In Search Of Lost Time In Eyam And An Outbreak Of Plague


This very unusual wall sundial is to be found above the Priest’s Door on the east side of Eyam parish church in Derbyshire. It dates from 1775, and was designed and made locally. I discovered it when were in the village doing a spot of family history research – not researching in any organised way I might add – more a matter of walking ancestral paths and acquiring a sense of place. Eyam is anyway a village with an awful lot of history, not least the story of how its inhabitants dealt with an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665-1666 by imposing a cordon sanitaire around the village boundary, and for over a year sticking to it so as not to spread the disease to neighbouring communities.

Over the fourteen months that the outbreak persisted, 280 out of the 800 population died. It is thought the infection arrived in a parcel of fabric, sent in late summer from London to the Eyam tailor, Alexander Hadfield. The package was opened by his assistant, George Viccars, and it was he who was the first to fall ill and die. Thereafter, the disease spread rapidly throughout the autumn, slowed over the winter, and returned in full force in the following spring and summer. In the worst month of August 1666 seventy eight villagers died.

Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine was managed by the young village rector, Reverend William Mompesson, and Nonconformist minister Reverend Thomas Stanley. It was agreed that every household would bury their own dead and, in a bid to  maintain morale and give comfort to survivors, church services were held in the open air so people could gather together, but not too closely. Local landowner, the Duke of Devonshire, and others from neighbouring villages saw that supplies of food and other necessities were left at the village boundary.

It is a harrowing episode that demonstrates great human resilience and bravery, not least by the Reverend Mompesson, whose own wife was among the last victims. And today, as you wander around the village, the event continues to be marked by commemorative plaques outside the cottages that were once the homes of the families who were particularly afflicted.

It could seem mawkish, crass even, to make a visitor attraction from this horrific episode, but somehow it isn’t. The village quietly embraces you in a reflection on shared humanity – now and back through time.  In fact the sun dial says it all: Induce animum sapientum –  cultivate an enquiring mind. And then on the two supporting stone corbels, which you can’t quite read in the photo: ut  umbra sic vita – life passes like a shadow.

I especially like the way that when it is noon in Eyam, the sundial shows the relative times in Calicut, Mecca and Panama, to name but a few of the far-flung places inscribed on the dial. It also includes a chart for longitudinal adjustments of local True Sun Time to Greenwich meantime, and throughout the year. Somehow it is uplifting to feel that in this isolated Derbyshire village, and over the centuries, the gaze of its inhabitants has extended to a world beyond its village boundaries.

So far I haven’t mentioned why we were visiting Eyam or explained presumed family links with this locality. Researches into the Fox family of Callow in Hathersage (covered in other posts) suggest that a possibly direct ancestor, one Robert Fox, yeoman farmer and lead miner, was living in the area between 1678 and 1699. I have a copy of his will and household inventory, so I know he owned 13 cushions and several field beds in one or more parlours. There were no Fox plague victims in Eyam, although Robert Fox’s second wife, Margaret Mower, had lost an uncle, Rowland Mower. His will is included in the 1842 book by local historian, William Wood, The History and Antiquities of Eyam ~ with a full and particular account of the Great Plague.

The Fox family connection is all a bit of a yarn, which may never be unravelled. So for now some more views of the village:P1050536

Eyam Parish Church and its 8th century Saxon Cross complete with Celtic influences.








This is Eyam Hall, very much post-plague, and built between 1671-6 and incorporating a much smaller existing property in the heart of the village. Its builders were newcomers, the land-owning-merchant Wright family, and their arrival signified revival, and an increasing interest in developing the lead mining potential the area. Landowners large and small were keen to exploit this highly valued mineral. And although lead had been mined across Derbyshire since Roman times, there is almost a ‘gold rush’ feel about the exploitative zeal from the late 17th century.

It is possible that post-plague opportunities around Eyam attracted the likes of putative ancestor, Robert Fox. My band of fellow Fox-hunters has not been able to establish if he was an incomer or if there were existing family connections with Eyam. His father was a tenant farmer at The Oaks, near Highlow, a few miles away, and he and Robert’s brothers may also have been involved in the lead business,  possibly smelting.

Robert owned four small parcels of lead-bearing land in Foolow, two of which adjoined Wright land. When he thought he was dying in 1691 and wrote his will, he was very concerned to make it clear he had ownership of them, and that the proceeds of his property should be managed by his brother and brother-in-law for the upbringing and education of his four children – James, William, Mary and Robert. In fact he did not die until 1699, and it is not clear what happened to his family. We think the eldest James became a shoemaker in Eyam, and that Robert was possibly a very successful joiner in Wirksworth, the lead mining capital of Derbyshire. William is the one we have our eye on as the possible ancestor for the Callow Foxes, but his baptismal record has so far proved elusive, which is most annoying when we know that his three siblings were baptised in Eyam church. Ah, well. Such are the fascinations and frustrations of tracking down traces of families long past.


From: William Wood The History & Antiquities of Eyam 1842

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past



P.S. A number of readers have asked what became of 3 year old Joseph Siddall. The Eyam Museum researches seem to indicate that there were in fact two surviving Siddall children, and they went to live with relatives in Sheffield, not that far from Eyam. There is quite a dynasty of Siddalls in the Eyam-Stoney Middleton area of Derbyshire, so they would not have been left without any family connections.

