The History and Antiquities of Eyam

By William Wood (1903)

Transcriptions by Andrew McCann, © Copyright 1999


When the plague broke out in the latter end of the summer of 1665, there lived in a humble straw-thatched cottage, a little west of the Church, a very happy and contented family, named Sydall: consisting of husband, wife, five daughters, and one son. The father, son and four daughters took the infection, and died in the space of twenty-five days, in October 1665; leaving the hapless mother and one daughter. The mother had now nothing to render her disconsolate case bearable but her only surviving daughter Emmot, a modest and pretty village maiden. Emmot had for some time received the fervent addresses of a youth named Rowland, who resided in Middleton Dale, about a mile south-east of Eyam. He had daily visited her and sympathised with her on the death of her father, brother, and four young sisters.Often had she anxiously remonstrated with him on his visits; but nothing could deter him from nightly pacing the devoted village, until the death-breathing pest threatened total desolation to the surrounding country if intercourse were allowed. The happy scene when Rowland and Emmot were to cast their lots together had been appointed to take place at the ensuing wakes; and fervently did they pray that the pestilence would cease. The ring, the emblem of endless and unchanging love, had been presented by Rowland to his beloved Emmot; and by her it was treasured as the certain pledge of his sincerity and affection. Frequently would she retire into her chamber, and bring it forth from the sanctuary and place it on her finger; while her eyes sparkled with meaning - while through those bright portals of her mind come forth her thoughts, in language more eloquent than words. Rowland was seen each morn hasting along the dale to his occupation. Lightsome were his steps; his whistling echoed from rock to rock; and his soul glowed with all the charms of anticipated bliss. Thus this loving pair indulged in dreams of future happiness; thus they cherished the fond hope of connubial joy, on the very eve of separation!

Towards the end of April, 1666, the lovely Emmot was seized by the terrific pest, and hurried to her grave on the thirtieth of the same month. Rowland heard a brief rumour of the dreadful tidings and his hopes were scattered. The brand of general abhorrence with which he would be marked if he, at that period of the pestilence, attempted to venture into the dreadful village, debarred him from ascertaining the fate of his Emmot. Often, however, would his love and dreadful anxiety urge him to pass the circle of death. But, to bring the pestilence home to his own family, to incur the everlasting infamy of spreading a disease so terrible, with the almost certainty of death on his own part, happily deterred him on each attempt, from entering the poisonous “Upas vale”.

One one occasion, indeed, Rowland ascended a hill contiguous to Eyam ; and thence he looked over the silent village for hours. It was Sabbath eve:

“But yet no Sabbath sound
Came from the village; no rejoicing bells
Were heard; no groups of strolling youths were found,
Nor lovers loitering on the distant fells,
No laugh, no shout of infancy, which tells
Where radiant health and happiness repair;
But silence, such as with the lifeless dwells,
Fell on his shuddering heart and fixed him there,
Frozen with dreams of death and bodings of despair”.

It was some time after the plague had ceased that Rowland summoned up sufficient courage to enter the village, and to learn of the fate of his Emmot. Glimmering hope and fearful apprehension alternately possessed his mind, as his faltering steps brought him to the verge of the village. He stood on a little eminence at the eastern entrance of the place, and glanced for a few moments around; but he saw no smoke ascend from the ivy-adorned chimneys - nothing but the sighing breeze broke the still expanse, and he felt chained to the spot by terror and dismay. At length he ventured into the silent village, but he suddenly stopped, looking as much aghast as if he had seen the portentous inscription which met the eye of Dante when the shade of Virgil led him to the porch of Erebus. He then passed slowly on, gazing intently on the desolate blank. A noiseless gloom pervaded the lonely street; no human form appeared, nor sound of life was heard. Filled with unspeakable amazement he looked on each lonely cottage; a hollow stillness reigned within; and

“Horror round
Waved her triumphant wings o'er the untrodden ground”.

