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Eyam - The famously heroic `Plague' Village

Posted Thursday, May 31, 2007

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The Plague Village which became the Athens of the Peak

Eyam (pronounced Ee’m) is perhaps the most well documented and most famous of all Derbyshire’s villages, and is located in relative isolation deep in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District, surrounded by a rugged landscape of limestone hills and dales.

The inhabitants are justifiably proud of their village and it’s place in history for Eyam is known famously as the ‘Plague Village’ - and thousands of visitors flock here every year from all over the world, fascinated by the valiant story of sacrifice which the village has to tell.

`Eyam is known famously as the Plague Village'

The Eyam Plague Story

The story begins in September 1665 when a contaminated parcel of cloth from London was delivered to the lodgings of travelling tailor George Viccars.

Within three days Viccars was dead and the Bubonic Plague, which was decimating London’s vast population, began to spread through the village.

Over half the population fled, including the local Squire, named Bradshaw and his family, but around 350 remained in the village trusting to God and providence.

In an attempt to stop the spread of the disease to other villages, the rector William Mompesson aided by his Duckmanton-born Puritan colleague Thomas Stanley, called upon the remaining villagers to impose a self-regulated quarantine and the people agreed to what for many of them would become a death sentence.

Mompesson closed the church and services were held in the open air at a place called Cucklet Delf, and he sent his two young children away but his wife Katherine refused to leave, insisting that her place was by her husbands side.

A stone boundary was set around the village and it was arranged by courtesy of the Earl of Devonshire that food and other necessities be left at various collecting points - such as the place that became known as ‘Mompesson’s Well’ - and coin in payment was left either in vinegar or in running water in an attempt to stop the spread of infection.

During the next fourteen months the plague claimed the lives of 259 villagers including rector’s wife Katherine Mompesson, who became its 208th victim, dying in her husbands arms on August 25th, just a couple of months before the cold autumn of 1666 eventually extinguished the disease.

There was no time for funerals and victims were buried either in the churchyard, in their gardens, or in nearby fields - as in the‘Riley Graves’ where a Mrs.Hancock buried her husband and six children in the space of just eight days¼¼

The legacy left by the plague is still evidenced throughout this close-knit community where many of the descendents of the plague survivors still reside. Commemorative plaques to the victims are displayed on the walls of the cottages where they lived – and died - over three hundred and thirty years ago, and their heroic tale is related to visitors in vivid pictorial displays at both the Parish Church of St. Lawrence and at the Eyam Museum on Hawkhill Road at the western end of the village.

Carnival Week & Annual Sheep Roast

The most popular time of the year to visit Eyam is in the last week of August during Carnival Week: the streets are garlanded with colourful bunting as the annual Sheep-Roast takes place and the village is thronged by thousands of visitors. Following the ancient Derbyshire tradition, several wells are expertly dressed, and the entire village is festooned with colour. Events are rounded off by the annual Plague Commemmoration service, held on the last Sunday of August in Cucklet Delf, the place where Mompesson held his outdoor services three and a half centuries ago.

A Fascinating History, Especially in the Churchyard!

But Eyam has far more to commend it than just an historic tale of self-sacrifice, as any walk around its pleasant meandering lanes and ancient buildings - many of them architectural gems - will show.

The Domesday Book records it as Aiune – which rather mysteriously means ‘an island’ – and though it mentions no church, it is probable that the Saxons had a church here on the site of the present Parish Church of St. Lawrence, which was built originally in 1150.

There is a complete and unbroken 8th century Saxon cross standing close by the tomb of Katherine Mompesson in the churchyard, which is regarded as the finest example of its kind in the entire county, and unusually the church has both Saxon and Norman fonts. It also has some excellent

Jacobean woodcarvings, including Mompesson’s chair, and a unique sundial dated 1775 on the wall above the priest’s door.

It has a typical country churchyard exterior, with a large and atmospheric graveyard surrounded by tall limes which contains the graves of many notables including Mompasson’s loyal colleague, Rev Thomas Stanley.

There is also a memorable epitaph to Derbyshire and MCC cricketer Harry Bagshaw, whose headstone depicts a cricket bat in front of a set of broken stumps with flying bails, above is the umpire’s raised finger, pointing firmly heavenward in dismissal – and signifying `Out!’

A Rich History of Trade & Industry

Lead mining and limestone quarrying have been the major source of local employment, the former being responsible for Eyam’s early prosperity and reaching a peak in 1717 following the discovery of the rich vein at Hucklow Edge, whilst some limestone quarrying still continues in nearby Middleton Dale.

The lead mining industry in the area was almost defunct by the late nineteenth century, but the Glebe Mine at Eyam continued working until the 1960’s, it’s headgear is still a visible relic beside the primary school.

Cotton, silk and shoe-making have in their turn provided a supplementary source of employment to mineral extraction for Eyam folk in succeeding centuries for the last three hundred years. These industries are well represented both in the museum and on large information boards which stand on the green in the former market place near the village stocks and opposite the 17th century Eyam Hall.

Village Stocks & Barmote Court

The stocks were erected for the punishment of minor offenders by the Barmote Court, which still sits each spring at the imposing Mechanics Institute of 1859, a little further east along Church Street

Eyam Hall is an exceptional place and a must for visitors to the village; it is open to the public, and boasts eight local artists and artisans with working craft and gift shops, plus a pleasant café inside a cobbled courtyard.

The Athens of The Peak - A Place of Poets & Painters

Further west along the main street notable dwellings of similar vintage include Merrill House and the manor house dated 1615 which was the birthplace of local poet, Richard Furness (1791-1857).

Along with Canon Thomas Seward and his daughter Ann, who was known as the Swan of Lichfield’, and who together occupied the 17th century Old Rectory beside the church, Furness and curate Peter Cunningham, also a minor poet, formed an artists circle, a small community of writers who in early Victorian times earned Eyam the rather grandiose title of ‘The Athens of the Peak’.

In the twentieth century well known local writer and historian Clarence Daniel wrote many books on Derbyshire including ‘The Story of Eyam Plague’, which included a guide to the village. He was also the founder and curator of the original museum which he and his wife ran from their home, Le Roc.

The splendid Miners Arms on Water Lane, just off the Square at the east end of the village, is the epitome of the country village pub and Eyam’s only remaining hostelry – four others having closed and converted to private dwellings in recent years.

Modern Eyam is well equipped for residents and visitors alike with a large car park opposite the museum, complete with toilet and washroom facilities, and a variety of retail establishments including a post office, antique and curio shops, gift shops, cafes and local art and craft galleries.

It is the archetypal Peakland village and typifies all that is best about Derbyshire hill villages, with footpaths in almost every direction, either through the village, redolent with age and the unique character of its well preserved and heroic past – or into the equally unique and absorbing surrounding countryside which shelters beneath the benevolent wooded slopes of Eyam Edge.

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Eyam - The famously heroic `Plague' Village

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