The Plague-Stricken Derbyshire Village

or What To See In and Around Eyam

By Rev J.M.J. Fletcher (1916)

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

THE PLAGUE

EYAM, as has been said, owes its celebrity to the Plague which attacked its inhabitants with such deadly virulence during the years 1665 and 1666. The disease is stated to have been brought from London, and to have been an offshoot from the great Plague there.

The Plague of Eyam, following on the Great Plague of London, was one of the last visitations in this country, of that terrible disease, which, at more or less frequent intervals, raged in various parts of Europe from the sixth until the middle of the seventeenth century. Students of Gibbon will remember the description which that great historian gives of the Plague in the time of Justinian and which lasted from 542 until 594.

The Plague is supposed, in the first instance, to have originated in China, and to have spread westward to the Mediterranean ports, being carried thence inland and to other parts of Europe, and thus to Britain.

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When people speak of the “Great Plague of London”, they generally mean that of 1664-5.- But this, although the last, was probably by no means the worst of the many Plagues by which the City was visited. There are records of great pestilences from 1094 onwards, The “Black Death” of the fourteenth century, by which at least one fourth of the population of the whole country was carried away, is generally, though not universally, considered to have been a true bubonic plague, (that is, one with inflammation of the lymphatic glands). London suffered ten times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And in the following century, after the bills of mortality had begun to be published, five visitations of the plague are recorded in the Metropolis, before the Great Plague. In 1603 there were no fewer than 38,000 deaths, whilst, in 1625, 35,417 people died of it. As Walter Besant graphically puts it, “There never was a time when a recent plague was not in the minds of men. Always they remembered the last visitation, the suddenness and swiftness of destruction, the desolation of houses, the striking down of young and old, the loss of the tender children, the sweet maidens, the gallant youth. Life is brief and uncertain at the best; but when the plague is added to the diseases which men expect, its uncertainty is forced upon the minds of people of every condition with a persistence and a conviction unknown in quiet times when each man hopes to live out his three score years and ten”. And not only did London suffer, but country places too. The Black Death, in 1349, reached the Midlands, when Derbyshire was so severely affected that within twelve months it lost more than two-thirds of its beneficed clergy. Derbyshire suffered also from visitations of the fell disease in 1603, and again in 1632. And, even if Eyam itself was not attacked, plague-stricken places were sufficiently near for Eyam people to know what the horrors of the visitation were.

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Without a doubt the plague was a disease which was harboured by dirt, and whether actually conveyed by infected clothing, or by personal contact, or in some other way, the filthy condition of the towns and villages, with the utter ignorance of sanitary precautions which prevailed, and the uncleansed mud floors of the dwelling houses, &c., aided its spread. In London, no fewer than 68,596 perished during the great plague out of a total of 460,000. (Though of this number probably two-thirds fled away in order to escape it, thus reducing the population resident at that lime to about 160,000), There had been a few isolated cases in November, 1664; but the disease began in grim earnest in the following May, when there were 43 deaths: In June the number of fatal cases had increased to 590, and in July to 6,130. In August 17,036 had died, and in September, when the disease was at its height, 31,159. After this it gradually died away,- the number of deaths in October being reduced to 14,373; in November to 3,449, whilst in December there were less than 1,000.

We have given these particulars because we thought that it would be interesting to compare the progress of the disease during its stay at Eyam.

After the seventeenth century the plague has been practically extinct in the British Isles, though in 1899-1900 half a dozen cases were brought from abroad to the London docks, and in August 1900 there was an outbreak in Glasgow, when fifteen cases out of thirty four infected ones proved fatal. One shudders to think what would have happened if the condition of things had been those which prevailed three centuries ago. Better sanitation has banished the plague, as it has banished cholera, From our shores.

