When Alexander Hadfield, a tailor, ordered a bale of cloth to be sent from London to his home in the small Derbyshire village of Eyam, he cannot have dreamed of the dreadful consequences. Nor could he have dreamed that this simple action would be remembered centuries later.
The bale proved to be both damp and infested with fleas. When Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, decided to dry it in front of a fire the heat revived the fleas, which were carrying the plague from London. Shortly afterwards Viccars was dead. Hadfield’s stepsons followed, then other family members and more villagers. Over the following fourteen months the plague claimed the lives of 260 people, out of a village population of around 800.
The villagers took a number of measures to try to slow the spread of the disease. They decided that families should bury their own dead close to their homes, rather than wait around to be buried in consecrated ground. And church services were relocated to an open-air setting so they could continue to worship without getting too close to each other.
But the decision that makes Eyam still famous today is the one to isolate. Encouraged by the rector, Rev. William Mompesson, they cut themselves off totally from the surrounding communities. Necessities were delivered to boundary stones on the outskirts, which marked the line that they would not cross. Some were provided through the support of the Earl of Devonshire. But for those that had to be paid for they developed an ingenious system, leaving money soaked in vinegar (thought to prevent the spread of the plague) in holes bored in the rocks.
We know all too well the mental impacts of ‘locking down’ and the benefits and disbenefits have been well-rehearsed in recent years. But we locked down because our governments told us to and while many agreed with those decisions, we didn’t have the responsibility of making them on our own behalf. For the people of Eyam in 1665 it was different. No one told them what to do, their actions stemmed from a genuine desire to protect others from the awful fate that had befallen them.
Interestingly, some villagers appear to have had natural protection from the disease. Reading the signs around the village that commemorate those who died, we see that Joan Torre survived despite the death of her husband and baby son. Mary Hadfield, Alexander’s wife, was the sole survivor in her family, losing thirteen relatives. And Jane Hawksworth was likewise a sole survivor in an extended family which saw 25 die.
Today Eyam is famous for the heroic act of its villagers during that time, sacrificing themselves to protect others. While some details of its story are disputed (it hasn’t been helped by 19th century romanticised and sentimental accounts of what happened), most historians accept the broad facts. Controversy also surrounds the wisdom of their decision, based on arguments for and against the level of human-to-human transmission. Certainly Eyam has learned to trade on its reputation as the ‘plague village’ and the influx of tourists has perhaps helped it to thrive while other rural communities struggle. But most of those tourists will find inspiration in this story, perhaps more than ever after the last couple of years.
Several cottages in the village have signs commemorating those who died in them, including this row near the church.
The garden of the one where Viccars and Mary Hadfield’s family died was beautifully planted, but also crammed with somewhat twee statues. These struck me as somewhat at odds with the dark images associated with these cottages. Maybe that was the point, to dispel some of that dark past? But it serves another purpose, as those who stop to look and photograph are encouraged to make a donation to a local charity.
I found myself wondering, as I did outside some of the other cottages too, what it must be like to live here? To have your home labelled in this way and to know about the tragic history of those former residents?
A short uphill walk from the village took us to a field where another family are commemorated. The Riley Graves are the result of the policy of families burying their own dead. Here six gravestones and a tomb are enclosed by a stone wall. They are the graves of the Hancock family (the name Riley comes from the farm they owned here).
The table tomb has a worn inscription which I found difficult to make out properly. Helpfully I later discovered it transcribed on a website:
HERE LIEH BVRIED [T]HE / BODY OF IOHN HANCOCK / SEN WHO DIED AVG 7H / 1666
REMEMBER MAN / AS THOV GOST BY / AS THOV ART NOW / EVEN SO WAS I /
AS I DOE NOW / SO MVST [T]HOV LYE / REMEMBER MAN / THAT [T]HOV SHALT DIE
The inscriptions on the other stones read:
ALICE HANCOCKE BUR AUG 9th 1666
ANN HANCOCKE, BUR AUG 10th 1666
WILLIAM HANCOCKE BUR AUG 7th 1666
JOHN HANCOCKE JUN BUR AUG 3rd 1666
ELIZABETH HANCOCKE BUR AUG 3rd 1666
ONER HANCOCKE BUR AUG 7th 1666
Look at the dates; just a week separates the seven deaths. In that short period farmer Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children. Observing the village’s collective decision, Elizabeth carried the bodies and buried them here on the hill. *
The spot is maintained and protected by the National Trust. The walk up here itself is lovely, through a pretty wood and with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Despite the tragedy that led to the digging of these graves, the atmosphere is tranquil. The Hancock family are resting in peace, it seems.
The Church of St Lawrence
The village church dates back to Saxon times and some architectural and other features remain from that period. The font is Saxon, as are the foundations on which the Norman pillars rest. The nave is Medieval and since then various additions have been made. They include the Jacobean pulpit, seventeenth century bell tower and a Victorian north aisle.
There is some lovely stained glass, including a window from 1985 commemorating the events of the plague. And above the nave are some faded wall paintings, dating from the fifteenth century.
Outside in the churchyard is the grave of the only plague victim to be buried on consecrated ground. Catherine Mompesson was the wife of the Rector, William, and refused to leave him to work alone in the village. Their children were sent away (before the decision to seal off the village was taken) but she remained by his side, only to die in the very last days of the plague.
There is also an eighth-century Celtic cross, one of the best preserved examples in the country. It has been truncated at some point but is still impressive, decorated with a mixture of Christian and pagan symbols.
The sundial on the church wall dates from 1775. It is very comprehensive, showing the time difference at noon between London and many other places including Mecca, Jerusalem, Quebec and Panama.
Having spent part of our afternoon here enjoying a leisurely Sunday lunch at the village’s only pub, the Miner’s Arms, we ran out of time to fit in a visit to the museum or to the boundary stone which can still be found on the south east side of the village. Maybe another time?!
* According to most descriptions of the graves; one account I read says that only the father was buried here, while the stones from the children’s actual graves were collected from their respective sites and assembled here with the father.
I last visited Eyam in August 2022 when all these photos were taken