Eyam - remembering the Great Plague and the First World War

PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 November 2015 | UPDATED: 20:22 29 April 2016

The 'Plague Cottages' where many of the Plague victims lived and died

The 'Plague Cottages' where many of the Plague victims lived and died

as submitted

It is 350 years since the Great Plague came to Eyam, which is also commemorating its residents’ sacrifice in the First World War

Eyam HallEyam Hall

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the coming of the Great Plague to Eyam, when the inhabitants showed extraordinary self-sacrifice by sealing off their village to prevent the infection spreading to other communities. As the epidemic raged through Eyam over the next 14 months, 260 people died. The village’s second great sacrifice came 250 years later, when 18 of its young men who had enlisted to fight in the First World War were killed in action. A further six gave their lives in the Second World War. In this month of remembrance, the village has much to remember.

Visitors to Eyam are given lots of opportunities to trace the moving story of these turbulent periods in the history of the village. The terrible impact of the Plague is graphically illustrated in permanent exhibitions in Eyam Parish Church and at the Eyam Museum. Four walks produced by the National Trust at Eyam Hall help visitors to explore some of the key sites associated with the Plague; a number of special events have taken place at the church to mark the 350th anniversary and Eyam Museum is housing an award-winning exhibition that tells the story of Eyam in the First World War.

Beryl Ramage has been the Stewards’ Manager at the Eyam Museum ever since it was established by members of the community 21 years ago. She said: ‘The First World War exhibition was added to our normal displays in 2014. It had been scheduled to run for one year only, but it has proved so popular and received so many plaudits that it will now stay in place to the end of 2018. Our exhibition won the Inspiration Award for the ‘best special project’ at the 2014 Derbyshire Heritage Awards.’

One of the most moving displays in the exhibition is a tableau featuring a life-size representation of a young soldier called Frank Froggatt. The face of the soldier is a video projection of an actor who is reading a letter that Frank was writing to his mother. An accompanying caption records that she received the letter on the very day that she was given the news of her son’s death.

The Riley Graves where Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of their childrenThe Riley Graves where Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of their children

Another tableau is a mock-up of a trench in which there is a periscope that gave the soldiers a view across ‘no man’s land’, where many of them would meet their death. Other exhibits include a rifle, a shell, as well as numerous medals given for gallantry and bravery. There are illustrations of life on the home front and a roll of honour that ends on the unbearably sad note that 21-year-old Frank Eyre was killed shortly before 11am on the day that peace was declared.

When Beryl Ramage greets visitors to the museum, she explains that the juxtaposition of the First World War exhibition and the displays covering the villagers’ self-sacrifice during the Plague will allow them to make inspiring comparisons. She also directs their attention to a large mural depicting the area of London where the Plague first struck in the spring of 1665, when many people fled from the capital and took refuge in nearby counties. Their response was in sharp contrast to the actions of the people of Eyam, who accepted the urgings of their rector Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor Rev. Thomas Stanley that they should stay put in order to contain the infection.

Eyam Hall was built just six years after the Plague ended. The house was the home of eleven generations of the Wright family until 2013, when Robert and Nicola Wright decided that they would move to a smaller house elsewhere in the village and lease the hall to the National Trust. Jenny Aldridge, the Visitor Operations Manager at the Hall, said, ‘The family still retain responsibility for the overall maintenance of the property but the National Trust runs the house and the adjacent craft centre as a visitor attraction. It is the first time that this arrangement has been tried at one of the Trust’s properties and it may be a model for the running of other historic buildings in the future.’

When Jenny took over as Operations Manager, she felt it was important for the Trust to cooperate with the community and to enlist their help. As a result, local volunteers assist at the hall and also lead some of the guided walks around the village. Jenny also established a ‘Community Forum’ to help her to devise a series of ‘Thought Walks’, which start from the hall and enable visitors to explore the places that evoke four of the most compelling stories from the Plague years.

Eyam MuseumEyam Museum

One walk traces the sad story of two young lovers called Emmott and Rowland. Emmott had lost her father and five siblings in the early days of the Plague and she was cruelly prevented by the quarantining of the village from seeing Rowland, who lived in Stoney Middleton. The pair had to be content with staring longingly at each other across the village border. One day Rowland turned up at their usual meeting place to find that Emmott was not there. When the curfew was lifted, he was devastated to discover that the reason for her absence was that she had died from the infection.

Another walk takes visitors to Riley’s Field on the outskirts of Eyam where Elizabeth Hancock had dragged and buried the bodies of her husband John and six of their children. Their gravestones stand in an enclosure that is maintained by the National Trust. Another heartrending story is told on the interpretation boards in Eyam Parish Church. When Rev. William Mompesson asked his parishioners to remain in Eyam, he urged his wife to leave the village, but she chose to stay by his side. As a large tomb in the churchyard indicates, she succumbed to the infection in the final months of the Plague.

Eyam Parish Church has been the focus of a number of special events this year. Coordinator Simon Daniell said: ‘In June, many local people took part in five ‘promenade’ performances of ‘The Roses of Eyam’, a play written by Don Taylor and adapted by Nicola Wright. Some scenes took place in the churchyard and outside the ‘Plague Cottages’ where many of the victims lived and died. In July, we hosted a first reading of ‘Here We Stay’, a new play by David Rudkin, and, in September, the church was the venue for three sell-out performances of ‘Eyam’, a musical staged by members of the Oldham Theatre Workshop.’

This year, the annual Plague Service involved costumed participants proceeding from the church to the Cucklett Delf for a service led by the Bishop of Derby, Rt Revd Alastair Redfern – the Delf was the place where open-air services were held during the Plague months when the church was closed.

St Lawrence's Church with its Saxon CrossSt Lawrence's Church with its Saxon Cross

Eyam has had plenty of media exposure this year. An edition of the BBC’s Antiques Road Trip included a five-minute clip filmed at the church, with Fran Clifford talking about the Plague, and Radio Four’s Good Friday Meditation made connections between the self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam and the actions of a doctor who had been treating Ebola patients and had to go into isolation after returning to the UK because two of her colleagues had contracted the disease. In May, an Ebola Benefit Jazz Concert was held at Delf View House in Eyam.

In July, the BBC’s ‘Countryfile’ featured interviews with Mike Gilbert, Rector of Eyam, and Joan Plant, a descendant of Margaret Blackwell, who was said to have survived the Plague by drinking bacon fat, but is now thought to have avoided infection because she carried the Delta 32 gene. The programme also followed the Peak Pilgrimage, a new trail devised by Bob Jackson. The walk, ideally taken over three days, begins in Ilam, an ancient place of pilgrimage linked to St Bertelin, and passes through ten other Peak villages before ending in Eyam. Thanks to the extraordinary self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam during the time of the Plague, the village has long been a place of pilgrimage and, without doubt, it will continue to be so for very many years to come.


Information about the Peak Pilgrimage Route can be found on its website (www.peakpilgrimage.org.uk) and the Peak Pilgrimage Guide Book can either be obtained on line or at Eyam Parish Church Office (01433 630930; www.eyam-church.org.uk). The Eyam Museum (01433 631371; www.eyam-museum.org.uk) closes at the end of October until March but will be open from Boxing Day until New Year’s Day and during the February half-term school holiday. Information about the ‘Thought Walks’ can be obtained at Eyam Hall (01433 639565; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/eyam-hall-and-craft-centre). The hall opens from 10.30am to 4.30pm, apart from Mondays and Christmas Day. A reduced number of rooms are viewable during December but there will be Christmas lights, decorations and carols. Seasonal food and gifts will be available at the Craft Centre, which will host a Food Fair on 12th and 13th December.

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside