Eyam: A 17th century experiment in self-isolation and social distancing
My last post lamented that a minority of my fellow citizens have refused to comply with the social distancing rules brought in to help control the spread of COVID-19, preferring instead to party. Regrettably one of the examples of such behaviour that made the national headlines was in my local area, just a few miles from Platypus Towers.
However it’s not all bad news around here, and I’m pleased to report that one of the most remarkable, selfless acts of social distancing also took place right here in my home county of Derbyshire. Not yesterday, not last week or even last month. No, this extraordinary act of self-sacrifice took place in the picturesque village of Eyam in 1666, an incredible 354 years ago!
The story began in London, in 1665, when the city was ravaged by bubonic plague. The epidemic lasted for 18 months, during which time it’s estimated that 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population – lost their lives.
The traditional narrative of the so-called Great Plague tells us that the disease was transmitted by bites from infected fleas of the Black Rat. However, modern scholars question this, and argue instead that the bacterial infection was spread by human body lice or, perhaps, human fleas. Contact with excrement from those exoparasites may also have contributed to transmission.
In summer 1665 a consignment of cloth was despatched from London was to the remote village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District, a journey north of around 160 miles taking perhaps 10 days. The cloth arrived damp, and tailor Alexander Hadfield instructed his assistant George Viccars to sort through and dry it. A few days later Viccars was the first Eyam resident to succumb to the plague, on 7 September 1665.
Recent studies suggest that in heat of summer human body lice and fleas could survive 10 days without feeding, particularly in the humidity of a damp bolt of cloth. Infected human parasites may therefore have passed on the plague to Viccars; alternatively he could have caught the disease from their excrement when sorting through the cloth. Either way, exposure to the bacteria was to prove fatal.
The plague had gained a foothold in Eyam and as time passed more villagers took ill and died, presumably via Viccars’ own body lice or fleas. By the end of 1665 over forty plague deaths had been recorded and the following year, as winter turned to spring, many villagers considered fleeing to somewhere – anywhere – else where they might be safe from the disease.
At this point local clergyman William Mompesson intervened. Recognising that if the villagers fled they could spread the contagion to the nearby towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Bakewell, he determined that the village should isolate itself from the rest of the country. And with that, social distancing and self-isolation – 1666 style – came to Eyam.
The rules of (dis)engagement that Mompesson persuaded villagers to accept were deceptively simple:
- nobody was to enter or leave the village, for any reason
- food supplies would be delivered to drop-off points at the village boundary. Here villagers would leave coins soaked in vinegar to pay for the food delivered by the Earl of Devonshire’s men and others.
- church services would be held outdoors
- the churchyard was to be closed, and the dead buried in fields at the edge of the village
- families would bury their own dead
In effect, the people of Eyam locked themselves away from the rest of the world, and let the disease run its natural course. Without any scientific understanding the plague’s modus operandi, Mompesson had stumbled across a way of containing it and probably saved countless lives in towns and villages surrounding Eyam.
By the time the restrictions were lifted, some 260 villagers had died. The size of the village population before the plague arrived is unclear, but it’s likely that at least a third of its inhabitants – and perhaps a much bigger proportion – died during the lockdown. Sadly, rector Mompesson’s wife was one of the victims.
At the height of the outbreak – in August 1666 – a total of 78 people died. That month Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her seven children over a period of eight days. The spot where she interred them – in an unremarkable field on a hill some way out of the village – remains a poignant reminder of a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of Eyam.
The historical record is such that we can go beyond mere numbers, and understand the human cost of Eyam’s decision to isolate itself. The death of Mompesson’s wife and the tragedy of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are two examples. A third is the story 22-year-old Emmott Sydall, who was engaged to marry a lad from the next village.
When the restrictions were imposed Emmot was no longer permitted to get up close and personal with her fiancé. Instead the two star-crossed lovers had to content themselves with rendezvousing at an agreed spot at the edge of the village, to stare lovingly into one another’s eyes from a safe distance. But one day the ritual ceased abruptly, and Emmott never went there again. The plague had taken her.
Mompesson lost his wife, but achieved his goal. Although Eyam was ravaged and achieved notoriety – even today it is known as the Plague Village – the outbreak did not spread beyond its boundaries to surrounding settlements. From the broader perspectives of history and epidemiology, Mompesson’s 17th experiment in social distancing can therefore be regarded as a success.
I doubt, however, that Elizabeth Hancock or Emmott Sydall’s fiancé saw it that way. There are losers, as well as winners, in any experiment with social distancing and self-isolation.
Every August, on the last Sunday of the month, Eyam holds a memorial service to recognise the sacrifices of those who died in 1666 so that others might continue living. They call it Plague Sunday.
I wonder how we, as a society, will remember those who have lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19?