Then towards the cot of his Emmot he bent his way. His direful forebodings increased with every step. As he approached the dwelling his heart swelled and beat with painful emotion; but ere he reached the place a solitary boy appeared, and thus the sorrowful tidings told:- “Ah! Rowland, thy Emmot's dead and buried in the Cussy Dell!” This sudden disclosure struck Rowland with unutterable grief; he clung to an adjoining wall, and there stood awhile combating with feelings keen and unspeakable. At the death of Emmot, her mother, frantic with despair, fled to the Cussy Dell, and there dwelt with some fugitive relatives. Rowland, after some time, approached the abode of his Emmot; the once happy place where he had spent so many happy hours. He reached the threshold, over which the grass grew profusely; the half-open door yielded to his hand, and he entered the silent dwelling filled with unimaginable sensations. On the hearth and floor the grass grew up from every chink; the tables and chairs stood in their usual places; the pewter plates and pans were flecked with rust; and the once sweet-warbling linnet lay dead in its cage. Rowland wept as he left the tenantless dwelling; his dreadful apprehensions were verified; and until death closed his eyes at a great age, he frequently dropped a tear to the memory of his once lovely Emmot.

Some few who had the plague, in Eyam, recovered; one was a Margaret Blackwell. Tradition says that she was about eighteen years of age when she took the distemper, and that her father and whole family, excepting one brother, were dead at the time of her sickness.Her brother was one morning obliged to go some distance for coals. He arose very early, cooked himself some bacon, and started, being certain, in his mind, that he should find his sister dead when he returned. Margaret, almost dying with excessive thirst, got out of bed for something to drink, and finding a small wooden piggin with something in it, which she thought was water, but which was the fat from the bacon which her brother had just cooked, she drank it all off, returned to bed again, and found herself soon after rather better. She, however, had not the least hope of surviving:-

“But nature rallied, and her flame still burn'd-
Sunk in the socket, glimmer'd, and return'd;
The golden bowl and silver cord were sound;
The cistern's wheel revolved its steady round:
Fire - vital fire - evolved the living steam,
And life's fine engine pump'd the purple stream”.

On her brother's return, he found her, to his great surprise much better; she eventually recovered, and lived to a good old age. Drinking adventitiously the contents of the wooden piggin has generally been considered the cause of her unexpected resuscitation.

During the time the plague was at its maximum, a few rather audacious circumstances are traditionally recorded. One in particular was that the services of Marshall Howe were required at a house at the western extremity of the village, where it was stated a man, named Unwin was dying or just dead of the plague.Very soon the sexton of the plague was on the place,and after digging on the premises a shallow grave, he ascended the chamber where the corpse lay which he soon had on his back, and was leisurely descending the stone-step-stairs, when lo! the supposed dead man, in a kind of half-smothered ruttle in the throat, said, “I want a posset!”[1] Marshall Howe, in high dudgeon disburthened himself and departed. Unwin got a posset and recovered.

Towards the latter end of the summer of the dreadful pest, a man of the name of Merril, of the Hollins-house, Eyam, erected a hut near the summit of Sir William, wherein he dwelt to escape the plague, having only a cock with him, which he had taken for a companion. In this solitary retreat they lived together for about a month, with nothing to cheer them but the wild bee wandering with merry song. Merril would frequently, during this solitary sojourn, descend to a point of the hill from which he could overlook the fated place; but nothing could he perceive in the distance save the direful havoc of the awful scourge, as exhibited in the increasing number of graves in the fields of the village. One morning, however, his companion, the cock, strutted from a corner of the hut into the heath, and after glancing about, sprang from the ground with flapping wings, nor stopped in its airy course until it had arrived at its former residence, Hollins-house. Merril pondered a day or two over the meaning of his companion's abrupt desertion, and at last he thus soliloquized:- “Noah knew when the dove went forth and returned not again that the waters had subsided, and that the face of the earth was dry”. He, therefore, took up the other articles he had brought, and returned to his former residence, where he found his cock.The plague had abated; and Merril and his cock lived many years together at the Hollins-house after the pestilence had totally ceased.

A little west of Eyam, at a house called Shepherds' Hall or Shepherds' Flat, resided a family named Mortin, who suffered greatly during the plague. This family consisted of husband, wife, and one child: the wife being at the time the plague broke out so fiercely in 1666, in an advanced state of pregnancy. There was another house very near to Mortin's inhabited by a widow named Kempe, whose children, after playing with the children of Eyam, brought the infection to the Shepherds' Flat.When the time of Mortin's wife's pregnancy was expiredno one would come near to assist in giving birth to her child. She was very ill, and declared that without assistance she would die. Mortin, in the last extremity of despair, was compelled to assist in the act of parturition. The eldest child was, during this time, shut up in a room, where it screamed incessantly, being almost petrified with fear. Very soon after, both children and mother took the distemper and died, and Mortin buried them successively with his own hands at the end of his habitation. The other family of Kempes all died; Mortin being then the only human being left at Shepherds' Flat, where he lived in solitude for some years after the plague. A greyhound and four cows were his companions; one of the cows he milked to keep the greyhound and himself. To such an extent did this horrible pest carry on human desolation, that hares, rabbits, and other kinds of game multiplied and overran the vicinity of Eyam: Mortin's greyhound could have gone out and brought in a hare in a few minutes, at any time of the day.

