Liz Deakin talk on The Great Plague and The Story of Eyam

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Liz Deakin talk on The Great Plague and The Story of Eyam

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Part 1 : Resurgence of Bubonic plague in the seventeenth century – the Great Plague

This outbreak occurred during the early years of the Restoration. It began in the St Giles area of outer London at the end of 1664, reached a peak in the summer of 1665 and lasted approximately two years. This was the last major outbreak in Britain. Bubonic plague, a bacterial infection, was brought from the east and arrived via trade routes. It was fed by the extravagance of Restoration England in its appetite for exotic fabrics and luxury items.

10% of London’s population died in the epidemic – mainly the poor who received little consideration either from royalty or parliament. Many victims were locked inside their houses with their families and plague hospitals were sited away from the houses of the wealthy, most of whom fled from London spreading the infection. Charles and his nobles fled to their country estates with their retinues. However, the blame was largely attributed to travelling salesmen, gypsies, vagrants, casual agricultural workers and of course, to the ‘unsanitary’ habits of the poor.

Two types of plague co-existed: bubonic and pneumonic. Bubonic plague was transmitted by bacteia entering the lymph system and causing boil-like lesions, called buboes, on nodes in arm-pits, groin and neck and black bruising. Other symptoms were fever, diaorrhea, vomiting and painful nerve spasms. It was also passed from person to person by close contact with dying victims and/or their bodies or from insects in clothing or bedding. Pneumonic plague caused flu-like symptoms and was also transmitted by sneezing, coughing and breathing. In either case death usually occurred six to eight days after infection.

The main belief as to cause was that the plague was a punishment by god. They also believed it was caused by bad air (miasma) and carried pomanders containing herbs or flowers to protest themselves. Another remedy was the smoking of tobacco. There were however sensible measures such as the clearing of rubbish, isolating victims and rapid, unceremonious burial.

London’s plague tailed off towards the end of 1666. This process is often seen as being helped by the Great Fire which raged form 2nd to 6th of September and was thought to have had a cauterising effect.



Part 2 – The Story of Eyam

Eyam, a small village of Anglo-Saxon origin in the peak District of Derbyshire is widely known as ‘the plague village’ where the villagers self-isolated to protect the surrounding villagers and towns – Sheffield to the north, Bakewell to the south and Chatsworth, country seat of the earls of Devonshire, close by. Puritan Eyam had favoured the Roundhead cause throughout the Civil Wars. Their former rector, Thomas Stanley, who refused to take the Oath of Conformity and to use the revised Book of Common Prayer, had been sacked. However, he continued to live in Eyam and maintained his influence. His successor, William Mompesson, was unpopular but nevertheless, by virtue of his position was the dominant force in the village. The residents were mainly farmers of small holdings and their workers and tradespeople.

At the end of August 1665 the epidemic came to Eyam in the form of a delivery of cloth to the tailor Alexamder Hadfield, new husband to Mary, a widow with two children. Hi assistant, George Viccars, noticing that a bale of cloth was damp, opened it before the fire, releasing insects which infected him with plague. Eight days later he died, having spread the infection throughout the village. During September, October and November 42 villagers died, including the two children of Mary. Alexander Hadfield died of plague in 1666 after the village had self-isolated. Mary survived but lost 13 relatives.

During these first three months the new rector, William Mompesson conceived the idea of locking down the village to protect the surrounding areas and had elicited a promise from the Third Earl of Devonshire to support the villagers with food and medicine. Knowing himself to be unpopular Mompesson enlisted the help of Thomas Stanley and together they held a public meeting where the villagers agreed to self-isolate. No doubt this decision was partly due to bravery, but the villagers would have had little alternative but to stay having no other means of support and they would have been unwelcome in the surrounding area with their large families.

The plan was put into action and the rate of infection increased until plague retreated at the end of September 1666, almost a year later. In total the plague affected 72 families, eliminating some such as the Thorpe family and no-one was unaffected.

During the voluntary isolation the church was locked and open-air services were held at Cuckett’s Delph, a local beauty spot. The villagers carved stone piscines at boundaries where they placed coins in vinegar to pay for supplies from outside. Mompesson told the villagers to bury their own dead. Thomas Stanley comforted the dying and helped them to make their wills. Elizabeth Hancock, who survived the plague, single-handedly buried her husband and six children, whose graves known as the ‘Riley Graves’, named after the farm, may still be seen in Eyam. Another survivor, Marshall Howe, became unofficial grave digger, perhaps with mixed motives as he was suspected of robbing the dead. He contracted the plague and recovered, but lost his children. One, probably apocryphal story, was that of Margaret Blackwell, who was miraculously cured by eating a vat of bacon fat.

The last victim was Abraham Martin, who died on November 1st. In all 260 people died of plague in Eyam, at the lowest estimate over 30%, as opposed to London’s 10%. Mompesson survived, but his 28 year old wife died of the plague. He left Eyam three years later. His image can be seen on the central panel of a commemorative stained glass window in the church which had locked out the villagers. Stanley remained and died in 1670 and is buried in Eyam where his grave can be visited.

Eyam’s plague history, largely written by descendants of the victims, is mainly portrayed as one of supreme sacrifice, a comforting interpretation, which, for me, does not fully portray the despair and horror of the reality. The whole village is a shrine, with plaques on many of the houses and significant sites. The village museum tells the full story and is visited by tourists and school parties.
The story has spawned a plethora of poems, books and plays which continues. It was featured in a three-part programme on 17-19th November on Channel 5, which covered the contents of my talk.

The emphasis of the TV series was on a major shift in the received account of the transmission of bubonic plague. Rather than the text book version still to be found on Google of the black rat-flea-human transmission, it is now thought to have been transmitted by human lice embedded in clothing and human fleas.

All the images used in the talk and many others can be easily accessed on any search engine.
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