Eyam Plague Grave

The Eyam Plague

The plague of Eyam is a story much told but one that not only has great historical importance but is an incredible story of a village's sacrifice in order to save others.

Who would have thought that a simple delivery from London could end up with one of the most tragic and touching stories of our countries history?

The villagers living in their cottages and going about their usual business were about to be hit with a momentous moment as the first sneeze turned into a full blown outbreak and epidemic in the village, loss of life, and much heartbreak

The last major outbreak of bubonic plague was centuries ago, but it still casts a long shadow in the cultures of the areas of the world it affected.  Children still sing “Ring Around the Rosy,” a song that is unnerving if you think about its words in the original context of the bubonic plague, and while mice and squirrels might make people nervous if they get into the house, they do not strike fear in people’s hearts the way that rats do, and it was their being connected, correctly or incorrectly, with the spread of the bubonic plague, that made them persona non grata.

Today, the village of Eyam in England, is a tourist destination because of its unique response to an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665. 

Eyam village plague

The first people in Eyam to show symptoms of the plague (such as sneezing and buboes, which are visibly swollen lymph nodes) were the employees and family members of the village tailor; they are believed to have been infected with Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague) after being bitten by fleas that had taken up residence in a parcel of cloth that the tailor of Eyam had order from London, which was already in the throes of a bubonic plague epidemic.

What sets Eyam apart from the other towns and villages affected by the plague epidemic in the 17th century was the way the village officials responded to the epidemic.

Reverend William Mompesson and Minister Thomas Stanley took measures to control the spread of the plague.  Although it was not known in the 17th century that the plague was caused by a bacterium, it was known that flea bites and close contact with infected people could spread the disease.  Thus, Mompesson and Stanley began holding church services outdoors in the village amphitheater to reduce the risk of parishioners sneezing on each other in close quarters.

They instituted a policy where, if someone died on the plague, it was the responsibility of the victim’s own family members to bury him or her.  Perhaps most importantly, they forbade anyone from leaving the village.

After 14 months of quarantine, only 83 residents of Eyam remained alive, while the population of the village had been about 350. 

There seemed to be little rhyme or reason as to who was spared; some of the survivors had cared for numerous sick family members and buried them after they died. 

But the plague had finally run its course, and Eyam became famous as the village that came back to life after its plague epidemic had passed.