Eyam – The Village of the Damned.

As the road meanders northwards, deeper into the hills of Northern England, the hills press in on every side and then start to tower over you, turn the corner, and there is a row of stone houses on either side of the narrow one lane thread of a road, with the buildings pressed hard back against the hill, the thread of a road winding between them, you have just arrived in Eyam, and it looks much like as it has for generations.  But back on the 1 November 1666 farm worker Abraham Morten gasped his final breath – the last of 260 people to die from bubonic plague in the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam. Their fate had been sealed four months earlier when the entire village made the remarkable decision to quarantine itself in an heroic attempt to halt the spread of the Great Plague. This is the story of the villagers who refused to run away.

Abraham was in his late 20s when he died. He was one of 18 Mortens listed as plague victims on the parish register.  But the story of the plague in Eyam had begun 14 months earlier, with the arrival of a bale of cloth sent from London, where the disease had already killed thousands of inhabitants.  Contained in the bale of damp cloth were fleas carrying the plague?  A tailor’s assistant called George Viccars was said to have opened the bale and hung the cloth in front of the hearth to dry, unwittingly stirring the disease-ridden fleas contained within the parcel.  He became the first of the plague’s victims in the village.

The pestilence swept through the community. Between September and December 1665, 42 villagers died and by the spring of 1666, many were on the verge of fleeing their homes and livelihoods to save themselves.  It was at this point that the newly appointed rector, William Mompesson, intervened. Believing it his duty to prevent the plague spreading to the nearby towns of Sheffield and Bakewell, he decided the village should be quarantined.

However, as if persuading his parishioners to sacrifice their lives was not difficult enough, he had another problem – he was already deeply unpopular with the villagers.  He had been sent to Eyam in April 1664 after the previous rector, Thomas Stanley, was removed.   Mompesson, realising he would need help, decided to reach out to Stanley in the hope that he could persuade the villagers to carry out his plan.  “However, they agreed to meet and the plan they devised was remarkable.”  On 24 June 1666, Mompesson told his parishioners that the village must be enclosed, with no-one allowed in, or out.  He said the Earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby at Chatsworth, had offered to send food and supplies if the villagers agreed to be quarantined.

Mompesson said if they agreed to stay – effectively choosing death – he would do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering and remain with them, telling them he was willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see nearby communities decimated.  His wife, Catherine, recorded in her diary: that with help from Stanley – who had stated that a “cordon sanitaire” was the most effective way of dealing with the plague – the remaining villagers reluctantly agreed to the plan.

Plague facts


  • Plague has a case-fatality ratio of 30%-60% if left untreated
  • It was known as the “Black Death” during the 14th Century, causing an estimated 50 million deaths
  • People infected with plague usually develop “flu-like” symptoms after an incubation period of 3-7 days
  • There are three forms of plague infection depending on the route of infection: Bubonic, Septicaemic and Pneumonic. Bubonic, characterised by painful swollen lymph nodes or ‘buboes’, is the most common form
  • Plague still is endemic in many countries. The three most endemic countries are Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru
  • In 2013, there were 783 cases reported worldwide, including 126 deaths

Source: World Health Organisation

August 1666 saw the highest number of victims, reaching a peak of five or six deaths a day. The weather was remarkably hot that summer, which meant the fleas and rats were more active, and the pestilence spread unchecked throughout the village, despite this, hardly anyone broke the cordon; even those who were reluctant to stay, saw it through.

Another plague survivor, forced to bury his own family, was Marshall Howe.  As the number of victims increased, and entire families were wiped out, Howe was tasked with the job of burying them. He was infected during the early stages of the outbreak, but survived, believing he could not be infected twice.  However, the worst of the pestilence was over. The number of cases fell in September and October, and by 1 November the disease had gone. The cordon had worked.  In just over a year, 260 of the village’s inhabitants, from no fewer than 76 different families, had died.  However, Mompesson knew his actions, and the courage of his parishioners, had probably saved many thousands more.

This brings to mind another “cordon sanitaire” and this is the one that is still in lock down, and we all live inside that cordon, and that is the one on “Planet Earth.”  Scripture gives us these, “For all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God,” “And the wages of sin is death.” And many more such verses on the same theme.  Jesus Christ, broke through the “cordon sanitaire” to live with us and to show us a much better way, a way free from sin and death, but it cost him his own life on Calvary.  Was he successful?  Totally Victorious, and through his selflessness, many have come to “Eternal Life” and many more have been given the opportunity to escape Real Death and move to Real Life.  1 Corinthians 15:51-58 MSG “51-57 But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:

Death swallowed by Triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?

It was sin that made death so frightening and law-code guilt that gave sin its leverage, its destructive power. But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God!  58 With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.”  Dear Reader; the Plague of “Sin and Death” has about run its course, rescue is imminent, hang in there, stay committed to Jesus Christ, by Prayer and Good Works, Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.