Mompesson has the church door locked and closed Eyam to it’s fate,
We’re ordered not to leave these bounds so now we quietly wait...
In 1665, the plague which was raging in London arrived in the village of Eyam with a delivery of material to the tailor. The outbreak was severe, and to avoid spreading the disease to the surrounding villages, the Reverend William Mompesson proposed a strict quarantine, closing the village by setting a boundary line which nobody should cross.
Before the outbreak began, Emmott Syddall, a young girl of about twenty two who lived in Eyam, was betrothed to Rowland Torre who lived in the neighbouring village Stoney Middleton. When the plague came to Eyam, they would meet secretly at Cucklet Delph, one on each side of the river, until the time came when Emmott stopped showing up, and Rowland returned in vain, time and again to seek for her at the Delph.
My research as written below, should by no means be referred to as absolute fact. It is merely the pieces of information which led to the writing of ‘Emmott’s Song’, and is only as accurate as my creative memory! For a better idea of the what happened when the plague came to Eyam, I would recommend either reading John Clifford’s ‘Eyam Plague’, first published in 1989, or visiting Eyam, and specifically the Eyam Museum.
In the late summer of 1665, George Viccars, at the house of Mary Cooper, unloaded a case of damp fabrics and laid them out to dry. Mary was a widow who had recently remarried the tailor Alexander Hadfield, and historians are unclear whether Viccars was a journeyman tailor himself, taken in as a lodger by Mary Cooper, a servant of her house, or assistant tailor to Hadfield. Local tradition describes the box of material arriving from London, and Viccars becoming ill soon after opening it. He died a few days later. It is believed that the cloth in the case contained fleas which carried the plague from London. They would normally have fed on rats, but after a long confinement, they bit Viccars as he shook out the material, and he became the first victim of the disease in the village. Between September 1665 and November 1666, 260 people died of the plague in Eyam.
Several months after the plague first came to Eyam, William Mompesson, the village Rector, made a set of decisions which have made Eyam famous. There were other outbreaks of the plague around the country in 1666, but it is Mompessons rules, and the bravery and determination of the villagers to contain the plague, which have given this story such renown. Firstly, no churchyard burials or funerals were allowed to take place, as the demand for graves was too high, and they feared the corpses might spread infection and should be buried as quickly as possible. This meant families had no choice but to bury their own dead, which they did in their garden, or in the fields. This would have been a major concern to the community, as they believed that if you weren’t buried in consecrated ground, you wouldn’t be accepted on Judgement Day. The second decision was that the church should be locked up, and all the services should be performed in the open air. They thought that by not meeting in such a confined space, they could avoid the disease passing from person to person. Instead, the congregation met at Cucklet Delph, a natural amphitheatre where Mompesson could speak to a large number of people, spread out across the area, and still be heard. A service of remembrance and thanksgiving is still held at the Delph on the last Sunday of August every year.
The third, and most infamous decision, was to impose a quarantine on Eyam, a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the village, to stop the spread of the plate to neighbouring villages.
Emmott Sydnall was a young girl of about twenty two, who lived in a cottage across from Mary Coopers house where the plague started. Her father John Syddall, and four of her siblings, where among the first victims of the disease. Emmott was betrothed to Rowand Torre from Stoney Middleton, a neighbouring village, and according to legend the two would meet secretly during the winter of 1665/1666. At first he would visit her in the village, but when they realised this was too dangerous, they would meet at Cucklet Delph, the river dividing them, minimalising any risk of Rowland catching the disease. In ‘Eyam Plague’ John Clifford also suggests that the two would only have looked at each other “...from a distance, and in silence, lest their plan should be discovered” (Clifford, 2003, p32) When Emmott stopped appearing at Cucklet Delph towards the end of April 1666, Rowland continued to go to their meeting place, with hope that against all odds, she might still show up. He was one of the first people to re-enter the village when it was pronounced safe towards the end of 1666, but was soon told the worst; Emmott Syddall had died in April.
I have used Emmott’s voice to tell the story of the plague in Eyam, but in truth, it is likely that she was had already died when Mompesson applied the village rules which are described in the song.
By Bella Hardy
Roland, please forgive me dear,
It breaks my heart full sore
I long to keep your company
But we shall meet no more, no more
We shall meet no more
The days are dark as night my love
And death looks for my door
The whispers tell that Gabriel hounds
Have been heard upon the moor, the moor,
The hounds howl on the moor
Mompesson has the church door locked
And closed Eyam to it’s fate,
We're ordered not to leave these bounds
So now we quietly wait, we wait,
The end we quietly wait
Our congregation meets outside
Beneath the heaven’s high
All down at Cucklet Delph we pray
Where in secret met you and I, my love
In secret met you and I
My family sleeps in the yard
In flower beds side by side.
I fear that when the judgement
Their souls shall be denied, denied,
Their souls shall be denied
So Roland, please forgive me dear,
It breaks my heart full sore
To know you’ll wait down at the Delph
But you’ll see my face no more, no more
My face you’ll see no more