We now turn to the plague at Eyam. Tradition says that it was brought to the village in the month of

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September, 1665, in a box of clothes sent from London to a tailor, named George Vicars, who was lodging with a family named Cooper, who resided in one of the cottages just to the West of the Church. Dr. Mead, whose book was published rather more than half a century after the event thus writes:-[1] “The plague was likewise at Eham, in the Peak of Derbyshire; being brought thither by means of a box sent from London to a taylor in that village, containing some materials relating to his trade. A servant who opened the aforesaid box complaining that the goods were damp, was ordered to dry them by the fire; but in doing it, was seized with the plague and died; the same misfortune extended itself to the rest of family, except the taylor's wife, who alone survived. From hence the distemper spread about, and destroyed in that village, and the rest of the parish, though a small one, between two and three hundred persons. But notwithstanding this so great violence of the disease, it was restrained from reaching beyond that parish by the care of the rector; from whose son, and another worthy gentleman, I have the relation. The clergyman advised that the sick should be removed into huts or barracks, built upon the common; and, procuring by the interest of the then Earl of Devonshire, that the people should be well furnished with provisions, he took effectual care that no one should go out of the parish, and by this means he protected his neighbours from infection with complete success”.

In some particulars the village tradition bears out this account of the origin of the plague. George Vicars appears to have caught the disease from this clothing which had in all probability been in contact with some one suffering from the plague in London; and he was the first victim at Eyam.- He died and was buried Sept. 7th. 1665. The next victim was a child from the same house, Edward Cooper, who was buried fifteen days later.

Plague Cottages
J. Crowther Cox )PLAGUE COTTAGES.( Photo.

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In September there were six burials; in October the number was twenty-three. The Peak winters are long ones, and during the next seven months the numbers of deaths were, in November, 7; December, 9; January, 5; February, 8; March, 6; April, 9; and in May, 4.- Up till now 77 people had died out of a population of 350. [2]But it was during the next five months that the mortality became so terrible.- 19 died in June, 56 in July, 77 in August, 24 in September, and 14 during the first eleven days of October, when the pestilence suddenly ceased, the survivors being only 83 out of the original number of 350 inhabitants, no fewer than 267 having perished. The Parish Registers give the number as 267 who died during these months. Five are described as infants, and possibly died independently of the Plague; three others were brought from the hamlets of Bretton and Foolow. The subtraction of these eight leaves 259, the number given by Mompesson himself as dying of the Plague in the village of Eyam.

It will be seen from the above statistics that it was in 1666, that the plague began to be at its worst. Some

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few of the inhabitants had already sought elsewhere an air that was not infected. The rector's little children had been sent away, Mrs. Mompesson imploring that the whole family might depart from Eyam. But her husband showed her that his duty to his people, as well as to his God, compelled him to remain with his flock in this the hour of their need. He wished her to depart with the children. But she would not forsake him. So the children went and the parents remained. It might have been easy for the infection to spread from Eyam to the villages around. Although the remaining in the plague-stricken place meant a graver risk of death for themselves, yet the Rector persuaded the inhabitants to seclude themselves from the outside world, and not to pass outside an imaginary circle which ran less than a mile from the centre of the village, until the plague passed away from them. The Earl of Devonshire, who then resided at Chatsworth, some five miles distant, promised his aid. And what Was necessary was sent in the way of provision, apparently at the Earl's expense. Articles were brought from outside, and were left at certain points on this boundary line, and when those who had brought them had gone away, the inhabitants would come and fetch them. One of these points was Mompesson's Well, and the stone trough still exists, beside which these articles were placed. When money for any reason was paid, it was placed in the water which was in the trough for the purpose of purification, and well washed before being taken away.