At the period of this dreadful malady, Tideswell, about five miles west of Eyam, was one of the principal market towns in the peak, and it was frequented on the market days by great numbers from the wide-scattered villages.Those who regularly attended, as well as the inhabitants of the place, were thrown into great consternation by the appalling reports of the pestilence at Eyam; and a watch was appointed at the eastern entrance of Tideswell, to question all who came that way, and to prevent any one from Eyam entering the place on any business whatever. A woman who resided in that part of Eyam called Orchard Bank, was, during the plague, compelled by some pressing exigency to go to the market at Tideswell; knowing, however, that it would be almost impossible to pass the watch if she told whence she came, she therefore had recourse to the following stratagem:- the watch, on her arrival, thus authoritatively addressed her:- “Whence comest thou?” “;From Orchard Bank”, she replied. “And where is that?” the watch asked again. “Why verily”, said the woman, “it is in the land of the living”. The watch, not knowing the place, allowed her to pass; but she had scarcely reached the market when some person knew her, and whence she came“.The plague! the plague! a woman from Eyam! The plague! a woman from Eyam!”immediately resounded from all sides; and the poor creature, terrified almost to death, fled as fast as she possibly could. The infuriated multitude followed her some distance out of the market-place, pelting her with stones, mud, sods, and other missiles. She returned to Orchard Bank, Eyam, bruised and otherwise worse for her daring and prevarication.

During the plague, a man who lived at Bubnell, near Chatsworth, an ancestor of Mr. W.Howard Barlow, had either to come to, or pass through, Eyam, with a load of wood, which he was in the habit of carrying from the woods at Chatsworth to the surrounding villages. His neighbours strongly remonstrated with him, before his departure, on the impropriety and danger of going near Eyam; being, however, a fine, robust man, he disregarded their admonitions, and proceeded through Eyam with the wood. The day turned out very wet and boisterous; and as no one would accompany him to assist in unloading the wood, great delay was thereby occasioned. A severe cold was the result, and shortly after his arrival at home he was attacked with a slight fever. The neighbours having ascertained his route, became alarmed at his indisposition; they naturally concluded that he had taken the infection, and they were so incensed at his daring and dangerous conduct that they threatened to shoot him if he attempted to leave his house. A man was appointed to watch and give the alarm if he crossed his own threshold. The consternation of the inhabitants of Bubnell and neighbouring places excited the notice of the Earl of Devonshire, who had either at his own request or otherwise, the particulars of the case laid before him. The noble Earl, being anxious that no unnecessary alarm should be created, reasoned with the persons who waited on him from Bubnell, on the impropriety of rashly judging because the man was ill, it was necessarily the plague. He told them to go back, and he would send his doctor at a certain hour the next day to investigate the nature of the man's illness. The interview, either at the suggestion of the Earl or from the doctor's fear, was appointed to take place across the River Derwent, which flows close by Bubnell. At the appointed time, the doctor took his station on the eastern, and the invalid on the western side of the river. The affrighted neighbours looked on from the distance, while the doctor interrogated the sick man at great length. The doctor at last pronounced him free from the disorder; prescribed him some medicine; and the man, who was much better, soon recovered.[2]

TALBOTS and HANCOCKS of RILEY,[3] the rapid extinction of whom almost defies description. These two families were carried off by the plague with horrid despatch; their brief transition from health to sickness, and from sickness to death, was attended with circumstances perhaps never before experienced.

RILEY GRAVES are about a quarter-of-a-mile eastward of Eyam, on the top, or rather on the slope of a hill, the base of which partially terminates in Eyam.

These mountain tumuli are generally known to be the burial places of the Hancock and Talbot families, during the plague. Perhaps there is no place capable of producing such peculiar and serious impressions. These insulated memorials of the hapless sufferers, viewed in conjunction with the surrounding scenery, give a tone to the feelings as pathetic as inexpressible. We feel as if we were holding communion with spirits who murmur a saddening requiem to pleasure and frolicsome gaiety. All seemed so hallowed, so over-shadowed, and so deeply imbued with solemnity.

