They often say that history repeats itself – and that’s true of the current coronavirus pandemic.
Back in the 17th century it was the bubonic plague which was sweeping the country.
Amid all the suffering, there were many stories to lift the human spirit and none more so than that of a small lead-mining village in what is now the Peak District National Park.
It it a poignant tale of united self-sacrifice and untold grief in the most frightening of circumstances.
Hundreds of years on and the poignant story of Eyam in the Derbyshire Dales is remembered and respectfully preserved by the modern-day inhabitants, DerbyshireLive reports.
Eyam’s fame comes not from the riches that sustained its small population but from how many locals gave their lives to save countless others during the Great Plague of 1665 and 1666, when England, and London in particular, was ravaged by a ‘Black Death’ – a deadly bacillus carried by fleas transported by roaming black rats.
It occurred within the centuries-long pandemic – an extended period of occasional but catastrophic epidemics which began in Europe in 1347 and lasted until 1750.
The Great Plague killed an estimated 100,000 people, roughly 15 per cent of London’s population at that time.
In the capital, it took the tragic Great Fire of 1666 to effectively purge the city of the disease.
In 1665, with the pestilence raging north from the capital, in early summer, Eyam tailor Alexander Hadfield ordered a bale of cloth from London to make into clothes for the villagers.
He unwittingly triggered a chain of events that led to some 260 villagers dying – a mortality rate more than that endured even by plague-bitten Londoners
Between the first death and the last, Eyam’s villagers set an extraordinary and enduring example of self-sacrifice – by sealing off their village to prevent the disease spreading.
The tailor’s assistant, George Viccars, had opened the roll of cloth but found it “damp and smelling foul’’, so he put it near the fire to dry.
But the warmth from the fire caused the fleas to settle on him. He was dead within seven days, followed soon after by his two stepsons, an immediate neighbour – and then the tailor himself.
Within a few weeks, in September, five people from the village died. In October, 23 perished. People were dropping, all seemingly at random. It was clear the much-feared plague had reached the village.
But rather than flee, the terrified locals united behind their rector, The Rev William Mompesson. He argued that they should quarantine themselves, allowing nobody to enter or leave the village – fully knowing that many would not survive.
Most had wanted to go to Sheffield, the nearest big city, but he persuaded them that to do so would be to risk countless more lives when the north had not suffered as London and its surrounds had.
Instead he ordered families to bury their dead in their own plots, not the church burial ground, and later suspended church services, allowing only open-air gatherings.
In the weeks and months that followed, people watched so many of their neighbours die, often whole families, as plaques outside a row of the cottages beside the church show so movingly.
Survival was tough. The villagers were supplied with food by those who lived outside. People brought donations of food and left them at the parish stones that marked the start of Eyam village.
The villagers, in turn, left money in a water trough filled with vinegar to sterilise the coins. The Boundary Stone can still be seen.
One can only imagine how the villagers tackled each day. For many, of course, there would be the task of nursing a sick loved one. No modern medicines or hazmat-style suits for protection then.
One of the major “remedies’’ of the time, offered up by the College of Physicians, involved taking “a great onion, put in a fig, a dram of Venice treacle; put it close stuffed in wet paper, and roast it in the embers; apply hot under the tumour; lay three or four, one after the other; let it lie three hours.’’
Not something your local pharmacist would stock today – or advice you would get from dialling 111.
An apothecary, William Boghurst, noted of his treatment of one female victim: “I laid a great mastiff puppy dog upon her breast two or three hours together and made her drink Dill, Penny-royal, Fennel and Aniseed water, for she was a fat woman and could bear it.’’
Indeed, all manner of possible plague cures were put forward, including live frogs, while “some say a dried toad will do it better’’. People were advised: “All should studiously avoid dancing, running, leaping about, lechery and baths’’.
And a good many villagers escaped without infection – something that would be pored over by medical experts later, looking for clues at the disease’s “natural selection’’ process.
It is now known some were genetically immune to the plague – and there are still some of those descendants living in the village today. For the dying, though, there was indignity and suffering, thankfully for just a few days; for the dead, not even the dignity of a funeral service.
Especially moving are the Riley Graves, about 1km from the village centre, off the Grindleford Road. Elizabeth Hancock had to carry or drag the corpses of her loved ones, dig a grave and then bury them. It was a well-trodden path, for she lost her husband and six children within a few days of each other.
The parish churchyard itself has only one victim buried there – Catherine Mompesson, the rector’s wife. She died in August 1666, when the plague was at its most rampant. Eight villagers died on August 13 alone.
The excellent Eyam museum has a roll that features the chronological order of all the deaths – and some of the houses and cottages have boards outside, bearing poignant lists of those who lived and died there.
Evidence emerged many years later of how some of the richer inhabitants got round the quarantine, some such as the squire leaving the village. Mompesson’s own children got away to Sheffield just before the village was sealed but Catherine refused to leave, wanting the whole family to go.
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