It was deemed inadvisable, contrary to what was customary during the plague in London, that people should be congregated together within a building. During the hot summer days, Mompesson suggested that the services should be held out of doors, and he gathered together his people in the pretty rural dale (called “The Cross”), which runs southwards from the centre of the village to

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Middleton Dale. This Dale is named “The Delf” or “Cucklet Dell”. Here is a naturally perforated rock where the rector used to stand, whilst his congregation were gathered round him on the green grass. The arched rock now goes by the name of Cucklet Church. How earnestly would the plague stricken people respond to the Collect from the Book of Common Prayer, in which their rector interceded for them and pleaded that “Almighty God . . would have pity upon them, miserable sinners, visited with great sickness and mortality; and that for Christ's sake it would please Him to withdraw from them that grievous plague and sickness”. Or how, they would throw their whole hearts into the petition in the Litany “From plague, pestilence, and famine . . Good Lord, deliver us”.

Cucklet Church
J. Crowther Cox )CUCKLET CHURCH, IN THE DELF. ( Photo.

As time passed on, and the number of the dead so largely increased, they were buried, not in the

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Churchyard, but in close proximity to their own dwellings. And for nearly a couple of centuries after the time of the plague, stones with the names of the departed were found in or near to many of the houses. The Riley graves, in a field to the left of the old Sheffield Road, are examples of such hurried burial. Mompesson had been meanwhile unweariedly ministering to the needs of his flock, and in this work he had been aided by his predecessor, Thomas Stanley, who had been Rector in Puritan times, and who still resided in the village. Catharine Mompesson, the rector's wife, had for some time past been threatened with consumption. About the 22nd of August, to the inexpressible grief of her husband she caught the pestilence and on the 25th she died. The tomb which her husband erected to her memory stands near the old Saxon Cross in the Churchyard; and is still an object of pilgrimage and of interest, almost amounting to veneration, to many.

A few days later,[3] the father wrote to his children the following touching letter, telling them of their mother's death. It was evidently meant to be kept and treasured by them in after years.

EYAM,
August 31st, 1666.

DEAR HEARTS,

This brings you the doleful news of your dearest mother's death; the greatest loss that could befall you. I am deprived of a kind and loving consort, and you are bereaved of the most indulgent mother that ever poor little children had. But we must comfort ourselves in God, with this consideration,- the loss is only ours; our sorrow is her gain, which should sustain our drooping spirits. I assure myself that her rewards, and her joys are unutterable. Dear children, your blessed mother lived an holy life and made a comfortable end, though by means of the sore pestilence, and she is now invested with a crown of righteousness.

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My children, I think it may be useful to you to have a narrative of your dear mother's virtues, that the knowledge thereof may teach you to imitate her excellent qualities. In the first place let me recommend to you her piety and devotion, which were according to the exact principles of the Church of England. In the next place, I can assure you, she was composed of modesty and humility, which virtues did possess her dear soul in a most exemplary manner. Her discourse was ever grave and meek, yet pleasant also; a vaunting and immodest word was never heard to come out of her mouth. Again, I can set out in her two other virtues, with no little confidence, viz. charity and frugality. She never valued anything she had, when the necessities of a poor neighbour did require it, but had a beautiful spirit towards all distressed and indigent persons;- yet she was never lavish or profuse, but carefully, constantly, and commendably frugal. She never liked the company of tattling women, and abhorred the wandering custom of going from house to house, that wastefully spending of precious time, for she was ever busied in useful occupations. Yet, though thus prudent, she was always kindly and affable; for, while she avoided those whose company could not instruct or benefit her, and would not unbosom herself to any such, she dismissed and avoided them with civility.

I do believe, my dear hearts, upon sufficient grounds, that she was the kindest wife in the world, and think, from my soul, that she loved me ten times better than she did herself; for she not only resisted my earnest entreaties, that she would fly with you, dear children, from this place of death, but, some few days before it pleased God to visit my house, she perceived a green matter to come from the issue in my legs which she fancied a symptom that the distemper, raging amongst us, had gotten a vent that way, from whence she assured herself that I was passed the malignity of the disease, whereat she rejoiced exceedingly, amidst all the danger with which her near approach to me was attended, whom she believed to be infected.

Now I will tell you my thoughts of this business. I think she was mistaken in the nature of that discharge which she saw; certainly it was the salve that made it

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look so green; yet her rejoicing on that account was a strong testimony of her love to me; for it is clear she cared not for her own peril, so I was safe.

