keeping the body warm after it.
Margaret Blackwell, who came through the plague at Eyam, attributed her survival to the somewhat simpler remedy of drinking hot bacon fat.
'Plague cottages', Eyam. The end house was occupied by George Viccars, and was where the plague started. The house with the white front door, Rose Cottage, belonged to the Thorpe family. All nine died.
Graves of the Hancock family, at Riley's field.