The story of how Eyam was infected with the bubonic plague and chose to go into quarantine rather than spread the infection to the surrounding area is an epic tale of self-sacrifice. The village has a small museum and you can follow a signed trail around the village to see the major buildings and sites linked with the Plague.
George Viccars, a tailor who lived in a cottage near Eyam church (now known as Plague Cottage) was sent some cloth from London in September 1665, but the cloth was infected and Viccars died within four days. The Plague spread through the village and the young Rector, William Mompesson, with his predecessor Thomas Stanley, persuaded the villagers to stay in the village and seal themselves off to avoid spreading the infection to the surrounding area. Though a few villagers left (and it is said that Mompesson arranged to send his children out of the village), most stayed, and 257 died (of a total population of perhaps 350) before the Plague died out in October 1666. In August 1666 alone, 78 people died including Mompesson's wife Catherine, who is buried in the churchyard.
During the period of isolation, food was left for the villagers at Mompesson's well, on the parish boundary high up on the hill above the village, and paid for by coins which were dipped in vinegar to disinfect them. The grim task of burying the dead fell to the village sexton and the victims were often buried hurriedly in graves which were scattered around the village. Usually there was no funeral service, for gatherings of people were discouraged for fear of spreading the infection. Particularly notable are the Riley Graves which are situated just off the Grindleford road approximately 1km from the village centre. Here a Mrs Hancock buried six of her family within the space of a few days.
Plague gravestone in Eyam churchyard
A walk around the village shows many relics and monuments of the Plague. Starting at the church, look for Catherine Mompesson's grave - she is the only plague victim buried in the churchyard, though there is a gravestone for Abel Rowland propped up against the side of the church. Just to the west of the church, towards Foolow, is the original Plague Cottage and at the western end of the village, in Tideswell Lane, there is the cottage of Marshall Howe, who was the plague sexton.
At the eastern end of the village, from the Bull Ring, walk up Lydgate. Here you will see several cottages which belonged to plague victims, and a small enclosure for the Lydgate graves, where Thomas and Mary Danby are buried. Going in a northerly direction from the Bull Ring, up Water Lane, will lead you to Mompesson's Well - but this is nearly a kilometre away, steeply uphill!
The Riley Graves
The most poignant memorial is the Riley graves. To find these, take the road to Grindleford out of the village, and branch left to Riley farm. Follow the track up the hill and past the farm until you see a stone-walled enclosure (which is in the care of the National Trust) in the field. In this lonely spot, with a magnificent view across Middleton Dale, you can sense the devastation wrought upon the Hancock family.
Eyam museum is housed in a former church just opposite the car park and information centre and is a small but award-winning museum, packed with interesting displays.