Further, I can assure you, my sweet babes, that her love to you was little inferior to that which she felt for me; since, why should she thus ardently desire my longer continuance in this world of sorrows, but that you might have the protection and comfort of my life.

You little imagine with what delight she used to talk of you both, and the pains that she took when you sucked milk from her breasts, is almost incredible. She gave a strong testimony of her love for you, when she lay upon her death-bed. A few hours before she expired, I brought her some cordials, which she told me plainly she was not able to take. I entreated she would take them for your dear sakes. At the mention of your names, she, with difficulty, lifted herself up and took them, which was to let me understand, that, while she had any strength left, she would embrace an opportunity of testifying her affection to you.

Now I will give you an exact account of the manner of her death. It is certain she had for some time, had symptoms of a consumption, and her flesh was considerably wasted thereby. However, being surrounded with infected families, she doubtless got the distemper from them. Her natural strength being impaired, she could not struggle with the disease, which made her illness so very short. Upon being seized, she showed much contrition for the errors of her life, and often cried out,- “One drop of my Saviour's blood to save my soul”.

At the beginning of her sickness she earnestly desired me not to come near her, lest I should receive harm thereby; but I can assure you I did not desert her, but, thank God, stood to my resolution not to leave her in her sickness, who had been so tender a nurse in her health. Blessed be God, that He enabled me to be so helpful and consoling to her, for which she was not a little thankful.

No worldly business, was during her illness, any disturbance to her; for she only minded making her call and election sure; and she asked pardon of her maidservant for having sometimes given her an angry word.

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I gave her several sweating antidotes, which had no kind operation, but rather scalded or inflamed her more, whereupon her dear head was distempered, which put upon her many incoherencies. I was much troubled thereat, and propounded to her several questions in divinity, as by whom, and upon what account, she expected salvation, and what assurances she had of the certainty thereof. Through in all other things she talked at random, yet, to religious questions, she gave me as rational and welcome answers as I could desire; and at those times, I bade her repeat after me certain prayers and ejaculations, which she always did with much devotion, which was no little comfort and admiration to me, that God should he so good and gracious to her.

A little before her dear soul departed, she desired me to pray with her again. I went to her, and asked her how she did? Her answer was, that she was but looking when the good hour should came. Thereupon we went to prayers, and she made her responses from the Common Prayer-book as perfectly as if she had been in perfect health, and an amen to every pathetic expression. When we had ended our prayers for the Visitation of the Sick, we made use of those out of the Whole Duty of Man; and when I heard her say nothing, I urged,- My dear, dost thou mind? She answered, “Yes”, and it was the last word she spoke.

I question not, my dear hearts, that the reading of this account will cause many a salt tear to spring from your eyes; yet, let this comfort you, your dear mother is a saint in heaven.

I could have told you of many more of her excellent virtues; but I hope you will not in the least question my testimony if, in a few words, I tell you that she was pious and upright in all her conversation.

Now, to that most blessed God, who bestowed upon her all those graces, be ascribed all honour, glory, and dominion, the just tribute of all created beings, for evermore. Amen.

WILLIAM MOMPESSON.

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On the following day Mr. Mompesson wrote to the patron who had presented to him the living, Sir George Savile, afterwards Lord Halifax.- His letter was written in the depths of desolation, when he was feeling so acutely the loss of his wife and the deaths of so many of his flock; and when he was in the daily expectation of his own death.

EYAM, Sept. 1st, 1666.

HONOURED AND DEAR SIR, This letter brings you the saddest tidings that ever my pen could write. The “destroying angel” has been in my habitation;- my dearest wife was stricken, and is gone to her everlasting rest, invested, as I trust with a crown of glory, having made a most pious and happy end. Indeed, had she loved herself as well as she loved me, she had fled, at my entreaty, with her sweet babes, from the pit of destruction; but she was resolved to die a martyr to my interest. My drooping spirits are much refreshed with her joys, which I assure myself, are unutterable.

