Any tourist visiting the beautiful village of Eyam for the first time, not knowing of its tragic history, rapidly becomes aware by reading the plaques on the walls of buildings. The people of this village once endured an epic struggle. In a period of only just over 12 months, from September 1665, 260 people died from the plague out of a population of about 800.
The plague started when George Vicars, a tailor, was lodging in one of the cottages next to the church. A packet of cloth arrived, but as it was damp after its long journey from London, he spread it out in front of the fire to dry. This released fleas concealed in the parcel, which were carriers of bubonic plague germs. The death of George Vicars was sudden, others soon followed, and the villagers started to panic.
Some families fled, but as the disease seemed to be abating during the winter others remained, only for the plague to intensify during the following spring. The Rector of Eyam, William Mompesson and his predecessor Rev Thomas Stanley persuaded the villagers to accept strict quarantine arrangements to prevent the spread of the disease. Neighbouring villages left provisions at agreed pick-up points. Church services were held in Cucklet Delph, where worship could be conducted in the open air to reduce the chance of infection.
When the plague finally was over, whole families had been wiped out and only one sixth of the population remained in Eyam. The plague had been contained within the agreed boundary set by the people of Eyam, but at a dreadful cost.
The church is dedicated to St Lawrence and has been used for worship since Norman times. In the churchyard is a Celtic cross well over 1,000 years old, probably once used as a preaching cross. Close by is the tomb of Catherine Mompesson, who bravely stayed with her husband during the plague, but did not survive the epidemic. Only a few other plague victims are buried in the churchyard; as the plague took hold they agreed to bury the dead close to where they died to contain the infection.
Lead mining in the area dates back to Roman times and reached a high in the 18th century. By the beginning of the next century, however, lead extraction had become less profitable and more and more miners turned to an alternative source of income. Surprisingly, this came mainly from the spoil heaps discarded by the lead miners, with the discovery of the uses to which fluorspar and barytes could be put. Quarrying was also important and limestone extraction in the area continues to this day.
Manufacturing has been important in Eyam in the past and manufacturers in adapting to changing trends showed a great deal of skill and initiative. After the cotton spinning industry hit problems, silk-weaving looms were introduced. This brought prosperity to the village in the 19th century.
Ralph Wain, an illiterate silk worker, invented a process that repeated the design on both sides of the fabric. Unfortunately, he sold the invention to a firm in Macclesfield, who patented it and reaped the rewards.
The decline of silk manufacturing led to the introduction of shoe making. Soon three factories were in production as well as a small cottage industry making shoes. In the mid-1900s around 200 people were involved - children’s shoes and slippers being a speciality. Cheap foreign shoes eventually forced the closure of the last shoe-making factory over 20 years ago.
Another example of innovative thinking came when Eyam set up one of the first public water supply systems of any village in the country. Using natural springs a series of stone troughs were set up and water piped through the village.
Eyam Hall, built in 1671, has remained in the Wright family ever since. This fine old house is now open to the public for conducted tours. The out buildings round the attractive courtyard have been turned into craft shops, together with café and gift shop. Opposite are the village stocks, where at one time you might have found a lead miner imprisoned by the Barmote Court for a mining offence. At the other end of the village, the barbaric sport of bull baiting used to take place and the Bull Ring is still on view in the square.
Townend Factory, at the west end of the village, has been used for many different purposes over the years. Standing nearby is Marshall Howe’s Cottage. He was the self-appointed sexton, who buried the dead during the plague and raided their homes as a way of payment. The Olde House, built in 1615, was once the home of the poet Richard Furness. In Rock Square is Margaret Blackwell’s House. She recovered from the plague by accidentally drinking hot bacon fat!
At the end of August each year Eyam Wakes and Well Dressings, take place. A Plague Commemoration Service takes place on the Sunday and the following Saturday there is a carnival and sheep roast.
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PLACES OF SPECIAL INTEREST IN THE LOCALITY
Eyam Hall (Tel. 01433 631976) a fascinating 17th century manor house that has been the home of the Wright family for over 300 years. For further information website: www.eyamhall.com
Eyam Hall Craft Centre (Tel. 01433 631976) a working craft centre situated in the old farm buildings to the hall. Restaurant and gift shop. Open every day 10.30-4.30pm except Mondays.
Eyam Museum (Tel. 01433 631371) tells the dramatic story of the bubonic plague outbreak that so decimated the inhabitants of the village in 1665/6. Local geology, archaeology and social and industrial development are all covered in this excellent little museum. For further information website: www.eyam.org.uk
The Miners Arms (Tel. 01433 630853) a lovely 17th century pub with a cosy public bar, beamed ceilings and stone fireplace. Said to have several ghosts, and was once the meeting place of the Barmote Court where lead mining disputes were settled. Restaurant and outside seating. Accommodation. Open everyday for bar meals during the summer, please check for winter arrangements.
Eyam Tea Rooms (Tel. 01433 630725) popular with visitors for many years and following a short period of closure has now re-opened. Deceptively spacious inside and with additional seating outside. Take away meals can be provided. Alcohol served on the premises. Accommodation available. Open every day in high season 9.30-5pm. At other times opening may vary.
THE DISCOVER DERBYSHIRE AND THE PEAK DISTRICT GUIDE
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This walk provides splendid scenery and regular reminders of the terrible hardships endured by the people of Eyam during the plague.
On the outward journey the Boundary Stone, where neighbouring villagers left supplies during the plague is passed.
On the return journey the Riley Graves and Mompesson's Well are visited.
In Eyam Churchyard rests the grave of Catherine Mompesson, the wife of the rector, the 220th victim of the plague.
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