In 1665, the people in the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam realised that their village had become infected with the bubonic plague.
Fleas infected with the disease had been brought to the village in a bundle of damp cloth from London. The tailor who unpacked the cloth and hung it to dry in front of a fire was the first person in the village to catch the deadly plague. He died in agony a few days later in September 1665.
By Christmas a further 42 people died in the village. By 1666 many were preparing to leave the village to save themselves.
However, the vicar of Eyam, the Rev. William Mompesson, decided to act. He could see the disaster that would be caused if the infectious disease was carried by escaping villagers to the nearby towns or the city of Sheffield.
So Mompesson gathered the whole village together and made an appeal to everyone to quarantine themselves. He told his parishioners that to avoid many more people dying the village must be enclosed, with no-one allowed in, or out.
The vicar promised the village that if they agreed to stay he would do everything he could to support them in their suffering. He said he was willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see the whole county devastated.
Remarkably, Mompesson was successful. His appeal to the villagers worked. Despite understandable reluctance, everyone in Eyam agreed to stay within the confines of the village as the plague took hold of their community.
By summer 1666 the death toll in the village reached a peak of five or six deaths a day. The hot summer meant the fleas were more active and this quickened the spread of the plague. Despite the grim circumstances and the horrible deaths hardly anyone broke the agreement.
In August, one woman, Elizabeth Hancock, buried six of her children and her husband who all died within just eight days. People from the neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton stood on the hill and watched her burying them without being able to do anything to help.
In his letters, Mompesson described the smell of “sadness and death” in the air. His wife Catherine tended to many of the dying and in doing so contracted the plague while helping others. On 22 August 1666, the vicar and his wife went for a walk together and she commented on the ‘sweet smell’ in the air. She died the following morning, aged 27.
Fear and hope
The current vicar of Eyam, Mike Gilbert, said “When you read Mompesson’s letters, he writes ‘I am a dying man’…He was scared but he did it all the same. There was definitely that hope of heaven that kept them going, but it was phenomenally difficult.”
However, as Autumn came cases the plague reduced and by November the disease had gone. The quarantine had worked. But Eyam bore a heavy cost.
In just over a year, 260 of the village’s inhabitants, from 76 different families, had died. This was estimated to be between 40-50% of the village’s total population. The mortality rate was far higher than anywhere else in the country – but vitally, the plague did not spread beyond the village.
Remarkably, Mompesson did survive. He left Eyam in 1669 to minister in another village in Nottinghamshire. But such was the reputation of the “plague village” where so many had died that he struggled to be accepted.
Today, the world is facing a virus which has already killed thousands of people and will kill many more. We cannot make simplistic parallels between what happened in Eyam and what we face today. But we can learn from the example of William Mompesson and the villagers of Eyam:
Leadership. Mompesson’s clarity and bravery inspired others in a common cause. In today’s situation, we need national and local leaders who can remain calm and show courageous leadership in the challenges we will face.
Compassion. The root meaning of compassion is ‘to suffer with’. Mompesson, his wife Catherine and the whole village decided to suffer together. In today’s crisis, we will need to think of the common good rather than everyone just look to their own interests.
Sacrifice. Mompesson motivated people to sacrifice themselves for others who they did not know. Many paid the ultimate price in showing a love that went beyond boundaries.
Faith: All of the qualities they showed were rooted in a faith and hope more powerful than the threat of death. Together they embodied Jesus’ words:
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:12)
The times we are living in are anxiety-inducing. Such times can bring out the worst in people: selfishness, panic, ignoring the needs of others, spreading fear and misinformation.
But they can also bring out the best in people. Let’s hope that in the coming weeks we can see the kind of leadership, compassion, sacrifice and faith shown by the remarkable vicar and villagers of Eyam.