A Lesson in Quarantine from 1665

We are all fairly knowledgeable about pandemics now. We watch the governments try and advise us on our everyday life, which can sometimes seem confusing, and unreasonable. We have seen medical experts tell us how pandemics and endemics happen, and we see plenty of graphs to try and describe it all. In the course of human history, there have been countless pandemics, some of which are famous, some of which are just documented in niche medical journals. The one we are talking about today is the Bubonic Plague, specifically the black death, which in the space of four years killed half of the population of Eurasia (the land mass made up of Europe and Asia). That equates to somewhere between 75 and 200 million people. For scale, its estimated that around half of Europe’s population died. The total population of the world is estimated to be around 475 million before the Black Death.

A copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (known as Dr Beak), a Plague doctor in 17th Century Rome. This was typical apparel during the 17th century outbreak. It was created in 1656 Paul Fuerst. Credit: Wissen Media

Interestingly, there was not just one large spike of bubonic plague, as most history books simplify it as, there were actually three major recurrences, and to this day there are still a few hundred cases every year, even with a widespread vaccine and treatments available. The Black Death was the name attributed to the second wave of this plague pandemic, and although reaching Europe in 1348, there were still smaller endemics recurring into the 17th century (and smaller outbreaks for a few more centuries). The third plague is also not often mentioned, which started only 150 years ago in the mid 19th century. This post concentrates on the UK in the 17th century, so towards the end of the second wave. When it comes to this part of history, there is a real concentration in the city of London. The Plagues that ravaged the British Isles during the second wave were often named after the city of London. It makes sense for London to be at the heart of these epidemics, as it was a heavily concentrated group of people, in less than sanitary situations on average, very much reliant on each other.

A recreation of a map of London by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1665. Note that this is before the Great Fire of London. Credit: University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection

We also have to remember that in no way was this isolated to London. Being the heart of a country meant travel and trade, meaning that it spread slowly throughout the country, with lots of little epidemics popping up. This leads into the topic of this post. Tucked away in a northern corner of Derbyshire is a small Anglo-Saxon village named Eyam. Lying within the Peak District National Park, at one point it relied on lead mining, all the way back to at least the Romans. There is even evidence of stone circles and earth barrows on the moors above the village which imply earlier settlements. Its name was recorded in the Domesday Book as Aium, which is a dative form of the noun ēg (an island in Middle English). It probably refers to a patch of land where crops could grow in the moors, but the village is also settled between two brooks, Jumber Brooke and Hollow Brooke. The Anglican word ēg often refers to dry ground surrounded by marsh, but can also mean well watered land.

The village of Eyam taken from a nearby hill. Credit: letsgopeakdistrict

On a fateful day in 1665, in the run up to a religious festival called Wake’s Week, a bundle of cloth arrived from London at the local tailors, run by Alexander Hadfield. A week later, his assistant George Viccars noticed the bundle was damp, so opened it up, and hung it by the fire in an attempt to dry it. He didn’t notice that the cloth was infested with fleas, which became much more active with the warmth of the fire. A few days later he woke up with a headache and symptoms that were similar to the flu, so rested more, but soon after that his lymph nodes began to swell up, turn black and within the week he was dead. People in his household, and those of his neighbours were also suffering. The village was in the grip of a pandemic. This is a time before antibiotics, which meant that the plague had a 60% fatality rate. Understandably some people fled in the night, and people started to panic. In the next three months 42 villagers had died. Consider that the population of the village at the start of the year was 350.

Celtic Cross in Eyam churchyard. A Saxon cross, notable as the head still survives, its estimated to be 8th century and was moved to the churchyard from the moor. Credit: Dave Dunford.

In comes the church. Anyone from England will know that every town and village has some sort of church. A town near where I grew up, Shaftesbury, at one point had over 10! So it is safe to say that at this point in time, religion is at the heart of how people live their daily lives. Understandably people looked towards their local priest. Oddly, the local church had replaced Eyam’s very popular rector with another man named William Mompesson. Now, Mompession was no stranger to the plague, and had seen how it spreads fast, and devastates communities. So recruiting his popular predecessor, they came up with a plan to ensure the disease did not spread to the rest of the country and local area. They would put themselves in isolation, and by todays standards, a lockdown. It was a particularly unpopular plan, but a simple one. No one was allowed out of the village.

In front of Eyam Hall – the stocks built in Saxon times for miscreants, felons & thieves of ore from the lead mines to reflect upon their trajectory. Credit: pastmasters

The local lord, the Earl of Devonshire understood the plan, and agreed to send food and supplies to the villagers via a system. The local merchants would bring everything they needed to the edge of the village and leave them at marked rocks for collection. They would then make holes, fill them with vinegar and leave coins in it as payment. The vinegar would act as a disinfectant, shielding the merchants from the infected village folk, a very innovative idea. The isolation started in June 1666, and two months later the disease reached its peak, up to 6 people were dying of the disease every day, that 2% of the population at the start, every single day! Not everybody died though, one of the survivors, Marshall Howe caught the disease early on, but survived. He assumed that he couldn’t get it twice, so took the job of burying the village’s dead, getting paid from the dead persons estate. Unfortunately it resulted in his own wife and 2 year old child dying of the disease.

The Boundary Stone – looking down the valley to the village of Stoney Middleton, money still sits in vinegar as a reminder. Credit: pastmasters.
The Mompesson Well on the edge of Eyam, a place that can still be visited (see links at the bottom of the post) Credit: derbyshire-peakdistrict

There are many horror stories from these few months. There was the farmers wife Elizabeth Hancock, who watched over from a hilltop by those outside the cordon as over a period of eight days, she dragged the bodies of her husband and six children out of the house, burying them in the garden. These graves have since been known as the Riley graves, after the farm where they lived. That can still be visited. Elizabeth herself never got sick. There was also Mompesson, the leader, his wife, just 27 years old was walking with him one day, and the next she was dead. By this time the worst of the pandemic was over. As it went through September, October, November, the disease fizzled out until it had basically disappeared by the end of the year. The last person in the village to die was Abraham Morton, a farmer, and the 18th member of his family to fall to the disease.

The famous Riley graves, where Elizabeth Hancock buried her entire family over an 8 day period at the height of the epidemic.

In all, over 260 people from 76 families died in Eyam that year. This is a disputed number, but the church has records of 273 individuals who were victims. The survival of those who caught the disease appeared to be random, as many of those who survived had contact with those who died. It is unknown quite how much the quarantine helped stop the spread in Derbyshire, but it undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. It is often said how it saved the nearby town of Sheffield, which even then was very large. On many of the cottages there are now plaques, and some of the stones that held the vinegar soaked money still reside around the village. There is also the tradition of the village called “Plague Sunday”, where a memorial wreath is laid on the tomb of Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, on the last Sunday of August every year. A yearly reminder of how isolating at the right time can save countless lives.

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