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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Exhibitions - Eyam Museum, Peak District

Star rating – 8/10

The tale of the small Derbyshire village who cut themselves off from the world for over a year in order to stop the spread of the dreaded plague was familiar to me from reading the great novel ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks. And this week I went to find out for myself exactly what happened there in 1695. On the face of it, Eyam just looks and feels like another beautiful Peak District village, but the Eyam Museum tells its story in amazing detail.

Bubonic plague had arrived in the village courtesy of tailor George Vicars, who did not realise that some cloth that he had brought back from London contained plague infested fleas. He became the village’s first victim of the plague and died on 7th September 1665. The disease quickly took hold throughout the small village, and serious measures were agreed on. Church services were held outdoors; the dead were not buried in the churchyard, but in the gardens of their own homes; and eventually the villagers agreed on their temporary voluntary isolation from the rest of the world. They arranged for parcels of food and supplies to be left on the village boundary so that they would not starve.

It was an amazing act of self sacrifice to prevent the plague from spreading to neighbouring villages. The museum reveals tales of individual tragedies within the broader tragedy of the village of Eyam as a whole. Emmott Sydall was the sweetheart of a boy from a neighbouring village, Rowland Torre. They could not bear to be totally parted from each other, and Emmott used to steal away to a nearby spot to call to her lover. But one day she never returned to their secret meeting place – another victim of the plague. Another woman, Elizabeth Hancock, lost her husband and all of her six children to the disease within a single week.

The excellent small museum in the village tells these and many more stories in this exceptional piece of history in a great way. At £2 for adult entry, it is great value for money. It gives you all the detail you will ever need, and many you will not, about the symptoms of the plague. And perhaps, even more remarkable than the isolation itself, it shows how the remaining villagers picked themselves up and re- established their village afterwards against all the odds.

You can still see many of the houses of the plague victims in the village today, with bold plaques outside telling each grisly history. I’m not sure I would want to live in a place called Plague Cottage, but then it takes all sorts. This is a great afternoon out, and a great little local museum, which I heartily recommend.

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