The Eyam Plague

This is an article I’m putting in the latest Swinnerton Saga, the thrice yearly magazine of my father’s family history society that has been going since 1974. The edition is nearing completion as far as the editing goes, but I thought I’d share it now – you’ll soon see why!

“I thought it would be appropriate in these times of worldwide infection to retell a story from the Great Plague of the 1660s, and discovered the story of the Eyam Plague in a very early Saga, Vol. 2 No.3, April 1976 in fact, when the Saga was still the four page newsletter ‘Swinnerton Family History’. The story really couldn’t be more appropriate to our current situation, to be honest!

“Mr. RAYMOND SWINNERTON of Bolton last year paid a visit to Eyam, Nr. Sheffield and discovered that some of the family were involved in the famous act of self-sacrifice of 1665. The following extract from “The Parish Church of Eyam – A Little Guide for Visitors” by Ernest M. Turner, MA. B. Litt. Rector of Eyam 1946-1975, tells the story.

Eyam is also famous for an event which took place 300 years ago and which has stirred the hearts of men ever since. This was the visitation to the village by the Great Plague from London at the end of August 1665. The story unfolds how a parcel of cloth was brought by carrier from London and set down at the door of the local tailor, a man called George Viccars, who lived at a cottage still standing just west of the Churchyard.

Unfortunately, the cloth had become infected with the Plague germs before being despatched and the tailor soon became the Plague’s first victim in Eyam.

At this stage it would have been easy for the remainder of the inhabitants to seek safety in flight. Had they done so they might have been responsible for spreading the Plague over a large part of the North of England and it is to their eternal glory that, acting under the inspired leadership of two men, William Mompesson, rector of Eyam, and Thomas Stanley, who had been his immediate predecessor but had become a Nonconformist on his refusal to subscribe to the Act of Uniformity, the inhabitants voluntarily cut themselves off from contact with the outside world, so that the pestilence should not spread elsewhere.

It meant death for many of them, for during the 15 months that the Plague did its dread work, 260 persons perished out of a presumed total population of 350. In the fields in and around Eyam you can see mute memorials to that sad time in the form of tombstones erected over victims who were buried near the places where they died, e.g. the Riley Graves, where members of the Hancock family lie buried, and the Lydgate Graves, in the village.

In the Church you can see the pulpit from which Mompesson preached, the so-called “Plague Cupboard”, a fine chair which belonged to Mompesson, and a copy of the Plague Register, while in the Churchyard there is the notable tombstone of Catherine Mompesson, wife of the heroic rector.

Mompesson and Stanley both survived the Plague, Mompesson becoming rector of Eakring, in Notts. where he remained for 38 years, and Stanley dying in Eyam in 1670.

During the summer of 1965 there was a special tercentenary commemoration of this great act of heroism by a whole community.

On the Roll of Honour listing the victims of the plague appear:

ANNE SWINNERTON – August 4th 1666

ABRAHAM SWINNERTON – August 8th 1666

MARGARET SWINNERTON – August 14th 1666

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