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The local heroes of the Eyam Plague
Katherine Mompesson's Tomb, EyamWilliam and Katherine Mompesson

William Mompesson was born in 1638. His family had French ancestry. His father was John Mompesson, who was Vicar of Seamer near Scarborough. William followed in his father's footsteps and also became a clergyman for the Church of England.

He married Katherine Carr. Katherine came from Durham. He came with his wife to Eyam to be Rector at the church in April 1664 after working in the church at Scalby near Scarborough. They had two children - George and Elizabeth. Katherine was ill by the time she arrived in Eyam. She probably had what they called consumption - which is tuberculosis.

When the plague broke out Katherine wanted the whole family to leave Eyam. William tried to pursuade his young wife to leave the village with the children so that he could stay to help the villagers without worrying about his family. Katherine refused to go and stayed to help her husband. The children were sent to relatives in Yorkshire.

Katherine was devoted to William and looked after him while he helped the villagers. He made wills, gave out medicines and tried to give strength to the suffering people. One evening, when William and Katherine were taking their regular walk in the fields behind the Rectory, Katherine remarked that she thought that the air smelt sweet. This shocked William because he knew that people often felt like this before they had other symptoms of the plague. Sure enough, Katherine had the disease. William nursed his wife, despite the fact that she asked him to stay away from her in case he caught it too. When Katherine died on August 25th 1666, William was very sad - but he now knew the heartbreak that other people in the village were experiencing as their loved ones became sick and died. Katherine was the 200th person to die and was buried in the churchyard in a tomb which can still be seen today. William continued to help the people of Eyam.

Since the squire and the wealthier residents had fled the village in the early part of the outbreak, there was no leader in the village. People respected the church and turned naturally to the parson for help. William worked closely throughout the outbreak with the previous Rector of Eyam - a man called Thomas Stanley .

They decided that the dead were not to have proper funerals or be buried in the churchyard. Instead they were to buried as quickly as possible in their own gardens or in a nearby field.

To avoid having too many people together in one place where disease could spread, the church was closed. People were asked to worship in the open air until the plague had passed. Church services were held in a small steep valley known as the Delph and the area used as a church is called the Cucklett Church. Here, people could be together but were not too close.

Then in June 1666, they decided on a course of action which would make Eyam famous many years later. Plague deaths were high and the two churchmen persuaded the villagers to place themselves under strict quarantine. This meant that everyone agreed to stay in the village - even if it meant that they caught the disease and died. This was a very courageous decision to make. They knew they would run out of food if they didn't get help from people outside the village so they arranged for food to be left at agreed places at the edges of the village. Friends and relatives would leave food for them and the villagers would collect the supplies when they had left and leave some money behind to pay for it all. Two places used can still be seen today. One is Mompesson's Well and the other is the Boundary Stone. Money was dropped into the water at the well in the belief that the plague infection would be washed away. The Earl of Devonshire helped the people of Eyam at this time by sending food and other supplies to the Boundary Stone. This stone has holes made into it where water and sometimes vinegar, was poured in to wash the coins clean.

The quarantine was successful because no-one outside Eyam became ill and died. Because the people of Eyam agreed to stay in the village, the disease was contained and the plague came to an end. If people had run away then the plague would have probably spread throughout the north of England. William Mompesson is especially remembered for his inspired leadership of the community. Seventy-eight people died in August 1666. It must have been a temptation to run away from the village and try to avoid the disease - but people stayed.

When the plague had claimed no more lives for several weeks, it was believed that the plague was over. William encouraged the remaining villagers to burn clothing, furniture and bedding in case they had plague on them. Houses were fumigated. William wrote that the ending of the plague was marked "by a great burning". He burnt everything that he could as an example to the villagers. At the end,William was physically and mentally exhausted. He wrote several letters which have survived and this is how we know what happened. He wrote to his uncle ... "The condition of this place hath been so dreadful that I persuade myself it exceedeth all history and example. I may truely say our Town has become a Golgotha, a place of skulls; and had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations. My nose never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles. Here have been 76 families visited within my parish, out of which died 259 persons".

