Eyam's Quarantine: The Real Village Of The Damned Who Sacrificed Themselves To Save Their Neighbors During The Plague
During the 14th century, the bubonic plague wiped out an estimated 50 million people, ripping them away from their families in a matter of weeks. The fatality rate at the time was around 60%, so if you got it, you were more than likely done for. They best you could do was keep to yourself and try not to infect anyone else, but it's understandably hard to consider others when you're dying.
When the Great Plague returned in the 1660s, the citizens of a small English town called Eyam made the courageous decision to quarantine, saving neighboring towns while condemning themselves to death. The Plague wiped out at least one-third of the small village, but their terrible and heroic plan worked, and they managed to stave off an outbreak of the bubonic plague.
The Plague Came On A Pile Of Clothes
Deadly things can come in small packages. In 1665, the Plague arrived in Eyam in the form of infected fleas embedded in a bale of cloth shipped from London, where the disease had already killed thousands. Local legend states that George Viccars, a tailor's assistant, opened the bale of cloth and hung it to dry, waking the fleas and becoming the first victim of the Plague in Eyam. Following the demise of Viccars, the illness spread throughout the village in the final months of 1665. By spring, 42 villagers had perished, and the survivors were panic-stricken.
An Unpopular Proposal
Newly appointed rector William Mompesson proposed the quarantine to keep the Plague from spreading to the nearby villages, but getting the town on board was no easy feat. Aside from the risk and general unpleasantness that a quarantine would bring to the residents, Mompesson hadn't made many friends in his short time as rector. He arrived in April 1664 after the previous rector, Thomas Stanley, was removed for refusing to acknowledge the the 1662 Act of Uniformity, a law mandating the use of the Book of Common Prayer, introduced by Charles II, in religious services.
Mompesson tried to enforce this religious stranglehold while also asking the villagers to put their lives on the line. It didn't go well. He had no choice but to reach out to Stanley, who was living in exile on the edge of the village, and ask for his help to convince the people of Eyam that a quarantine was the only way forward.
After a tense meeting with the villagers, Mompesson and Stanley convinced them that the only way to ensure the safety of England, Europe, and possibly the rest of the world was to keep to themselves until the Plague (and many of them) died out. On June 24, 1666, the town of Eyam officially closed itself off. The Earl of Devonshire offered to send food and supplies as a thank-you for their sacrifice, but aside from that kind of help, they were on their own. Of the decision, Mompesson's wife, Catherine, wrote in her diary:
It might be difficult to predict the outcome because of the resentment as to William's role in the parish, but considering that the Revd Stanley [sic] was now stood at his side, perhaps he would gain the support necessary to carry the day.
Eyam's Quarantine Saved Countless Lives
The residents of Eyam may not have been happy with the rector's plan, but by all accounts, they all complied to the letter with the order to quarantine. Michael Sweet, a wildlife disease specialist at the University of Derby, explained:
The decision to quarantine the village meant that human-to-human contact, especially with those outside of the village, was basically eliminated, which would have certainly significantly reduced the potential of the spread of the pathogen. Without the restraint of the villagers, many more people, especially from neighboring villages, would have more than likely have succumbed to the disease ... It is remarkable how effective the isolation was in this instance.
The Horror Of Eyam's Quarantine
The quarantine of Eyam was largely unknown at the time. With no national media to speak of (at least, not in the way that we know it today), the only people who were immediately aware of their struggle were from the surrounding villages. Still, many of these neighbors left food and medicine at Mompesson's Well, and supplies from the nearby Stoney Middleton were left at a boundary stone that was placed a safe distance from the quarantine area.
By August 1666, five or six Eyamers died every day as the Plague made its way through the village. In the span of just eight days, a local woman named Elizabeth Hancock buried six of her children and her husband on the family farm. At the time, it was a family member's duty to bury people of their bloodline during a Plague, so the rest of the village could only watch.
There Were Survivors
The Eyam quarantine sounds like a death trap, but at least a few villagers made it out of 1666 mostly intact. That doesn't mean, of course, that they had a great time. Marshall Howe survived his infection after watching his entire perish, and since he believed it rendered him immune, he started helping people like Elizabeth Hancock to bury their loved ones. Soon enough, he was burying entire families.
Even though the people of Eyam had no way of knowing exactly what was causing the illness, they understood that social distancing was the key to survival, and those who stayed hidden away were the people who managed to survive. Ian Smith, who volunteers at Eyam's museum, told The Guardian:
In some respects, the villagers were well ahead of their time. They didn't know what the affliction was, but they reasoned that close contact with other people was how the illness was passing from one to another. They recognized the necessary business of keeping apart from other people.
Eyam's Quarantine Worked
As cases fell in September and October 1666, villagers remained on guard, but by November that year, the Plague had dissipated. In just one year, 260 villagers died, including at least one member of 76 different families. It's believed that the population of the town was between 350 and 800 before the Plague, but by the end, only a few people were left. According to Reverend Mike Gilbert, after the village went two weeks without a death in November 1666, they rang the church bells to celebrate.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding Eyam didn't go down with its death rate. Mompesson left to work in Eakring, Nottinghamshire, but because he was that guy from the Plague City, he was exiled to a hut in Rufford Park until he was deemed safe. Even if Mompesson's decision and Eyam's actions weren't respected in their time, however, we can look back at these brave people as an example of how to act in a crisis.
Like it? Share with your friends!