• 人不相近人長久|戴啟思
  • 2020-05-04    


Social Distancing and Quarantine in 1666

Eyam is an English village in the Peak District National Park, a hilly and rugged area close to the cities of Manchester to the North West and Sheffield to the East. Its population is about one thousand, just two hundred more than it was in the middle of the Seventeenth Century.

It is a pretty village but is easily overlooked by travellers going North. It has one claim to fame that makes it significant today. Three hundred and fifty years ago, the village’s inhabitants carried out the first known modern act of voluntary communal self-isolation to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague.

The bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, first identified in Hong Kong by a Swiss/French doctor who treated infected persons when there was a local epidemic at the start of the last century. He discovered that the source of infection was a rat flea which would transmit the bacterium when it attempted to feed on a mammalian host. Before then, it was a medical mystery how the plague spread.

The bubonic plague came to England in 1665. It had deadly effect in London which had a population of about 380,000. It killed about thirty-five percent of that number. There were outbreaks of plague in the areas surrounding London where people had fled to seek refuge, but the pestilence was not widespread in the country as a whole.

The plague came to Eyam, 160 miles from London, through simple commercial transaction. A tailor had ordered a bale of cloth from London. The consignment arrived in late August 1665. The tailor’s assistant, George Viccars, noticed that the cloth was damp, and he sought to dry it before an open fire.

The cloth contained the microscopic eggs of infected fleas and the warmth stimulated them and caused an infestation. Within a couple of days, the assistant was dead. Forty more villagers died before the end of the year.

The villagers knew that the deaths were a result of the plague. Very old men and women had a recollection of outbreaks of plague about fifty years before. They waited for the cold winter weather to suppress the pestilence-then thought to travel through the air-and infections to cease.

Winter came and went with no extraordinary deaths, but plague deaths resumed with the warmer Spring weather.

The villagers were frightened. They had four or five months of warm weather before temperatures started dropping again in the Autumn. More deaths would be inevitable. Many of them made plans to leave Eyam to lodge with friends and relatives in neighbouring villages. It was at this juncture that two religious leaders intervened.

After a civil war in the 1640’s the Government of England had been without a king and was in the hands of men who subscribed to a strict form of Christian worship that was ‘pure’ in every way. ‘Puritan’ clergymen were appointed to churches to give proper instruction to their flocks. King Charles II returned to England in 1660 and restored the privileges of loyal clergymen. The new Government turned out of office the Puritan clergy.

The result was that in towns and villages throughout the country there were communities that were split along issues of faith and politics, with many men living next to other men who had fought on opposite sides in the Civil War.

Eyam was no different. The ‘official’ Church of England priest was the Rector of St Lawrence’s Church called William Mompesson. He had come to Eyam in 1664 having displaced the Puritan clergyman called Thomas Stanley. Stanley lived in the village and continued to provide ‘unofficial’ spiritual guidance to some villagers that preferred the old Puritan ways.

Despite their deep doctrinal differences-like ‘Blue’ and ‘Yellow’ nowadays-the two clergymen came together in June 1666 and pleaded that the villagers swallow a bitter draught and that they should not leave the village until the plague had run its course. They foresaw the calamitous consequences of an infected villager reaching Sheffield, then a small town of a few thousand, and only 15 miles away.

They set out rules for quarantine. Villagers needed to stay a distance from their neighbours. They should not congregate in groups for social occasions, even for worship. They should also set up markers on the village precincts to warn would-be visitors to go no further and to leave gifts of food and other provisions there.

The villagers endured the self-regulated lock-down until November 1666 when Abraham Morten died, the last victim of the plague. Over 250 people had predeceased him in the preceding 15 months, about one third of Eyam’s population.

In that time no-one had left but the burial ground of the church had filled to capacity and burial of the dead took place in nearby fields. The rule was that family members buried their own dead. One woman buried six of her children and her husband in the space of a week.

At the height of a very hot summer, five or six people died every day. Rector Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, died at the age of 27 a day after an excursion to a nearby hillside to take the air.

The plague has left its mark on Eyam, known as ‘the plague village’. The graves of plague victims can still be seen in the churchyard and in the surrounding fields. A cottage whose occupants were hit hard by the plague is commemorated on a plaque as ‘the Plague cottage’ where five victims died. There is also a well to the north-east of the village where food was left for the villagers who left coins in payment in well water mixed with vinegar to cleanse them.

Some stone markers of the village boundary are still in place. A small natural amphitheatre on the side of a nearby hill marks the place where families went to stand apart from each other and listen to the Rector holding religious services in those distant but deadly summer months.

The story of Eyam and the plague is remarkable for the display of communal self-discipline coupled with self-sacrifice. The villagers obeyed a higher law than a man-made law when they cut themselves off from the rest of the world so that the outside world might be saved from them.

Younger people have a chance to engage with the story of Eyam. In 1970 the writer Don Taylor wrote a play about Eyam in 1665-1666 called ‘The Roses of Eyam’. (‘Roses’ was the name given to reddish bruising that appeared on the skin to mark the onset of plague infection.)

The play has about 15 main speaking parts and about 30 other parts and is ideal for community and school theatres and it has been included in English-speaking school examination papers because of its suitability. It has been regularly performed over the past forty years and will certainly be performed again in the years to come.

If you scour the internet you may be able to come across an excellent 1973 BBC production of the play which has been praised as one of the best television productions of a modern play.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.


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