In Villages

Eyam is one of Derbyshire’s prettiest villages, with quaint streets, a traditional church and charming cottages, but this is no ordinary chocolate-box village. Also known as the ‘Plague Village’, it hides a tragic but inspiring past.

This tragic chapter in Eyam's history began in 1665, with the arrival of a bale of cloth sent from London, where the Black Death had already killed thousands of inhabitants.

Contained in the bale of damp cloth were fleas carrying the plague. A tailor's assistant called George Viccars was said to have opened the bale and hung the cloth in front of the hearth to dry, unwittingly stirring the disease-ridden fleas contained within the parcel.

Within a week of the fateful cloth arriving in the Derbyshire village, George had died and others in the household soon followed. The disease spread rapidly through the village and devastated whole households within days.

Between September and December 1665, 42 villagers died and by the following spring, many were on the verge of fleeing their homes to save themselves.

It was at this point that the newly appointed rector, William Mompesson, intervened. Believing it his duty to prevent the plague spreading to nearby towns, the Reverend joined local Puritan Minister Thomas Stanley in encouraging the villagers to 'self-quarantine' - cutting Eyam off from the outside world.

On 24 June 1666, Mompesson told his parishioners that the village must be enclosed, with no-one allowed in, or out. He told them that the Earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby at Chatsworth, had offered to send food and supplies if they agreed to be quarantined.

By agreeing to stay, the villagers has effectively chosen death, but Mompesson said he would do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering and remain with them, telling them he was willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see nearby communities devastated.

Despite this, hardly anyone broke the cordon; even those who were reluctant to stay saw it through. Nobody entered or left the village for 14 months. To get essentials such as food and medicine into the village safely, a ‘Boundary Stone’ was erected, separating Eyam from the nearby uninfected village of Stoney Middleton.

The stone - which can still be found today - had specially made holes filled with vinegar which acted as a disinfectant, allowing people from surrounding villages to swap supplies for money. The stone remains in its original place and can be seen when walking around the fields surrounding the village, follow the sign saying ‘Stoney Middleton- the Boundary Stone’.

August 1666 saw the highest number of casualties, with a peak of five or six deaths a day. The weather was incredibly hot that summer, meaning the fleas were more active and the pestilence spread faster.

But as well as the people who died during the Plague, Eyam’s history also includes remarkable stories of survival. The same month, Elizabeth Hancock buried six of her children and her husband close to the family farm. They had all perished in the space of just eight days - but amazingly, Elizabeth never caught the deadly disease. The family was buried in an isolated enclosure known as ‘the Riley Graves’, named after the farm at which they lived. Now protected by the National Trust, this small cemetery is a lonely example of Eyam’s plague graves and it's possible to visit the site free of charge.

Another surprising survivor was the village’s unofficial gravedigger, Marshall Howe. He was infected during the early stages of the outbreak, but survived, and buried hundreds of victims.

By November 1666 the disease had gone. The quarantine had worked. During the outbreak, 260 of the village's inhabitants, from no fewer than 76 different families, had died. Historians have placed the total population of Eyam at between 350 and 800 before the plague struck.

However, Mompesson knew his actions, and the courage of his parishioners, had probably saved thousands more.

Since the plague’s bicentenary in 1866, the village of Eyam has celebrated ‘Plague Sunday’, on the last Sunday of August in the Cucklett Delph. This now coincides with the unique Derbyshire tradition of Well Dressing, a tradition which started in Pagan times to celebrate pure and clean water.

On a walk around Eyam you’ll see plaques outside houses and cottages stating who died there during the times of the Black Death, the Boundary Stone, the Riley Graves and the local church of St Lawrence. This church is home to an eight century Celtic Anglo-Saxon cross and is one of the best preserved examples in the country.




  1. JC
    I have found this really interesting to read as I love history and I am thinking of doing a history project of my own on the plauge I attend a creative writing group and in the group the tutor gives us a piece of history and we have to write it in our own words which I find challenging but fun to do

Leave a Reply