The History and Antiquities of Eyam

By William Wood (1842)

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2012

TRADITIONS OF THE PLAGUE

When the plague broke out with such tremendous violence in the latter end of the summer of 1665, there lived in a humble straw-thatched cottage, a little west of the church, a very happy and contented family, named Sydall: consisting of husband, wife, five daughters, and one son. The father, son, and four daughters, took the infection and died in the space of twenty-five days, in October, 1665; leaving the hapless mother and one daughter. The mother bad now nothing to render her disconsolate case bearable but her only surviving daughter Emmot; a very modest and handsome village maid. Emmot bad for some time, with her mother's approbation, received the fervent addresses of a youth named Rowland, who resided in Middleton Dale, about a mile south-east of Eyam. He had daily visited her and sympathized with her on the death of her father, brother, and four young sisters. Often and anxiously had she remonstrated with him on the danger of his visits; but nothing could deter him from nightly pacing the devoted village, until the death-breathing pest threatened total desolation to the surrounding country, if intercourse were allowed. The happy scene when Rowland and Emmot were to cast their lots together, had been appointed to take place at the ensuing wakes; and fervently did they pray that the pestilence would cease. The ring, the emblem of endless and unchanging love, had been presented by Rowland to his beloved Emmot; and by her it was treasured as the certain pledge of the fidelity of his love, - of the sincerity of his affection. Frequently would she retire into her chamber, and bring it forth from its sanctuary and place it on her finger; while her eyes sparkled with meaning, - while through those bright portals of her mind, came forth her thoughts in language more eloquent than words. Rowland was seen each morn hasting along the dale to his occupation. Lightsome were his steps; his whistling echoed from rock to rock: and his soul glowed with all the charms of anticipated bliss. Thus this loving pair indulged in dreaming of future happiness; thus they cherished the fond hope of connubial joy, on the very eve of separation!

Towards the latter end of April, 1666, the lovely Emmot was seized by the terrific pest, and hurried to her grave on the thirtieth of the same month. Rowland heard a brief rumour of the dreadful tidings and his hopes were scattered. The brand of general abhorrence with which he would be marked if he, at that period of the pestilence, attempted to venture into the deathful village, debarred him from ascertaining the fate of his Emmot. Often, however, would his love and dreadful anxiety urge him to cross the fearful bound - the horrible circle of death. But, to bring the pestilence home to his own family; to incur the everlasting infamy of spreading so terrible a disease, with the almost certainty of death on his own part, happily deterred him, on each attempt, from entering the poisonous "Upas vale".

On one occasion, however, Rowland ascended a hill contiguous to Eyam; and thence he looked over the silent village for hours. It was Sabbath eve,

"But yet no Sabbath sound 
Came from the village; - no rejoicing bells
Were heard; no groups of strolling youths were found,
Nor lovers loitering on the distant fells,
No laugh, no shout of infancy, which tells
Where radiant health and happiness repair;
But silence, such as with the lifeless dwells
Fell on his shuddering heart and fixed him there,
Frozen with dreams of death and bodings of despair."
 
WILLIAM AND MARY HOWITT.

It was some time after the plague had ceased that Rowland summoned up sufficient courage to enter the village, and to learn the fate of his Emmot. Glimmering hope and fearful apprehension alternately possessed his mind, as his faltering steps brought him to the verge of the village. He stood on a little eminence at the eastern entrance of the place, and glanced for a few moments around; but he saw no smoke ascend from the ivy-adorned chimnies - nothing but the sighing breeze broke the still expanse, and he felt chained to the spot by terror and dismay. At length he ventured into the silent village, but he suddenly stopped, looking as much aghast as if he had seen the portentous inscription which met the eye of Dante when the shade of Virgil led him to the porch of Erebus. He then passed slowly on, gazing intensely on the desolate blank. A noiseless gloom pervaded the lonely street; no human form appeared; no sound of life was heard; and Rowland exclaimed, "O! once happy village! thou art now a ruin, such as a mighty tempest leaves when it has swept away the beauties of a garden!" Filled with unspeakable amazement he looked on each silent cottage; a hollow stillness reigned therein, and,

"Horror round
Waved her triumphant wings o'er the untrodden ground."
 