This paper, sir, is to bid you an hearty farewell for ever, and to bring you my thanks for all your noble favours; and I hope you will believe a dying man, that I have as much love and honour for you;- that I bend my feeble knees to the God of heaven, that you, my dear lady, her children, and their children, may be blessed with happiness external, internal, and eternal; and that the same blessings may fall upon my Lady Sunderland and her family.

Dear sir, let your dying chaplain recommend this truth to you and yours,- that no happiness or solid comfort can be secured in this vale of tears, but from living a pious life. I pray you, dear sir, to retain this rule- Never to do that thing upon which you dare not first ask the blessing of God upon the success thereof.

Sir, I have made bold with your name in my will for an executor; and I hope you will not take it ill. Others are joined with you, that will take from you all the trouble.

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Your favourable aspect will, I know, be a great comfort to my distressed orphans. I am not desirous that they should be great, but good; and it is my earnest request, that they may be brought up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Sir, I thank God that I am willing to shake hands, in peace, with all the world; and I have comfortable assurances that He will accept me for the sake of His Son, and I find God more good than ever I imagined, and wish that His goodness were not so much abused and condemned.

I desire you would be pleased to make choice of an humble pious man to succeed me in this parsonage. Could I see your face before I depart hence, I would inform you which way I think he may live comfortably among these people, which would be a satisfaction to me before I die.

Dear Sir, I beg your prayers, and those of your family, that I may not be daunted or appalled by the powers of lull; That I may have dying graces, and be found in a dying posture; and, with tears, I entreat, that, when you are praying for fatherless and motherless infants, you would remember my two pretty babes.

Sir, pardon the rude style of this paper, and if my head be discomposed you cannot wonder at me; however, be pleased d to believe that I am,

Dear Sir.
Your most obliged, most affectionate,
and grateful servant,
WILLIAM MOMPESSON.

Briget Talbot, the widow of a former Rector of Eyam, had died on the 15th day of August, twelve days before Mrs. Mompesson.

On November 20th, six weeks after the plague was stayed, the Rector wrote, or rather, for fear of conveying infection, dictated a letter to his uncle, Mr. John Beilby, in whose house, his “sweet babes” were staying. It will be noticed that he gives in it the number of families visited by the plague as 76, and of individuals who had died as 259.

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To his uncle, John Beilby, Esq. of York.

EYAM,
Nov. 10th, 1666.

DEAR SIR,

I suppose this letter will seem no less than a miracle, proving that my habitation is inter vivos.- Being unwilling to affright you with a paper from my own hands, I have gotten a friend to transcribe these lines. I know you are sensible of my lone condition, of my loss of the kindest wife in the world, whose life was truly inimitable, and her end most comfortable. She was in excellent posture of preparation when death gave the summons, which fills me with assurances that she is now invested with a crown of righteousness.

By too sad experience, I find the maxim verified, “Bonum magis carendo quam fruendo cemitur”. Had I been as thankful as my condition did deserve of me, I might yet have had my dearest in my bosom. But now, farewell all happy days, and God grant that I may repent of my great ingratitude.

The condition of this place hath been so dreadful, that I persuade myself it exceedeth all history and example. I may truly say, our town was become a Golgotha, the place of skulls; and, had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom, and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations, - my nose never such noisome smells,- my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles. Here have been seventy-six families visited within my parish, out of which died 259 persons.

Blessed be God, our fears are now over, none having died of the infection since the 11th of October, nor is there any one under present suspicion; and all the pest-houses have been several weeks empty.

I intend, if it please God, to spend most of this week in seeing all woollen clothes fumed and purified, as well for the satisfaction as for the safety of the country. Here hath been such burying of goods, as the like was surely never known; and indeed I think in this we have been too precise. For my own part, I have hardly left myself apparel to shelter my body from the cold, and have wasted more than need, for example's sake merely.

