Brave villagers battle deadly disease

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 12:00am

In 1665, London was in the grip of the most terrible outbreak of disease the city had ever seen. Bubonic plague was systematically killing thousands of Londoners and the civic authorities were fighting a losing battle to get the situation under control.

Theatres and other places of mass entertainment had been closed and people were confined to their homes when a case of the plague was discovered. Doctors quarantined sufferers and their families in infected houses with a red cross painted on the door.

The situation was desperate. More than 100,000 fell victim to the plague in the 12 months between 1665 and 1666. In an effort to stop the epidemic spreading throughout England, attempts were made to limit the mass movement of people in and out of London.

But the disease was relentless in stalking down victims. No one knew exactly how the deadly plague travelled from one area to another, but it was obvious that it spread quickly. London was a terrified city.

The village of Eyam lies deep in the countryside in the county of Derbyshire, almost 320km north of London. It is a remote and isolated community, where few people had even heard of London and even fewer had had contact with the city.

It is late August 1665, and a wagon from London has just delivered a parcel of cloth for George Viccars, the local tailor.

When Viccars opens the parcel he sees that the cloth is damp and he spreads it out in front of the fire to dry. Two days later, the poor tailor is struck down by a raging fever and a deep red rash on his body.

He had unwittingly released fleas carrying the plague. On September 6, Viccars dies. The plague has come to the peaceful village of Eyam.

During the next three weeks, six more people die in the same part of the village. The rector, William Mompesson, and his colleague, Thomas Stanley, call all the villagers together and persuade them to isolate themselves to stop the disease from spreading to neighbouring towns and villages.

Mompesson arranges for food and other things to be left regularly at a place on the village boundary and the brave people of Eyam seal themselves up in their homes. Week by week the death toll increases as the plague claims its victims. It takes 15 months for the disease to die down and disappear from Eyam. Some families had been completely wiped out.

A total of 206 people, a third of Eyam's population, had been killed by the plague.

By Christmas, 1666, the horror is over and Eyam slowly comes back to life.

Children play in the streets again and farmers begin working on their fields. But an eerie sadness still hangs over the village if you visit it today. You can feel the presence of all the people who gave up their lives more than 300 years ago to save others.

If you want to know more about the story of Eyam, visit

Can you answer these questions about Eyam?

1. Eyam is found in which county of England?

2. In which year did the Great Plague devastate London?

3. Who was George Viccars?

4. How did the plague arrive in Eyam?

5. What were the two main symptoms of the disease?

6. What did William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley persuade the villagers to do?

7. Who was Mompesson?

8. For how long did the plague rage through Eyam?

9. When did it finally die out?

10. How many people had died during the epidemic?


1. Eyam is in Derbyshire.

2. The Great Plague struck London in 1665.

3. Viccars was a tailor in Eyam.

4. The disease was carried to the village by fleas in a parcel of cloth.

5. A high fever and a fierce red rash.

6. They persuaded the villagers to isolate themselves.

7. Mompesson was the village rector.

8. The plague lasted for 15 months in Eyam.

9. It died out by Christmas 1666.

10. A total of 206 villagers died during the plague.