62 thoughts on “In Search Of Lost Time In Eyam And An Outbreak Of Plague

  1. Really enjoyed reading your article, and fascinating to learn about your family links to the area – I keep meaning to take the family up to Eyam – and you’ve just reminded me to add it to the list for this year 🙂

  2. And how many more would have died if it hadn’t been for the quarantine. There is so much meaning in this post that I will have to come back later for a second reading. Just wanted to tell you that atop of your usual quality of writing and photography I have to single out image #2. That is something else. That makes a lasting impact. You come from the brave, generous and apparently talented stock.

  3. Another delightful read, Tish. I normally whiz off and grab a cup of tea first but I was captivated from the opening sentence.
    I really must do a similar exercise for mon famille one day. I can go back as far as the 1700s but from over here, photos might be awkward!

    1. You are lovely, Ark. Another of my star readers. Trouble with family history, it can get a bit obsessive. I’m lucky, though to have found 2 fellow researchers via the interweb – the 3 of us 5th cousins once removed, or some such, and it’s great fun.

  4. Gosh, where to start. Thank you (as always) for an enlightening, enjoyable read. And the images — I really like the way you have edited them. Plague-struck Eyam seems to be a wonderful model of enlightened self-management, though it must have been so tempting for those not (yet) affected to try and send at least their children to “safety.” The plaque to the Siddall family broke my heart. Poor little Joseph; I wonder what became of him?

    1. As I said to Marilyn, some did leave fairly early on – the rich families, and also Mompesson sent his two small children away. William Wood told such a good story of the event back in 1842, I’m wondering if the heroism hasn’t been a little romanticised.

  5. The headstone really shows the horror of the plague in a way that statistics never do. To think of the suffering that family endured over such a short period of time. It must have been truly dreadful. How strange that the youngest survived. I agree about the second photo – it has a very haunted look to it.

  6. A fascinating window onto two pasts, yours and the village of Eyam’s, told with typical Farrell flow. I think this village and its story might be the basis for “The year of wonders” by Geraldine Brooks. Your photos are just the right colour to evoke times past.

      1. I think you would like it. Very evocative of the pain and sadness and also joyfulness of being alive in that time, one of my favourite novels ever. Although if you wrote a historical novel I’m sure you could give her a run for her money.

  7. really interesting to learn about the plague – and post plague opps.
    and the stone, bricks, and gates look so excellent with your rich mono hues…

      1. Hi T – I am doing well – missing my wordpressing time and blog friends here (and I get so enriched from some of the posts I read – so I miss that too) but I am catching up on a lot and also just in a new mode – which is good for right now. Different ebb and flow for different seasons…
        be back to check in soon –

  8. Not a place I have been to, but certainly heard about. I love these little journeys into your family history and the story of Eyam is particularly sad. Great photos, I love the sundial, that is most unusual and I too love the second image with the cross in the foreground. I wonder if villagers would be quite so resilient and unselfish these days. As others have mentioned, what did happen to that little lad? Not expecting you to know, but one wonders what became of him.

    1. According to Eyam Museum researches, there seem to have been 2 surviving Siddall children, and they went to live with a kinsman in Sheffield. The Siddall family is quite a clan in the area, so I don’t think they would have been abandoned 🙂

      1. The name is similar to my maternal line who were Beddall – now I am curious to know the derivation. Also from the Sheffield area.

      2. Beddall is an interesting name and not one I’ve come across while riffling around the terrain between Hathersage and Sheffield. Perhaps more Yorkshire-northerly than southerly Yorkshire-Derbyshire origins.

    1. I agree. It’s interesting that they stuck to it too, though I think some of the gentry took themselves off, and Mompesson sent his young children away. I think I read that they’ve discovered since that a core of the community had a genetic resistance to the virus. It’s still discernible down the generations of surviving families.

  9. What a delight to be able to travel so far back into history and to know your roots to such a large degree, and to be able to set foot on the very residences and land where your forebears were living, you lucky thing Tish. I loved journeying along with you. Great fodder for your literary imagination too I would think 🙂

  10. Fascinating post. Great that you have family ties to the place. Have you read “Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague” by Geraldine Brooks about this special village?

  11. We had the same plague , in Milan , a few years before , and A. Manzoni , one of the best Italian authors, in his “THE BETHROTAL” wrote about those very sad times…

    Your essay is terrific , Tish , I learnt a lot about the place your family comes from , and could confront those years’ calamity in both your country and mine…

  12. Tish…what a great read. I know next to nothing about my ancestors. But I think no matter how much things change, they stay the same…plagues just come in different packages these days, maybe.

  13. It’s a long while since I was in Eyam but it’s been on my mind recently for obvious reasons. I wonder if any community today would feel able to shut itself off as thoroughly as the people of Eyam did?

    1. That’s a very big thought, Sarah. It’s doubly impressive that the villagers, in the face of some quite shocking mortality waves, could accept staying put. They had some assistance from the Duke of Devonshire in terms of supplies, but even so. I do seem to remember reading that some of the well off members of the village were intent on ‘escaping’. Have you read about the research that’s shown that the genetic make up of descendant survivors apparently still carries a chromosome anomaly that was likely to confer immunity. Extraordinary – if a rather hair-raising example of survival of the fittest.

      1. I honestly don’t know the answer to that, Sarah. In fact I’d not thought of it. I suspect not. I rather gathered that the people so blessed had stayed in the town down the generations, and presumably intermarried with like others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.