Inspiration from the Last Outbreak of Plague in England

Submitted by John Blankley, former Democratic member of the BET

It was the Fall of 1665 in the village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District of England. People had heard about the terrible outbreak of plague that year in London but there were no signs of outbreak in the north. Change when it came was swift and devastating. The cause was the arrival of a bolt of cloth from London, ordered by the tailor’s assistant, George Viccars. Within three weeks his entire household had died and by the end of the year 42 villagers had perished. The cloth had brought with it rat fleas carrying bubonic plague.

The epidemic abated during the winter but returned with a vengeance the next year and ultimately carried off 350 souls, over half the population of the village. The assumption was that the disease was transmitted in the air or by touch and so the villagers undertook a remarkable initiative. They sealed themselves off from the rest of the district. All agreed not to leave and not to receive visitors. Food was left at a stone boundary half a mile outside the village by local well-wishers supported by the Earl of Devonshire.

The local vicar, William Mompesson and his predecessor, a Puritan minister called Thomas Stanley cast aside a bitter doctrinal division and joined forces to lead the village in the act of self sacrifice. The most painful story is that of Elizabeth Hancock who lost her husband and all six of her children within a mere eight days.

While the confinement isolated the outbreak, the death toll within Eyam was made immeasurably worse by people staying close together. Eyam’s noble sacrifice for the rest of the county came to light in the 19th century and much is still made of this heroic episode in the UK today as towns and whole counties are forced into lockdowns.

The first time I heard of Eyam was in my teens when my great aunt Hannah, a math teacher, started to explore the family tree, long before such endeavor became popular.

She traced our family name back to Derbyshire around 1800 and through a female line to one of those parish priests in Eyam! The story has fascinated me ever since, as have the twin traumas of the mid 1660’s, the Great Plague of 1665 and the fire of London in 1666.

Those days were brought vividly to mind for me some 40 years ago. Sitting in my office in the city of London one morning I became aware of commotion out in the streets and a rapid sense of something extraordinary happening swept round the building. Soon there were police sirens and word went round that the excavation in the lot next door had ceased and very quickly we learnt why. The workers had discovered a so-called plague pit, one of the mass burial sites of the Great Plague of 1665. Such is the nature of London’s clay soil that the dozens of bodies exhumed were preserved as if they had been thrown in the pit that very day. The sight was harrowing and emotional.

I tell these tales in the hope that it will be minatory for the naysayers and recalcitrants in our time, as we in the US fight a global pandemic, that wearing masks and social distancing are a small price to pay to prevent further spread of our own plague, the corona virus. It is not just self preservation but simple respect for fellow citizens.

Untutored villagers a world and time apart from us set an example of community spirit and caring that I wish could be followed all across America.

If national leadership in the US is lacking it is heartening to see elected officials in states and municipalities leading the way. Our own Governor, Ned Lamont and Greenwich’s First Selectman, Fred Camillo, have been models of responsible leadership; political differences put aside for the sake of the common good and common purpose, worthy successors to Mompesson and Stanley!

John Blankley, former Democratic member of the BET.