Also, William's son George told a Dr. Richard Meade what he remembered about the plague. This was written up in 1720 and called "A Discourse on the Plague". After the plague was over, William married a widow called Elizabeth Newby just before he moved to Eakring in Nottinghamshire in 1670. It is said that he lived in a hut in Rufford Park for a while until the local people were convinced that he had not got the plague. He continued to preach out of doors beneath an ash tree - known as the pulpit ash. Nowadays a stone marks the site. It could have been that the church was in disrepair because a letter from 1672 indicates that the church needed rebuilding.
William and his new wife had two daughters - Eliza and Jane - and two sons. The boys both died in infancy. William was quite well off and was honoured with several church offices. He lived in Eakring for 38 years and he died in 1708. He is buried in Eakring church.

Thomas Stanley

Thomas Stanley was born in Duckmanton, near Chesterfield. He had been Rector of Eyam before William Mompesson came. He was appointed in 1644 by the Puritans during the Civil War. When
King Charles returned to the throne in 1660, Thomas was removed from his office, but he stayed in Eyam and probably carried on working in the community as he had done before. The man who replaced him was called Shorland Adams - but he was often away from Eyam and Thomas probably acted as curate and stood in for him. Thomas was a staunch Puritan. There was a lot of religious unrest at this time when people disagreed about how churches should be run and what to believe in.

In 1662, Thomas resigned because he could not agree to the Act of Uniformity and he could not agree to use the new Book of Common Prayer which had been introduced. When Shorland Adams died, William Mompesson came to replace him. Thomas and William were friendly, despite having different views and being different ages. When the plague was at its height they worked together. William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley both decided on quarantine as the course of action to take in the summer of 1666.

The quarantine was successful because the two men worked together despite their differences - and the people listened. Thomas is less famous than William because the authorities of the time did not like him. His part was played down and William became the more remembered name. Thomas died in 1670 and there is a memorial stone in Eyam churchyard, even though he was not buried there.

Emmott Sydall and Rowland Torre

Rowland and Emmott were sweethearts and their story is a sad and romantic tragedy which has captured the imaginations of people who read about it. Rowland was the son of a flour miller and lived in Stoney Middleton and Emmott was a young girl who lived in a house called Bagshaw House, opposite the church at Eyam. The Sydall family were struck down early by the plague because they lived so close to the plague cottages where the disease killed the first victims. Emmott's father, brother and four sisters all died within a few days of each other in September and October 1665.

Rowland comforted his beloved Emmott at this time of sorrow - but Emmott was worried that he would catch the plague as well. She begged him to stay away and not to come visiting. Eventually, he agreed and they used to meet at Cucklet Delph from time to time. They planned to get married. Unfortunately, Emmott caught the plague and died at the end of April 1666. Emmott's mother was the only one left out of her entire family. She could not bear living in the house where they had all lived so happily, so she left to go to stay with relatives who were living nearby. Meanwhile, Rowland kept going to the Delph in the hope of seeing Emmott. He heard rumours that his darling Emmott had died and day after day when she did not appear, he began to believe it was true. When the plague was over and people were allowed to enter the village, Rowland was one of the first to come. As he walked towards the cottage where Emmott and her family had lived, he met a villager who told hi,m "Ah! Rowland, thy Emmott's dead and buried in Cussy Dell".

The Talbot Family

The entire family of the family living at the Riley farm are buried in the orchard there. The plague killed everyone in the house during July 1666. This meant that Richard and his wife Catherine died, as well as two sons and three daughters. The only son to survive was away from home at the time. Three days after the entire Talbot family died the plague moved to the Hancock family living in a neighbouring farm.

