A singular church bell tolls as a lonely warning in the small village of Eyam in the northern Derbyshire dales, warning of the arrival of an unwelcome guest. The year was 1665 and a flea-infested bundle of cloth had arrived from London for Alexander Hadfield, the local tailor. Within a week his assistant George Viccars who, noticing the bundle was damp, opened it up, and was dead within a day. As the bell rang out more began dying in the surrounding village soon after.
The disease spread very quickly, and the villagers turned for leadership to their rector, the Reverend William Mompesson, as well as the ejected Puritan minister Thomas Stanley. They introduced a number of precautions to slow the spread of the illness from May 1666. The measures included the arrangement that included the provision that locals were to bury their own dead. The weekly church services were relocated to the natural amphitheatre of Cucklett Delph, allowing villagers to separate themselves in worship and so help to reduce the risk of infection. Perhaps the best-known decision was to quarantine the entire village to prevent further spread of the disease.
The plague ran its course over 14 months and one account states that it killed at least 260 villagers, with only 83 surviving out of a population of 350. That figure has been challenged on a number of occasions, with alternative figures of 430 survivors from a population of around 800 being given. The church in Eyam has a record of 273 individuals who were victims of the plague.
Survival among those affected appeared random, as many who remained alive had close contact with those who died but never caught the disease. For example, Elizabeth Hancock was uninfected despite burying six children and her husband in only eight days. The graves are known locally as the Riley graves after the farm where they lived. Also, the unofficial village gravedigger, Marshall Howe, also survived, despite handling many infected bodies.
The village’s actions prevented the disease from moving into surrounding areas.
Today Eyam has various plague-related places of interest. One is the Coolstone in which money, usually soaked in vinegar, which was believed to kill the infection, was placed in exchange for food and medicine. It is just one of several ‘plague stones’ that served to make the boundary that should not be crossed by either inhabitant or outsider.
Sounds familiar these days doesn’t it? Now though, no bells toll to warn people of the dangers of a hugely infectious disease. Instead, we listen and watch, via instantaneous modern media channels, to information or mis-information depending on the source and what or whom you choose to believe.
The noise emanating from different places in the midst of the present Covid 19 pandemic ranges from the shrill, egocentric ‘recommendations’ to drink bleach and shine lights inside our bodies to previous prevarications including the outright denial of the incidence of the disease at all, even though the body counts climb higher on a daily basis. In other jurisdictions, medical practitioners who question those in powerful positions and the lack of medical facilities end up mysteriously ‘jumping’ out of windows in the hospitals they worked in.
So the ‘noise’, that for eons in the human and animal world has served to warn of impending danger has been ‘changed’, muffled and in places, nullified.
We need real leadership which speaks straight and for all the right reasons. To ring the bells for their respective populations, and make informed and resolute decisions in order to protect and contain events that signify immediate and imminent threat to life. Just as William Mompesson and Thomas Stanly did all those years ago in Eyam.
We do not, however, require the clanging, empty vessels that mislead, lie and distract for their own ends. Let those clear bells ring out in the newsfeeds that inform and give us their educated and unabridged message that has the truth at its core, and is intended to protect for all the right reasons.