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Village of sacrifice

In the heart of rural Derbyshire a village stands as a monument to both tragedy and sacrifice…

In the Peak District village of Eyam, there is an annual remembrance service, held usually on the last Sunday in August, known as Plague Sunday.

It commemorates the bravery of the 17th century inhabitants of this tiny place, and recognises their sacrifice, which probably saved many thousands in the north of England from dying of Bubonic Plague.

Back in 1665, this terrible, highly contagious scourge had reached Britain, spread by fleabites and close contact with infected people. Tiny Eyam was struck down at the same time as the city of London, when a visiting tailor, George Viccars, received a parcel of cloth from London. It was damp so he hung it in front of the fire to dry. Unfortunately, this disturbed and released the plague-infested fleas.

George became the first of the plague's victims in the village and died from a raging fever on September 7, 1665. After him though, the plague spread.

Between September and December, 42 villagers died and, by the spring of 1666, many were on the verge of fleeing their homes to save themselves. The new rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, and the previous incumbent, Thomas Stanley, decided something had to be done to stop the spread to nearby towns.

They decided the village should be quarantined. They held church services outdoors at Cucklett Delf  – a natural amphitheatre on the outskirts of the village – so the villagers could avoid enclosed places. On June 24, 1666, Mompesson, told parishioners that the village must be enclosed, and no-one allowed in or out.

The Earl of Devonshire, who lived at nearby Chatsworth, had offered to send food and supplies if the villagers agreed to this. If someone died of the plague, the victim’s own family would have to bury them. Mompesson said he would do everything in his power to alleviate the villagers’ suffering and remain with them, saying he was willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see nearby communities desolated.

The villagers reluctantly agreed and, even though that summer saw the number of victims reaching a peak of five or six a day, no one broke the cordon.

Food and supplies were left at the parish stones on the outskirts of the village. Those who brought them did not have to come into contact with the plague because the villagers left money in a water trough filled with vinegar to sterilise the coins. 

During the outbreak, Eyam's mortality rate was far higher than London’s. In just over a year, 260 of the village's inhabitants died, from a population that had been somewhere between 350 and 800 before the plague struck.

Whole families were wiped out. Elizabeth Hancock lost six of her children and her husband in the space of just eight days. Marshall Howe, who had been infected but survived and was then tasked with helping to bury the victims, had to bury his two-year-old son and his wife among them. Mompesson saw his own wife, Catherine, who had tended to many of the dying, contract the plague. She died on August 22,1666, aged 27 and is buried in the grounds of Eyam’s Parish Church of St Lawrence.

Eventually, the terrible disease had run its time and the number of cases began to lessen. The last victim died on November 1, 1666, but the village of Eyam stands today as a monument to bravery and is a tourist attraction as people come to find out more about the villagers’ humbling sacrifice that saved so many.

This is a preview of a feature article.

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