WILLIAM AND MARY HOWITT.

Then towards the cot of his Emmot he bent his way. His direful forebodings increased with every step. As he approached the dwelling his heart swelled and beat with painful emotion; but ere he reached the place a solitary boy appeared and thus the sorrowful tidings told: - "Ah! Rowland, thy Emmet's dead and buried in the Cussy Dell!" This sudden disclosure struck Rowland with unutterable grief; he clung to an adjoining wall, and there stood awhile combating with feelings keen and unspeakable. At the death of Emmot, her mother, frantic with despair, fled to the Cussy Dell, and there dwelt with some fugitive relatives. Rowland, after some time, proceeded to take a last farewell of the abode of his Emmot; the once happy place where he had spent so many happy hours. He reached the threshold, over which the grass grew profusely; the half-open door yielded to his hand, and be entered the silent dwelling filled with unimaginable sensations. On the hearth and floor the grass grew up from every chink; the tables and chairs in their usual places stood: the pewter plates and pans with rust were flecked; and the once sweet warbling linnet in its cage was dead. Rowland wept as he left the tenantless dwelling; his dreadful apprehensions were verified; and until death closed his eyes at a very old age, he frequently dropped a tear to the memory of his once lovely Emmot.

A young woman was married from Eyam to Corbor, about two miles distant, just before the breaking out of the plague. She left a mother in Eyam, who dwelt in a cottage alone, in great indigence. When the plague was making the greatest carnage, the old woman took the infection, and her daughter, unknown to her husband, came to see her, not knowing, however, that she was ill. Great was her consternation at finding her poor old mother writhing in dreadful agonies. She returned to Corbor the same day, very much terrified at the horrid scenes she had witnessed in the village. On the succeeding night she was taken very ill, and her husband and neighbours became almost frantic with fear lest she should have brought the distemper from Eyam. The following day she was a very deal worse, and before night all the terrific symptoms of the pest became manifest, and she expired in great pain on the second day of her illness. The village of Corbor was alarmed beyond description; but, strange to say, no one else took the infection.[1]

Some few, in Eyam, who had the plague, recovered; and the first was a Margaret Blackwell. The tradition says that she was about sixteen or eighteen years of age when she took the distemper; and that her father and whole family were dead, excepting one brother, at the time of her sickness. Her brother was one morning obliged to go to the coalpit; and he arose very early, cooked himself some bacon, and started, being certain, as he said, that he should find his sister dead when he came back. Margaret, almost dying with excessive thirst, got out of bed for something to drink; and finding a small wooden piggin with something in which she thought was water, but which was the fat from the bacon which her brother had just cooked, she drank it all off, returned to bed again, and found herself soon after rather better. She, however, had not the least hope of surviving:-

"But nature rallied, and her flame still burn'd -
Sunk in the socket, glimmer'd and return'd;
The golden bowl and silver cord were sound;
The cistern's wheel revolved its steady round;
Fire - vital fire - evolved the living steam,
And life's fine engine pump'd the purple stream."
 
FURNESS.

On her brother's return he found her, to his great surprise, a very deal better; she eventually recovered, and lived to a good old age. Drinking adventitiously the contents of the wooden piggin, has generally been considered the cause of her unexpected resuscitation.

Towards the latter end of the summer of the dreadful pest, a man of the name of Merril, of the Hollins-house, Eyam, erected, as I have before noticed, a hut near die summit of Sir William, wherein he dwelt to escape the plague, having only a cock with him, which he had taken for a companion. In this solitary retreat they lived together for about a month, with nothing to cheer them but the wild bee wandering with merry song. Merril would frequently, during this solitary sojourn, descend to a point of the hill from which he could glance over the fated place; but nothing could he perceive in the distance but the direful havoc of the awful scourge, as exhibited in the increasing graves in the fields of the village. One morning, however, his companion the cock, strutted from a comer of the hut into the heath, and after glancing about, sprang from the ground with flapping wings, nor stopped in its airy course until it arrived at its former residence, Hollins-house. Merril pondered a day or two over the meaning of his companion's abrupt desertion, and at last he thus soliloquized: - "Noah knew when the dove went forth and returned not again that the waters had subsided, and that the face of the earth was dry". He, therefore, took up his altitudes and returned to his former residence, where he found his cock. The plague had abated, and Merril and his cock lived many years together at the Hollins-house, after the pestilence was totally extinguished.