The Hancock Family

One of the most tragic stories about the plague in Eyam is what happened to the Hancock family. The plague arrived at the farm where they lived during August 1666. First two of the children died, John and Elizabeth, on the 3rd of August. Four days later, the father John and two more children died - William and Oner. Two days after that, Alice died and then the next day her sister, Ann, died. The only person left was Mrs Hancock, who had to carry or drag the corpses of her loved ones, dig a grave and then bury them. She lost her husband and six of her children within a few days of each other.

Broken-hearted, Mrs Hancock eventually left the farm to live with another son who lived in Sheffield. It was one of this son's descendants who erected the stones which identified the places where the family had been buried. These were originally flat on the ground, but were collected together in a field some distance outside Eyam and surrounded by a stone wall at a later date. These headstones can still be seen and they are called the Riley Graves. The graves are called the Riley Graves because they are near the Riley house and were on Riley land.

George and Mary Darby

George Darby and his daughter Mary died in 1666 and are buried near to where they lived in an area of Eyam called the Lydgate. George made a will which has survived and can be studied.

Marshall Howe

This man buried the people who had died when no one else could do it. He believed he was immune to the plague because he had once caught it and then recovered. His reward for carrying out the unpleasant task of seeing to the dead people was to help himself to whatever he wanted from the victim's homes. There is a story that Marshall was asked to dispose of the body of a man called Unwin who had died of the plague. Marshall prepared a grave in the orchard and then went into the house to lift the dead man onto his shoulders to carry him downstairs. As he was walking down the stairs, the corpse spoke to him and asked for a possett - which is a mixture of boiled milk, ale and bread. Marshall was shocked of course, and dropped the poor man - who did eventually recover. In August 1666, Marshall's wife and son both died of the plague and from this time onwards he no longer carried out his duties without feeling. Before, he was quite casual and unmoved about collecting the dead and burying them .

Margaret Blackwell

Another person who is said to have recovered from the plague was a girl called Margaret Blackwell. Margaret was very ill and delirious with the plague. She grabbed a vessel containing hot bacon fat and drank it all because she was so thirsty. Immediately afterwards she began to improve and eventually recovered.

George Viccars

George was the first person in Eyam to die of the plague in 1665. He lived in one of what is now called The Plague Cottage. George was possibly a journeyman tailor who was lodging at the home of the Cooper family. A journeyman would travel from place to place using his skills to help people in different villages. There is some dispute about who he actually was, because George Mompesson (William's son) later told his story of his memories of the plague to a Dr Mead in 1720 and he said that a servant opened the box of cloth and then died of the plague. Since George was only about 5 years old at the time he was at Eyam, it is possible that he was confused about the exact events.

The parish registers of the time indicate that George was a tailor and lodged with the Cooper family. The cottage where he lived belonged to Jonathan and Edward Cooper, sons of a lead-miner and who had died in 1664. His widow, Mrs Cooper, also lived in the cottage. She survived the plague but both her sons died. Mrs Cooper later married a man called John Coe. The Plague Cottage has been altered quite a lot since 1666 and probably only the kitchen is original. The row of cottages where the first victims of the plague lived are still to be seen and are called the Plague Cottages.

The Morten Family

The Morten family lived at Shepherd's Flat - which is an area of Eyam. They were farmers and they lived next to a family called Kempe. The Kempe children caught the plague from others in the village and brought the illness to their neighbours. Mrs Morten was expecting a baby and when the baby was being born no one would come to the house to help her and her husband. Their eldest child was dying in agony of the plague at the same time as the baby was being born. Unfortunately both Mrs Morten and all her three children died. There was a boy, aged 3, Sarah, aged 2 (died 18th August 1666) and the new baby boy (died 24th August 1666). They were buried by Mr Morten close to their home. Mr Morten lived by himself after this with only his dog for company. One day, after the plague was over, the dog ran away from Matthew Morten when it saw a lady walking in the distance. The dog had mistaken her for Mrs Morten. When he went to fetch the dog, Mr Morten talked to the lady and they became friends. She was Sarah Hawksworth whose husband had died at the beginning of the outbreak. Eventually Matthew and Sarah were married.
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