Those who have visited the Riley Grave Stones have doubtless noticed, about fifty yards from the enclosed cemetery, a small ash tree, standing in a north-east direction of the stones, and it was a few yards south of this tree where once stood the habitation of the Hancocks. There is not the least remains of that dwelling to be seen at this day ; the disconsolate mother, after burying her husband and six children, as hereafter described, deserted it; and it was sometime after carried away to repair the neighbouring fences. The house in which the Talbots lived was about two hundred and fifty yards west, or rather north-west of that of the Hancocks ; the present Riley farmhouse is built on its site. The road from Manchester to Sheffield passed, in those days, close by this house, and the Talbots, being blacksmiths, had a smithy adjoining the house, and close to the road. Besides this occupation, they farmed one part of Riley old land, and the Hancocks the other. The Talbot family consisted of Richard, his wife, three sons and three daughters; one son, however, had left Riley, and lived at some distance, before the commencement of the plague in his own family, and therefore escaped. The high and airy situation of Riley, one would imagine, ought to have operated against the distemper; and being besides a full quarter-of-a-mile from Eyam, the two families were not compelled to have any particular or continued communication with its inhabitants. How or by what means this subtle agent of death found its way to Riley is not known; most probably some of the Talbot family brought it from Eyam, as they all perished before the infection, or at least the death of any one of the Hancocks. The pestilence had raged full ten months in Eyam, before the Talbots of Riley were visited by this dreadful messenger.

On the fifth of July, 1666, died Bridget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, of Riley. They were young and beautiful: they had sported with innocence and mirth on the flowery heath only a few days before death came and laid his cold, chilly hand on their lovely bosoms. Often had they roved on the neighbouring moors, with hearts swelling with joy; they had spent full many a sunny day in chasing the many-hued butterfly amidst the busy hum of the wild and toilsome bees; and then, like two sweet roses bursting into bloom, they were suddenly plucked from their lonely parent bed. These two lovely girls fell victims to the horrid pest in one sad, direful day. Their weeping and terrified father immediately committed them to the earth beside his mournful home. On the seventh of the same month he performed the sad but imperative task on Ann, the last of his daughters; and on the eighteenth, on his wife, Catherine. Robert, his son, died and was buried on the twenty-fourth, and on the ensuing day the father himself died, and was buried, leaving one son, who on the thirtieth died also, and was buried, probably by the Hancocks on the same day. Thus, from the fifth to thirtieth of July, perished the whole of the household of the fated Talbots of Riley. They were interred nearly together, close by their habitation; and in the orchard of the present Riley house, a dilapidated tabular monument, with the following very neatly erased inscription, records their memories:- “Richard Talbot, Catherine, his wife, two sons and three daughters, buried, July 1666”.

The pest now passed on to the habitation of the Hancocks, where the work of death commenced by the infection of John and Elizabeth Hancock. On the third of August, only three days from the death of the last of the Talbots, they both died, and were buried a short distance from their cottage, by the hands of their distracted mother. Although her husband and two other sons survived four days after the first victims, yet tradition insists that the mother of this family buried them herself, altogether unassisted. John, her husband, and two sons, William and Oner, now sickened of this virulent malady. She became frantic; she saw that the whole family were destined to the same fate as the Talbots, and she wrung her hands, in bitter despair. During the night of the sixth, Oner died, and her husband a few minutes after, and before morning William gave his last struggling gasp. Can imagination conceive anything so appalling as the case of this suffering woman? On the third she buried a son and daughter, and in the night of the following sixth, she closed the eyes of her husband and two other sons. How awful her situation! being far from any other dwelling; not a soul to cheer her sinking spirits ; not a being to cast her sorrowing eyes upon, save her two surviving children, whose lamentations were carried afar on the startled morning breeze. Such was the terrible night of the sixth of August, to this woeful woman: often she ran to the door and called out in agony for help; then turning in again she fell on her knees, and

“With hands to heaven outspread,
Her frequent, fervent, orisons she said,
In loud response her children's voices rise,
And midnight's echo to their player replies”.

The beams of the following morning's sun fell on the shallow graves which she had made for her husband and two sons. Dreading to touch the putrid bodies, she - as she had done by the other - tied a towel to their feet, and dragged them on the ground in succession to their graves. Hapless woman! surely no greater woe ever crushed a female heart.

The end of two short days, from the seventh to the ninth, saw her again digging another grave anong the blooming heath for her daughter Alice. On the morning of the next day, the tenth, Ann. her only child left at home, died and was buried. Thus

“each morn that rose,
Her grief redoubled, and renewed her woes”.