The helpless condition of the inhabitants of Eyam, in that dreadful season, may be seen from the following fact:-

A little west of Eyam, there resided, at a house called Shepherd's Hall, or Shepherd's Flat, a family of the name of Mortin, who suffered greatly during the plague. This family consisted of husband, wife, and one child; the wife being, however, when the plague broke out so fiercely in 1666, in an advanced state of pregnancy. There was another house very near to Mortin's, inhabited by a widow woman and some children, named Kempe; and the children of this woman had brought the infection to the Shepherd's Flat, by playing with the children of Eyam. When the time of Mortin's wife's pregnancy was expired no one would come near to assist on the occasion of giving birth to her child. She was very ill, and declared that without assistance she should die. Mortin, in the last extremity of despair, was compelled to assist in the act of parturition. The eldest child he had during the time shut up in a room, where it screamed and called out "daddy" and "mammy" incessantly, being almost petrified with fear. Very soon after, both children and mother took the distemper and died, and Mortin buried them successively with his own hands at the end of his habitation. The other family of Kempes all died, and Mortin was left the only human being at Shepherd's Flat, where he lived in solitude for some years after the plague. A greyhound and four cows were his companions; one of the cows he milked to keep the greyhound and himself. To such an extent did this horrible pest carry on human desolation, that hares, rabbits, and other kinds of game multiplied and overran the vicinity of Eyam; Mortin's greyhound could have gone out and brought in a hare in a few minutes, at any time of the day.

That the surrounding country was greatly alarmed at the devastation of the pest at Eyam, the following accounts are sufficient evidence:-

At the period of this dreadful malady, Tideswell, west of Eyam about five miles, was one of the principal market-towns in the Peak; and it was frequented on the market-days by great numbers from the wide-scattered villages. The consternation into which those who regularly attended, as well as the inhabitants of the place, were thrown, by the appalling reports of the pestilence at Eyam, caused a watch to be appointed at the eastern entrance of Tideswell, to question all who came that way, and to prevent any one from Eyam from passing on any business whatever. A woman who dwelt in that part of Eyam called Orchard Bank, was, during the greatest carnage of the pest, compelled by some pressing exigency to go to the market at Tideswell; knowing, however, that it would be impossible to pass the watch if she told whence she came; she therefore had recourse to the following stratagem. The watch, on her arrival, thus authoritatively addressed her:- "Whence comest thou"? From Orchard Bank", she replied. "And where is that"? the watch asked again; "Why, verily", said the woman, "it is in the land of the living". The watch, not knowing the place, suffered her to pass; but she had scarcely reached the market when some person knew her, and whence she came. "The plague! the plague! a woman from Eyam! the plague! a woman from Eyam!" immediately resounded from all sides; and the poor creature terrified almost to death, fled as fast as she possibly could. The infuriated multitude chased her at a distance, for near a mile out of the market-place; and pelted her with volleys of stones, mud, sods, and other missiles. She returned to Orchard Bank, bruised and otherwise worse for her daring prevarication. The dread of this infectious disease, as manifested in the case of this woman, and in the institution of keeping watch in the approximate villages, is no ways marvellous; for, in the accounts of the constables of Sheffield, there is the following item:- "Charges about keeping people from Fullwood Spring (ten miles from Eyam) at the time the plague was at Eam". Fuel was an article which the inhabitants had to encounter great difficulties in obtaining; those who fetched it from the coal-pits had to make circuitous routes, and represent themselves as coming from other places. One man on this journey unthinkingly let it slip that he came from Eyam, on which he was greatly abused and driven back, with his horses unladen. In a will of a Mr. Rowland Mower, Eyam, made when the plague was at its greatest height, there is, as near as can be recollected, the following allusion to the almost certainty of death of the whole population:- "Inasmuch as a great calamity has befallen the town, or village of Eyam; as death has already entered my dwelling; as all are in daily expectation of death; and as I humbly consider myself on the verge of eternity, I therefore, while in sound mind, thus give and bequeath, as hereafter noted, my worldly effects".

