George Viccars, a village tailor in Eyam, Derbyshire, ordered a box of cloth from London in 1665. Five days later George was dead, and within 15 months so were 260 of the village's 350 inhabitants.
Three hundred years later this tranquil English village is a tourist attraction which owes its notoriety to George's purchase; a children's rhyme - and fleas. Bubonic plague-infested fleas were housed in George's cloth. Eyam is now known as The Plague Village.
Although the rhyme above carries an aura of daisies, warm sunny days and laughing children dancing in circles, its' origin in Eyam (pronounced Eem) was more macabre.
This unusual "survivor" of the plague, describes the victim's red rash as a ring of roses; posies were the herbs and nosegays carried to ward off the deadly disease; atishoo refers to sneezing - one of the main symptoms of the disease; and all fall down was, of course, the end.
I've been told that village children chanted the rhyme, while dancing around the victims.
After visiting the village this summer, and reading the history of the period, I'm pleased to say I found no such ghoulish reference. Sufferers were nursed by their families in houses now known as the Plague Cottages on Church Street.
In a heroic effort to contain the plague, villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves by mutually agreeing to remain within the confines of a stone boundary built around the village. Food was left at various pre-arranged locations, and the money to pay for it, according to parish records, was put into running water at the wells situated at either end of the town.
"Eat marigold flowers daily, as a salad, with oil and vinegar; or the tops of rue with bread and butter every morning; or infuse Rue, Sage, Mint, Rosemary, Wormwood, of each a handful, in two quarts of the sharpest vinegar, over warm embers for eight days.
Then strain it through a flannel, and add half an ounce of camphor, dissolved in three ounces of rectified spirits of wine. With this wash the Loins, Face and Mouth, and snuff a little up the nose when you go abroad. Smell to a sponge dip therein, when you approach infected persons or places." Armed with this recipe for prevention, the villagers hoped to fight certain death.
If the above prescription failed, the recommended remedy was to pluck the tail feathers from a pigeon, set the tail on the sore, and the "venome" would be drawn out.
A chicken was a suitable substitute, and "all should studiously avoid dancing, running, leaping about, lechery and bathing." The latter, it seems to me, would be a foregone conclusion.
Wakes Week is held annually at the end of August. The Town Head and Town End wells are blessed, and "dressed", with pictures created with thousands of flower petals and natural materials commemorating the self-sacrifice of the villagers.
On Carnival Day (Saturday) an open air Sheep Roast takes place at the old spit on Church Street - if you long for oat cakes and mutton fat, this is the place to be. Eyam is on the A263 highway about 12 miles from Chesterfield via Chapel-en-le-Frith.
Author: Ursula Lewis