Friday, August 21, 2015

A Poignant Visit to Eyam

Street in Eyam

I've never been to a place like Eyam (pronounced Eem). It is impossible to know how many people owe a debt to the brave people of Eyam, and their story is a remarkable one.

In late August 1665, plague came to the town. Apparently, it arrived when the local tailor, George Viccars, received a bolt of cloth from London. Because the cloth was damp, he hung it in front of the fire to dry, unwittingly releasing the plague-infested fleas that clung to the cloth.  On September 7, George Viccars died, the first victim.  Before long, the plague begin to claim life after life, and by the end of October, more than 23 had died.

Today, when you visit Eyam, you can see the plague houses where so many families died.

But the deaths aren't what is most noteworthy about Eyam. When it became apparent that the plague was spreading, the rector, William Mompesson called the people together and proposed that the town quarantine itself to keep the scourge from spreading to nearby villages.  The townsfolk agreed, though some left before the quarantine went into effect. The rector, like many others, sent his children away to relatives. But for 14 months, the town kept its self-imposed exile until the plague had finally run its course. By then 260 out of 350 people had died.

During the quarantine, the nearby town of Stoney Middleton provided food and other goods to Eyam. The villagers left coins that had been soaked in vinegar (to disinfect them) in the holes of a boundary stone on the outskirts, where the people of Stoney Middleton left the supplies.

The boundary stone
One of the saddest stories is that of two young lovers, Emmott Sydall  of Eyam, and Rowland Torre of Stoney Middleton. They originally met in the village, but they soon realized that meeting there was dangerous and could spread the plague. So they agreed to meet at the boundary stone and simply look at each other from a distance, never touching.  Every day, the lovers came, until one day in April 1666, Emmott did not show up. Rowland, worried but unwilling to give up hope, continued to come to the meeting place until late 1666, when the quarantine was lifted. He was one of the first to enter Eyam, but he discovered his beloved Emmott had died in April, a day or two after he had last seen her.

In the church in Eyam, there is a stained-glass window that commemorates the plague and the villagers' sacrifice.  In the lower right panel of the window, Emmott and Rowland are represented, standing at a stream, looking across at each other.

The church in Eyam

All of Emmott's family died, except her youngest brother. The Reverend Mompesson's wife, who had stayed to nurse the sick, also caught the plague and died. The rector lived, later remarried, and moved to another village.

Maybe it's because these are not nameless people, or maybe it's because of their selfless sacrifice, but the humanity of those people who lived so long ago still resonates. I don't think it's possible to visit Eyam and not feel moved by their stories.

There is also some intriguing evidence that what infected Eyam was not bubonic plague, but some other fast-acting agent. But the evidence is still unclear.  Regardless, the visit to Eyam is something I will not soon forget.

This is a plague doctor's mask and cape meant to keep him from getting infected.
I seriously doubt that it worked! I'm sorry that it's not a little more clear, but it was taken
at the excellent Eyam plague museum and the lighting was low.

1 comment: