In an April 2020 article titled “How coronavirus is giving us a crash course in a different moral universe,” Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, challenges his readers “to sacrifice what we would normally like to do for the good of the whole.” (Prospect Magazine, April 17, 2020). Dr. Ian Simpson of Corner Brook, NL recalls hearing a story 60 years ago as a young medical student in England about one village’s self-sacrifice in the wake of a 17th century pandemic. In this case, it was an Anglican village which made sacrifices to keep others safe. (Simpson, a member of The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, is the author of Memoirs of a Newfoundland Doctor: Over Fifty Years of Fulfillment and Enjoyment (Tellwell Talent, 201). He received an honorary doctorate from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2019 for his innovative medical practice and environmental activism.)
According to Simpson, in 1665 a stagecoach arrived in Eyam, a small town in Derbyshire in the centre of England, between Sheffield and Manchester and delivered a load of used clothes from London for the local tailor. The clothes were picked up by the tailor’s assistant Alexander Hadfield, who died a few days later. It was apparent that he had died from the bubonic plague, caused by bacteria found on fleas and caught from rats, both of which were very common at the time. The black swellings or buboes, as they were called, were easily identifiable. This was only one year since the Great Plague of London, when nearly 70,000 Londoners, or 15 percent of the population, had died, so villagers were well aware of the dangers of this disease.
The decision for Eyam townsfolk to quarantine themselves was initiated by their Rector, the Reverend William Mompesson. Although Mompesson reportedly had an uneasy relationship with his predecessor who still lived in Eyam, they were able to work together. (The predecessor was a Puritan and presumably a Cromwell supporter, who was replaced after the Restoration of the Monarchy.) When the two priests gathered villagers in the parish church and explained their plan to them, the villagers unanimously agreed to self-isolate, or quarantine, as a village, by establishing a 1-mile radius cordon, marked by boundary stones. Messages were sent to all surrounding villages and towns not to enter Eyam. Instead, Eyam villagers would leave messages in holes in the village boundary stones. Food would be left at the village boundaries and money to pay for food supplies left in bowls of vinegar, which was thought to disinfect coinage.
It was thought that Eyam had a population of as many as 800, but it was known that there were 260 deaths, or almost one-third of the population. Families had to bury their own dead. Elizabeth Hancock, for example, had to dig graves herself for her husband and then for six children who died within a matter of eight days, as other villagers were too afraid of contracting the plague to assist her. The villagers’ self quarantine lasted 14 months and stopped the spread of the plague to neighbouring villages and towns.
Dr. Simpson says, “When I first read of Eyam and came across the Rev. Mompesson, I thought it must have been a Catholic parish, as Mompesson seemed to be a continental name, and there were Roman Catholic villages scattered around England. But Mompesson’s wife was an early victim who died early in the quarantine period. That was when I realised that the Rev. Mompesson was a member of the Church of England, as Catholic clergy did not marry.”
Reflecting on this story, Simpson asks, “What lessons can we learn from our 17th century Anglican ancestors?” First, they self-isolated extremely efficiently and did not appear to have broken their quarantine. Secondly the villagers acted self-sacrificially. They stayed inside their self-imposed boundary, knowing that although they might catch the plague, their actions would save many others. Thirdly, the inspiration for this noble action appears to have been religious, as the epidemic stayed within the parish boundary, though at great cost to Eyam. Self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and a faith commitment helped these villagers save others.
And so, as Bishop Graham Tomlin reminds us, our current pandemic may also be an opportunity for us as Anglicans “to sacrifice what we would normally like to do for the good of the whole.”