After the Great Plague of London broke out in 1665, 100,000 people (almost a quarter of the population) were dead within seven months. Those who could afford it fled the capital to escape the pestilence. But distance was no protection, as villagers 160 miles away in Eyam, Derbyshire, were to discover.
When George Viccars, the village tailor, took delivery of a bale of cloth from London, he found it to be damp and hung it out to dry by a fire. He had no idea that by doing so he was introducing death into the community.
Viccars was unaware that fleas from rats caused the plague and that his cloth was infested with them. Within a week he was dead. By the end of the month five other villagers had died and another 23 fell victim in the following month.
And then a legend was created. After fatalities mounted, the church leader, William Mompesson, who was born on this day, 28th April, in 1639, took the courageous decision to isolate the village from the outside world, thus preventing the spread of the disease.
Some of the villagers wanted to flee, but Mompesson, working with another clergyman, Thomas Stanley, was the driving force in persuading them to stay. The quarantine was a momentous decision by the villagers who knew that they might well be giving their own lives to save others.
Grateful outsiders brought money, which was left in a water trough containing vinegar to sterilise the coins, and food, which was left it at the boundary of the village. Thus the villagers were not left to starve.
When the plague had finally taken its toll by November 1666, 260 people, out of Eyam’s population of 350, were dead. They included Mompesson’s wife, Caroline.
Their sacrifice may well have saved many thousands of lives in the North of England and the historic episode is still commemorated each year in the village.
Published: April 24, 2016