As a nation we are bonded by nature, climate, language and culture. Our common heritage is forged by means of commerce, art, religion and politics but history pervades our identity, and if there’s one sure lesson we take from the past its an absolute fear of plague. Pandemics have shaped our nation just as surely as wars.
On June 7th, 1665, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that a number of houses in Drury Lane had been marked with red crosses and the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. ‘It put me in an ill conception of myself,’ he wrote, ‘so that I was forced to buy some tobacco to smell and chew – which took away the apprehension.’
The plague had come to London and Pepys hastened to buy tobacco in the belief it offered an effective protection against the dreaded disease. By the time the Great Plague had run its course at least 70,000 people had perished in London alone. The epidemic spread swiftly and soon carried from London to other cities. In September 1665 Edward Cooper, a tailor in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, took delivery of a box of old clothes and patterns. Within two days the servant who unpacked the box was taken ill; four days later he was dead. Cooper died a fortnight later. Before the end of the month there had been 26 deaths in the village. By the time the ordeal ended, in October 1666, only 83 of Eyam’s 350 residents were alive. The rest had fallen victim to the plague.
This appalling death-toll was due to an extraordinary proposal by Eyam’s vicar, William Pompesson. He managed to persuade his fellow villagers to take a heroic decision. He knew that if the people of Eyam fled they would carry the infection to others so he urged them to act as true Christians and remain in quarantine inside the village.
A boundary line of stakes was marked around the village. Within its limits the villagers settled to meet their fate, surviving on food left at the boundary by folks from neighbouring villages. By mid-summer only one man was strong enough to dig graves for the victims and as reward he was able to claim the possessions of those he buried. Yet only one person attempted to escape the rule of isolation.
Knowledge of disease was very primitive in seventeenth century England but by confining the outbreak of infection Pompesson prevented the plague from devastating neighbouring communities. In an age when human health was explained by the four ‘humours’ –sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic – Eyam defined a new means of tackling disease. In Derbyshire the village became synonymous with self-sacrifice and its inhabitants hailed as heroes.
For further information go to https://www.eyam-museum.org.uk