A few days after the death of her last daughter, she left her habitation at Riley, and went to her only surviving son, who had been some years previously bound an apprentice, in Alsop-Fields, Sheffield, with whom she spent the remainder of her sorrowful days. It was this son who erected the tomb and stones to the awful memory of his fated family; and it was one of his descendants, a Mr. Joseph Hancock, who about the year 1750, discovered, or rather “recovered”, in Sheffield the art of plating goods.[4]

The houses on the top part of Stoney Middleton are nearly on a level with Riley Graves, divided by two narrow dales. The inhabitants of these houses, according to a very popular tradition, watched with profound awe, the mother of the Hancocks, morning after morning, digging the graves for her husband and children. Awful and terrible scene! Did they not in imagination hear her audibly exclaim with the holy prophet, “Oh! that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of fears, that I might weep day and night!”

It has been observed by some writers that Riley, or Riley Graves, was the general burial place of those who died of the plague; this is, however, a mistake: the Talbots and Hancocks only were interred there. The Talbots have never been noticed by any writer. Six head-stones and a tabular tomb record the memories of the Hancocks. The site of the graves was originally on the common or moor, on the verge of which was the dwelling of the Hancocks. That part of the common was afterwards enclosed, and the stones, which lay horizontally and marked precisely the places of the graves, were placed in an upright position, and somewhat nearer together; and are now surrounded by a circular stone fence or wall. The late Thomas Birds, Esq., Eyam, of antiquarian notoriety, caused these memorials to be put in a better state of preservation. It is to be hoped that the present owner of the stones and land will see that these relics are not destroyed nor further disturbed. On the top of the tomb there are the following inscription and quaint rhymes:-

“John Hancock, sen., Buried August 7, 1666
Remember man
As thou goest by,
As thou art now,
Even once was I;
As I doe now
So must thou lie,
Remember man,
That thou must die”.

On the two sides and two ends of of the tomb are the words “Horam Nescitis, Orate, Vigilate”. On the head-stones the inscriptions are as follows:

Elizabeth Hancock, Buried Aug. 3 1666
John Hancock, Buried Aug 3 1666
Oner Hancock, Buried Aug 7, 1666
William Hancock, Buried Aug 7, 1666
Alice Hancock, Buried Aug 9 1666
Ann Hancock, Buried Aug 10, 1666

It is impossible for the tourist to describe his feelings fully and minutely when he visits this hallowed and lonely place: he beholds, in the language of Ossian, “green tombs with their rank whistling grass; with their stones and mossy heads”; and his soul becomes suddenly overcharged with grave and solemn emotions. The scenery around these rude and simple monuments of eventful mortality, is highly picturesque; adding greatly to the impressiveness of the sensations which a visit to the place invariably creates. Standing within the sepulchral paling, we behold to the left a long range of sable rocks sheltering the ancient villages of Curbar and Calver. farther on, Chatsworth meets our view, and forms a conspicuous object in the prospect. Proud Masson is seen in the dim distance, holding imperial sway over a thousand lesser hills. To the right we glance on the plain tower of Eyam Church rising above the ivy-adorned cottages in rural magnificence. Still further on we see the peaks of endless hills, where the winding classic Cressbrook flows - the Minstrel Newton's Arethuse. Looking behind we see plantations of young trees richly commingled with purple-blooming heather. Such are a few of the most prominent objects viewed from Riley Graves - “The Mountain Tumuli”, where heath-bells bloom - where nestling fern and rank grass grow - where lone and still,

“Their green and dewy graves the unconscious sufferers fill”.
[1] Posset is a beverage of boiled milk with bread, intermixed with ale, &c. It is currently believed, from the haste in burying many who took the plague, that instances may have occurred of some being buried alive.
[2] The doctor's prescription was in the hands of the late Dr. Nicholson, son-in-law of Mr. W. Howard, Barlow.
[3] Riley, or Roylee, is the name of a plot of land, on the top and slope of a hill, adjoining the eastern verge of Eyam.
[4] Although tradition says all the Hancocks perished, except the mother and the son apprenticed at Sheffield, still it appears from the Register that there was at least one besides, probably living [away] from home at the fatal time. The discovering or “recovering” the art of plating goods in Sheffield is said to belong more justly to a late Mr. Thomas Bolsover, of Whiteley Wood, Sheffield, an ancestor of the Mitchell and Silcock families.


This information was transcribed by Andrew McCann in May 1999.

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