Eyam, known as the Plague Village, is in a beautiful setting, eight hundred feet up in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District. It is situated six miles north of Bakewell. When visiting Eyam, it is difficult not to become emotionally affected after learning of the heroic efforts of the villagers, over three hundred and fifty years ago, to prevent the Great Plague from spreading to the rest of Derbyshire. The disease had spread from London, where the Great Plague had already killed thousands of people. A parcel of cloth from London was opened by George Viccars, the tailor’s assistant, in August 1665. He unwittingly released rat fleas from the cloth, whilst drying it in front of the fire and he quickly became the first victim in Eyam to die on 7th September 1665. The disease quickly spread. In a fourteen month period in 1665/1666, two hundred and sixty villagers died from bubonic plague. The last recorded plague death in the village, was that of Abraham Morten, on 1st November 1666.
William Mompesson, the Rector of Eyam and his predecessor, Thomas Stanley, who still lived in Eyam, persuaded the inhabitants not to leave the village. The villagers bravely quarantined themselves, in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. From June 1666, nobody was allowed in or out of Eyam. To avoid any contact with anyone from outside Eyam, people from neighbouring villages left food and medicine at a well, which has become known as Mompesson’s Well. In return, money was left there washed in vinegar, which was thought to destroy infection. Mompesson left Eyam soon after the plague ended for a new parish in Nottinghamshire, remarried in 1670 and died in 1709. There are many harrowing tales of tragedies suffered by villagers. Elizabeth Hancocke had to bury six of her children and her husband, in August 1666. All had died in an eight day period. She buried them in a field near their farm, which was Riley Farm. The Riley Graves can be seen west of the village. Strangely, Elizabeth survived the plague. Funerals were not held in order to avoid villagers becoming close to each other.
St. Lawrence’s Church partly dates from the 12th century and stands on a Saxon foundation. The church contains a register of plague victims and a chair used by William Mompesson. The church was closed during the period of the plague to avoid the disease spreading. Mompesson preached in the open air from a rock in a natural cavern, which has become known as Cucklet Delf, or Cucklet Church. In the churchyard is the magnificent Celtic Cross, erected during the 8th century. Apart from the tomb of William Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, who died in August 1666 aged 27, there are not any graves of plague victims to be seen in the churchyard. To control infection, people buried their own dead close to their homes, rather than in consecrated ground. Cottages display commemorative plaques, listing those family members who perished.
Eyam has a single pub, The Miners Arms, in Water Lane. It was built in 1630 and was originally called The King’s Head, but it changed when the owners of the local lead mines held regular meetings there. Eyam Museum in Hawkhill Road, occupies a building which was once a Methodist Chapel. The Museum not only tells the story of the actions of the villagers, but also the rebirth of the village less than a century later, when Ralph Wain invented a method of reproducing silk designs. The Townhead Factory Silk Mill, was built in 1735. Eyam Hall is a 17th century manor house and has been the home of the Wright family for over three hundred and fifty years.
Eyam was one of the first villages in the country to have a public supply of water. In 1588, twelve sets of stone troughs were built and water was piped to the troughs. Richard Furness, ‘the Poet of Eyam’, was born in Eyam in 1791, but composed most of his poetry after he left the village. Eyam celebrates ancient Derbyshire traditions. On the Village Green every first Saturday in September, a Sheep Roast is held. On the last Saturday in August, the village has the Well Dressing Festival. There is an annual Plague Commemoration Service held on the last Sunday in August. Eyam is mentioned in the Domesday Book as, Aiune, but became Eyham in the 13th century, meaning “place between streams”.