The dreadful panic which the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages experienced, by any one venturing therefrom to Eyam, may be sufficiently seen by the following singular and well authenticated fact:-

During the plague, a man who lived at Bubnel, near Chatsworth, named ____, an ancestor of Mr. W. Howard, Barlow, had either to come to Eyam, or pass through Eyam, with a load of wood, which he was in the habit of carrying from the woods at Chatsworth, to the surrounding villages. His neighbours fervently remonstrated with him before his departure, on the impropriety and danger of going near Eyam; being, however, a fine, robust man, he disregarded their admonitions, and proceeded to Eyam with the wood. The day turned out very wet and boisterous; and as no one would accompany him to assist in unloading the wood, great delay was thereby occasioned. A severe cold was the result, and shortly after his arrival at home, he was attacked with a slight fever. The neighbours became exceedingly alarmed at his indisposition; they naturally concluded that he had taken the infection; and they were so incensed at his daring and dangerous conduct, that they threatened to shoot him if he attempted to leave his house. A man was appointed to watch and give the alarm if he crossed his own threshold. The consternation of the inhabitants of Bubnel and neighbouring places, excited the notice of the Earl of Devonshire, who had, either at his own request or otherwise, the particulars of the case laid before him. The Noble Earl, being anxious that no unnecessary alarm should be excited, reasoned with the persons who waited on him from Bubnel, on the impropriety of rashly judging because the man was ill, it was necessarily the plague. He told them to go back, and he would send his Doctor the next day at a certain hour to examine into the nature of the man's illness. The interview, either at the suggestion of the Earl, or from the Doctor's fear, was appointed to take place across the river Derwent, which flows close by Bubnel.

At the appointed time, the Doctor took his station on the eastern side of the river, where it makes a bend, which, on this and other accounts, made the distance to the sick man's appointed station greater. A sentinel informed the man of the arrangement, and he descended, well wrapped up, to the western side of the river. The afifrighted neighbours looked on from a distance, while the Doctor interrogated the sick man at great length. The Doctor at last pronounced him free from the disorder; prescribed him some medicine; and the man, who was then much better, soon recovered.[2]

Mompesson left Eyam in 1669, three years after the plague; but the horrors which it had disseminated, had extended even to Eakring in Nottinghamshire, and to the time of his leaving Eyam for the living of that place. This benefice was presented to him by his friend and patron, Sir George Saville. On his going to take possession of the living of Eakring, the inhabitants refused admitting him into the village; in consequence of their terrors of "the cloud and whirlwind of death", in which he had walked. A little house or hut was therefore erected for him in Rufford Park, where he resided in seclusion until their fears died away. Such was the horror of that desolating infection; such was the dreadful impressions which it created even in far more distant places. Having now given, very imperfectly indeed, a few of the traditions of this awful time, I shall proceed to commit to paper the details of the rapid extinction of the Talbots and Hancocks, of Riley: two families who were carried off by the plague with horrid dispatch; and whose brief transition from health to sickness, from sickness to death, was attended with circumstances never before experienced.

"O! reader! reader! had we been
Spectators of the real scene." - S.T. HALL.

Notes
[1] There was a very bad fever (some say it was the plague) in Corbor in 1632, when a many died. There are some grave-stones in the vicinity with the initials J.C. A.C. and several others, dated 1632. These initials are supposed to relate to a family of the name of Cook.
[2] The Doctor's prescription is now in the bands of Dr. Nicholson, son-in-law of Mr. W. Howard, Barlow.

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This information was collated and transcribed by Rosemary Lockie in September 2012.

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