On a drive back from Leeds last weekend, we made a brief detour into Derbyshire to visit the village of Eyam. Eyam is a village set deep in the Dales that was hit hard by a 17th century outbreak of plague. Typically, the 1665 epidemic is thought of as the London plague, but the plague also travelled up to Derbyshire via a box of cloth ordered by a local tailor (or so the story goes). Upon opening the box, George Viccars, the tailor’s assistant, laid the cloth by the fire to air it out, which led the infected fleas hidden in the cloth to presumably bite Viccars, as he died seven days later. From Viccars, the plague quickly spread throughout the village, killing 260 people, a third of the population, over a year-long period. The villagers bravely decided to quarantine themselves so that the plague wouldn’t spread to the surrounding villages, which makes their situation even more poignant, as they voluntarily remained in the village to await their fate. Modern Eyam is a well-preserved village that feels almost like a shrine to the memory of the plague victims.
When we arrived, we were welcomed by freezing wind and driving rain, so we hastily began with the Eyam Museum, which is directly across from the main car park. Admission was a modest £2.50. I was quite excited, because despite my long-standing interest in the plague, I’ve never been to an actual museum devoted to it. Eyam Museum relies mainly on a series on large, illustrated posters to tell the story of the plague. It opened with some general background on bubonic plague, and historic epidemics, before moving on to the story of Eyam itself. Because the village kept careful records during the outbreak, we know the names of everyone who died, as well as the occupations and living arrangements of many of the families, so Eyam was able to focus on the stories of individuals, which is obviously a powerful approach. For example, I learned about Elizabeth Hancock, who lost her husband and all six of her children in a span of eight days, and buried them all herself. The experience was enhanced throughout (for me anyway) by the use of slightly bedraggled mannequins arranged in dioramas depicting important events in 1665, including one of George Viccars opening the fateful box, and another of a man covered with buboes in his death throes. There were also some rather excellent paintings that further illustrated pivotal scenes from the plague year, including a detailed mural at the museum entrance (postcards of the paintings are available in the shop. On a related note, I’m thinking of doing a giveaway on here of some of the many postcards I’ve collected over the years. Is that something anyone would be interested in winning?).
The story of the plague wound through the ground floor, and continued upstairs. The stairwell was adorned with descriptions of old plague “cures,” most of which were fairly humorous, albeit completely ineffective. The museum even offered suggestions on further reading, including In the Wake of the Plague, one of my personal favourites. However, there’s more to Eyam than just the plague, so there was some other local history in the museum as well. After the plague, villagers turned to industry like lead mining, so there was a delightful little replica mine, complete with wee candles and mine workers, and sound effects! There were also silk (presumably flea-less) and shoe manufacturers in Eyam in the Victorian era. Naturally, like all local museums, Eyam had a small collection of rocks and fossils in the geology section, courtesy of the museum founder. Finally, the museum had a back room which is devoted to temporary exhibitions, and currently houses a small collection of blood-letting implements, and some pictures showing how little the village has changed over the years. In some of them, the only apparent difference in 150 years was the addition of cars, which is pretty cool.
Leaving the museum, the weather had cleared up a bit, so we headed down the hill to explore some of the village. There’s a Jacobean manor house called Eyam Hall, which is a National Trust property with a correspondingly high admission price. As it wasn’t obviously plague related, we passed it up in favour of free attractions. There was a small information centre with a large, helpful map on the wall inside, and a set of stocks out front, which was obviously a prime photo opportunity.
I was keen to see the plague cottages, and the church, so we carried on up the road. I found out Eyam has an annual tradition known as a sheep roast, and a giant purpose-built spit. It’s not something I’d be partaking in, but I could see it being an amusing fete, aside from the mutton meat. The plague cottages are still privately owned, so you can’t go inside, but there are plaques out front explaining who lived in each one.
Just next to the cottages is the church, St. Lawrence. Although parts of the exterior are Victorian, most of the interior is medieval (and there’s even some Norman pillars), so the villagers would have been familiar with it in 1665 (although they actually switched to outside services after the outbreak of plague, to prevent spreading infection). A small display is set up in a corner of the church about Rector Mompesson and Rev. Thomas Stanley, who were of vital importance in keeping the plague contained within Eyam. Mompesson’s wife Catherine was herself a victim, and is buried in the churchyard outside. The neatest feature of the church is the stained glass window built to commemorate the plague. It tells the story beginning with the aforementioned box of cloth, and Viccars’s death, the meeting of Mompesson and Stanley, where they agree on a plan of quarantine, and the doomed love affair of Emmott Syddal and Rowland Torre, who continued clandestinely meeting after the outbreak up until her death.
The churchyard outside is memorable not only because of some plague graves, but because it contains a Celtic Cross dating back to the eighth century. In a way, the rain and cloudiness helped to enhance the sombre mood of the graveyard. There are a few other plague-related sites that we didn’t get a chance to see, including Mompersson’s Well, which is where people from nearby villages left food for the residents of Eyam during the quarantine, and the Riley graves, which mark where a family that lived on the outskirts of town were nonetheless struck down by the scourge.
Eyam was a brilliant experience. I loved the museum and the village, and the whole experience together is a 4.5./5. It was just a completely unique place, and it’s simply incredible how they’ve managed to keep the memory of the plague preserved for all these years. Eyam is quite near to Bakewell, a popular tourist destination for the eponymous tarts and puddings, so there’s no reason you couldn’t stop for a heartening tea after absorbing the full impact of the devastation that bubonic plague left in its wake.