“He hath, I hear, gained goodwill among his neighbours; for he discovered it himself first, and caused himself to be shut up of his own accord”- Samuel Pepys, June 11th, 1665.
Samuel Pepys wrote these words about Dr Burnet. It was 1665 and the bubonic plague was spreading through London, killing all that came into contact with it. The doctor, upon diagnosing himself with bubonic plague, barricaded himself in his own house so that he might prevent the spread of the disease among his neighbours. By sacrificing himself, he would save many others.
Two months later, in August, 160 miles away in Eyam, George Viccars received a parcel of cloth from London. Noticing that the cloth was a little damp, the tailor removed the fabric from the parcel and hung it in front of the fire so that it may dry a little. Unbeknownst to him, his fabric had been carrying some unwanted guests; fleas. His parcel had brought a deadly visitor to Eyam.
Less than two weeks later, George was dead. He died of the plague that would ravage Eyam and the surrounding villages. By the beginning of November, the following year, 260 inhabitants of Eyam had perished. But their actions saved countless others.
In the two months after George Viccars contracted the plague, 42 villagers had become infected and died with raging fevers and pustulating boils around their groins and armpits. As 1666 arrived, many of the villagers were making preparations to leave. They feared if they stayed they would be condemning themselves and their families to certain death.
It was at this point that rector William Mompesson made the difficult decision to enclose the village. It was June 1666 and Mompesson had made arrangements for food and supplies to be brought to the village after it was quarantined. He told his villagers that he was willing to sacrifice his own life to prevent the spread of the disease to nearby communities.
It wasn’t an easy sell to the remaining villagers. Mompesson was already unpopular. But he was able to persuade the previous rector, the well-respected Thomas Stanley, to endorse his plan. With Stanley championing his cause, he was able to win over the remaining villagers.
The plague tore through the village. One villager, Elizabeth Hancock, buried her husband and all eight of her children in just eight days. She had to undertake the burial duties herself as nobody would help her out of fear of infecting themselves.
The disease claimed its final victim on the 1st of November 1666. Abraham Moreton was the last to die. Before the plague hit, the village had been home to between 300 and 800 inhabitants. 260 of them, from 76 families perished but Eyam’s self-sacrifice had limited the spread of the disease to the surrounding communities.
Today, visitors to Eyam can see George Viccars’ house, the eight graves of Elizabeth Hancock’s family and the well which served as a lifeline to Eyam, where food and supplies were left for the villagers.
On the last Sunday in August, the village of Eyam holds a remembrance service to remember those that died and the sacrifice they made.
The Eyam Museum tells the story.