Every year, this small village in Derbyshire attracts tens of thousands of people! Why? Well, it’s because this village that was once unheard of for many, was supposedly afflicted by a plague in the 17th century.
The story goes that a parcel arrived from London into this small village filled with fine London material for the local tailor, and after being opened by one of the men of the village known as George Viccars, he was struck with illness and later died. At the time, London and surrounding areas were going through what is known in history as the Great Plague of London. It started from a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis causing the death of around 20% of the population of London at the time.
This disease somehow also made its way towards the north of the country to a village called Eyam. Located within the beautiful and often visited Peak District National Park, this was a village which was not really spoken about much. Located between Buxton and Sheffield, it has a mere population of just under 1000 people.
But what made this village so heroic?
Well, it is believed that the residents of the village were some of the first few people who introduced a self-imposed style of quarantine.
Instead of fleeing – which some rich folks of course did like King Charles II who ran away when the Great Plague of London took place – the village folks were wise to impose quarantine upon themselves, recording themselves in history as a selfless community who had impressive leadership. The quarantine by the community of the village was mainly done to limit the spread of the disease. Church services were held in the open air, with villagers social distancing. This self-imposed style of quarantining of Eyam Village is undoubtedly the main reason that it is known and visited (Julian Holloway, April 2017).
This narrative is prettty well known and has been written about in the form of poems, books and many news articles. But how much of the narrative is actually true. In May 2005, Patrick Wallis published a paper discussing the historical narrative in which he mentions that “although the plague of Eyam in 1666 is one of the most famous outbreaks of epidemic disease in British history, the narrative is largely a fiction; produced not by doctors, but by poets, writers, and local historians” He even goes onto mention that “the story was at most a minor anecdote before the last decade of the 18th century” after which it was used as an exemplar for a number of political, cultural and literary trends and processes. Basically, the story started gaining popularity due to being portrayed in poems, novels, plays, musicals, and even in a children’s television drama.
There’s not a lot of evidence suggesting what exactly transpired at the time. But one thing we can say for sure is that the general idea of Eyam Village being afflicted with the plague, basically provides us with bare bones of the version that was popularised in the nineteenth century and which survived for much of the twentieth century. But these bones have themselves been re-arranged and sometimes added to or discarded, while the flesh of the story built upon them has been moulded into even more varied forms.
Whatever the case, the village of Eyam is an interesting place to visit if you’re interested in learning about how the Great Plague of London afflicted other parts of England in the 17th century. The inhabitants the village most likely did consider others and therefore imposed quarantined upon themselves. A selfless group of people, who thought considerately about not harming others.
A huge thanks to the team at the Eyam Museum for showing us around and for all the hard work they put in to make visits interactive and engaging. To learn more, be sure to check out Eyam Museum which provides visitors with a detailed illustrated narrative of what happened back then.