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As for myself, I never was in better health than during the whole time of this dreadful visitation; neither can I think that I have had any certain symptom of the disease. My man-servant had the distemper. Upon the tumour appearing, I gave him several chemical antidotes, which had a very kind operation; and with the blessing of God they kept the venom from the heart and after the tumour broke, he was very well. My maid hath continued in health, which was a great mercy; for, had she quailed, I should have been ill set to have washed and got provisions for myself.

I know I have had your prayers, and question not but I have fared the better for them; and conclude that the prayers of good people have rescued me from the jaws of death. Certainly I had been in the dust, if omnipotency had not been conquered by holy violence.

I have largely tasted the goodness of my Creator; since, blessed be God, the grim looks of Death did never yet affright me. I always had a firm faith that my dear babes would go well, which made me willing to leave this unkind and froward world. Yet I hope I shall esteem it a mercy that my desires of being like my dear wife, translated to a better place were frustrated. God grant that I may wait with patience for my change, and make a right use of His punishments, and of His mercies; for, if the first have been severe, so have the last been sweet and comfortable.

I perceive by a letter from Mrs. Newby, that you have much and most kindly concerned yourself for my welfare. Indeed I make no question of possessing your true affection. Be assured that, in the midst of my great troubles, you were often in my thoughts.

Be pleased, sir, to accept the grateful presentment of my kindest respects, imparting the same to your good wife, and to all my dear relations.

A line from your hand would be welcome to, dearest sir, Your sorrowful and truly affectionate nephew,

WILLIAM MOMPESSON.

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Mompesson left Eyam three years later, being presented to the rectory of Eakring, Notts., by Sir George Saville, the same Patron who, five years before, had presented him to the rectory of Eyam. It is said that his new parishioners had so great a dread of the plague that they refused him admission into the village, and that for a time, until their fears had died away, he was obliged to live in a house in Rufford Park.

A century after the plague in 1766, the then rector Mr. Seward (who was also Canon Residentiary of Lichfield), preached a sermon commemorative of the event, which “was written with great power of description, and appealed so forcibly to the hearts of his auditors, many of whose ancestors had fallen by the plague, that he was frequently interrupted by their tears and overpowered by his own sensations”. Rhodes says that when he wrote, upwards of 40 years afterwards, the sermon and the effect it produced were still remembered in Eyam.

A century later still the Church was restored in memory of “the Brave Men of Eyam”.

On August 26th, 1866, the bicentenary of the plague was as observed, and three sermons were preached:-

M. By the Rector, Rev. J. Green, M.A. on Numbers xvi. 48.

A. By Rev. R.M. Jones, M. A. Incumbent of Cromford, on Proverbs x. 7.

E. By Rev. H. Fisher, Minister of St. Luke's Episcopal Chapel, Leamington, on Prov. i. 24.
“I have called”.

Each year, during the time of the present rector, a Commemorative Service has been held during Wakes Week in the Delph, at the very spot where the service used to be held during the time of the Plague.

Notes
[1] A Discourse on the Plague by Richard Mead, 9th Edn., 1744, (1st Edn. 1720), pp. 149-151.
[2] During the five years immediately preceding the outbreak, 1660-1664, the average number of burials was 19 a year. During the two years which immediately followed the plague. 1667-1668. the average was 21. During the ten years 1899-1908 the average number has been 13.7 a year. Allowing for a lower death rate at the present time, owing to advanced medical skill and improved sanitary conditions, we may assume, from a comparison of the above figures that the normal population of the village in 1664 would be rather less than it is now - possibly about 1000. There would apparently be a considerable exodus from Eyam when the plague first appeared. The population was thus reduced to 350. These Mompesson persuaded to remain, so that infection should not be carried to other places. After the plague ceased, those who had gone away seem to have returned.
[3] This and the following letters are given in Anecdotes of some distinguished persons by Wm. Seward, London, 1795. Vol II, pp. 21-38.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in March 2013.

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