The Plague City and the Plague Village

By Stuart Robinson on Wednesday 9th July 2014

A very informative talk about the causes and effects of the Plague in London and the Derbyshire village of Eyam was given by Stuart Robinson.

Great_plague_of_london-1665He described that although we know now that the Plague was carried by black rats and spread by bites from fleas from the rats, at the time it’s cause was unknown.

The disease the rats carried was Bubonic Plague, which was survivable, but it usually developed into Pneumonic Plague which infected the lungs and was fatal. The symptoms included sneezing red blotches and swelling called Bulbos . All described in the rhyme “Ring-a -Ring of Roses,”.

Bleeding under the skin caused black blotches, hence the name The Black Death.

The Plague raged through London during 1665 and 1666 and led to the city being abandoned by all those able to leave. Records of causes of death tried to hide the extent of the infection, as it was very bad for business. There were always a few cases of The Plague each year and these were treated in Pest Houses. These were over whelmed by a death rate exceeding 2000 a week at its peak.

It was generally believed that the disease was air borne hence the use of posies of herbs being used to ward off infection. Cats and dogs were blamed resulting in thousand being killed. The effect of this was to increase the rat population with no predators to control their numbers. Tobacco was believed to ward of the infection. A boy at Eton was beaten for not smoking his tobacco.

The top brass drifted away, business came to a stand still, Doctors, M.P.s, Judges, the Aristocracy,

in fact any one who had somewhere else to live, left leaving the poor to endure the Plague without any help. Eventually a Certificate was required to enable any one to leave London. Of course many of those produced were fakes! Red crosses were painted on houses where there was a case of The Plague and the house was sealed for 40 days condemning those inside to death. Death Carts, mostly driven by sacked servants, collected the bodies, to be buried in mass graves.

The death toll reached a peak in August 1665 of around 10,000. There was a deathly quiet in the city, with no traffic.The sound of water flowing through London Bridge could be heard. The river was empty, except for the boats on which a few people lived.

Deaths declined by the end of 1666 and the King returned in the New Year. It is estimated that 20% of the population died.

Stuart then went on to relate the story of the village of Eyam a well known example of the plague outside London. The plague reached there by accident, being carried in a delivery of cloth from London in September 1665. It’s believed that fleas within the cloth carried the disease. The Rector, William Mompesson, only 28 years old and new to the village, proved to be a great leader of his flock realising that intimate contact caused the spread of the disease. He planned the actions to control the plague with a Thomas Stanley. They decided to lock the church and organised out door services. He kept careful records of all deaths, more accurate than those in London. In June 1666 there were 19 deaths rising to peak in August of 78, bringing the total to over 200. Slowly the death rate declined until November when no deaths were reported. During this period local villages kept the self quarantined villagers supplied with food and fuel. Elaborate systems were evolved for collection and payment so as to limit the risk of infection. In fact none of the surrounding population became infected. No funerals were held and families were left to bury their own dead.

He related many stories of personal tragedy and suffering through this period. One story concerned the young lovers Emmott Sydall and Roland Torre who continued to meet secretly in the village. Eventually they would not meet but see each other from a distance. During April she failed to appear, but he kept visiting and hoping to see her. As soon as it was safe to enter the village he learned that she had died at the end of April soon after their last meeting. He lived to and old age, but never married.

It proved to be a very interesting and informative talk comparing conditions in London during the plague and the tragedy visited on the beautiful village of Eyam in Derbyshire.


John Preston.