02 March 2020

Learning to keep cool
when everyone panics

The Tapestry in Eyam Museum recalling the brave and sacrificial story of the plague in 1665/1666

Patrick Comerford

1, Panic or Pandemic:

A lot of people are panicking about the Coronavirus – or COVID-19.

They are worrying that this going to lead to a pandemic, an epidemic that spreads everywhere.

Sometimes, fear is worse that the thing we fear the most.

So, panic about an epidemic can lead to pandemonium.

What are you afraid of?

In the past we have had plant of scares like this: public panic was created in the past by swine fever, SARS, fear of the HIV virus, ‘Mad Cow’ disease, Ebola, a fictitious computer virus called YK2.

It has always like this. There was ‘Spanish ’Flu’ 100 years ago. Hundreds of years ago there the plague.

When COVID-19 has run its course, we may find that more people have died in this winter ’flu from ordinary, everyday ’flu.

This morning, I want to tell you of one case, long ago, when isolation seems to have worked?

Canon William Mompesson … the Vicar of Eyam, the ‘Plague Village’ in Derbyshire

2, The vicar who was a hero

Many years ago, when I was a young man in my 20s, I spent a day or two in Eyam, a village in Derbyshire.

In 1665, 350 people were living in Eyam. The most important person in the village was the Rector, the Revd William Mompesson (1639-1709), who moved to Eyam a year before (1664) with his wife Catherine and their children.

But, to this day, Eyam is known to this day as the ‘Plague Village.’

The village has this name because of an outbreak of the plague in 1665.

The villagers decided to respond by isolating themselves rather than let the infection spread.

The sacrifice made by the villagers of Eyam is said to have saved many places throughout the Midlands and northern England.

The Tapestry in Eyam Museum recalling the brave and sacrificial story of the plague in 1665/1666

3, The plague comes to Eyam

In the summer of 1665, the village tailor received a flea-infested bundle of cloth from his supplier in London. This parcel contained the fleas that caused the plague. Within a week, the tailor’s assistant, George Vicars, had died from the plague. More began dying in the household soon after; by the end of September, five more villagers had died; 23 died in October.

As the plague spread, the villagers turned to their rector CanonMompesson. When some villagers wanted to flee to Sheffield, Canon Mompesson feared they would bring the plague with them and persuaded them to cut themselves off from the outside would.

From May 1666, precaution measures were introduced to slow the spread of the plague. Families buried their own dead and church services were moved outdoors (to the natural amphitheatre at Cucklett Delph), allowing villagers to separate themselves and reduce the risk of infection.

The villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves although this would mean certain death for many of them. The village was supplied with food by people living outside who left supplies at the ‘plague stones’ marking the boundary that separated Eyam from the outside world.

The villagers left money in a water trough filled with vinegar to sterilise the coins. In this way, the people of Eyam were not left to starve to death, and the people who supplied the village with food did not come into contact with the plague.

Eyam continued to suffer from the plague throughout 1666. Canon Mompesson had to bury his own family in the churchyard. When his wife died in August 1666, he decided to hold services outdoors to reduce the chances of people catching the disease.

Eyam Hall, built shortly after the plague (Photograph: Dave Pape/Wikipedia)

4, Surviving the plague

By November 1666, the plague had come to an end. In all, 260 out of 350 villagers had died in Eyam. But their selfless sacrifice saved many thousands of lives in the north of England.

Canon Mompesson survived. He wrote at the end of the ordeal: ‘Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over for none have died of the plague since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty.’

The plague had run its course over 14 months. But when it came to an end it had killed most of the villagers. The parish records name 273 people who died Only 83 people survived out of a population of over 350.

Those who survived did so randomly and there is no explanation for their survival. Many of the survivors had close contact with those who died yet never caught the disease.

5, After the plague

Canon Mompesson eventually remarried, moved parish, and died in 1709.

Every Plague Sunday, a wreath is laid on Catherine Mompesson’s grave in the churchyard. Plague Sunday now takes place on the last Sunday in August.

One of his successor’s was Canon Thomas Seward (1708-1790), who was the Rector of Eyam for half a century from 1740 until his death in 1790.

His daughter was a famous poet Anna Seward, who was born in Eyam in 1747. Some of her poems are about her childhood memories in Eyam.

The former Bishop’s Palace in Lichfield, where Anna Seward, wrote her poems about the ‘plague village’ of Eyam in Derbyshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

6, Some lessons

1, The people of Eyam not only isolated themselves: they took simple measures like putting their coins in vinegar. Two of the most simple and most sensible things you can do is to keep washing your hands – all the time – with soap and hot water, and remember to us a tissue and bin it when you sneeze.

2, All bad things come to pass.

3, Panic is usually worse than what we fear

4, Some good people make sacrifices in their own lives for the good of others

5, Our own good is not our only priority

6, When people make sacrifices so that other people can live, it can remind us what Jesus does for us on Good Friday

These notes were prepared for a school assembly on 2 March 2020

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