The Plague

Eyam Hall

“The haunting past of a quaint village is brought to life by the residual relics of those bygone times. Residents and visitors have penned their evocative lines to ensure that the history lives on. The rough limestone moors give the perfect theatre for the tales.”

The Grouse to Leadmill through Eyam : Circular Walk - Map and Directions : Google Earth Tour for this Walk

The writers on the The Plague route:

Thomas Denman - William Wood – Mary & William Howitt - Joseph Hutton – Anna Seward – Richard Furness - Murray Gilchrist – Marmaduke Middleton

With short abridged extracts from The Literary Way, written by Terry Goble and published by The Creative Peak


The plague hit a village on The Literary Way almost 350 years ago and caused widespread death, but for us it has left a tremendous legacy of writing. Strangely there is virtually no writing in the immediate aftermath of the devastation, but it has given inspiration for later writers and poets to tell the tale in their own ways. From the same village comes a vicar’s daughter, who moved in some of the highest literary circles in England. Although Sir Walter Scott was only thirteen years old when Samuel Johnson died, our writer knew both men very well. She appears the epitome of a spinster from the vicarage, but all may not be as it seems. She was a copious letter writer and produced a biographical memoir of one of our friends on The Literary Way, Erasmus Darwin, who she knew most of her life. Of those who took the Plague as their theme we have a local historian, a novel writing newspaper man and a poet, who was a friend of Charles Dickens.

Coincidentally, the same village produced several other writers, some who were native to the area, while others had moved in. One person gives us late nineteenth century Gothic short stories and another poems about the local area. The latter poet had an unusual biographer. But that is not all. We will start with a man, who was a defence advocate in the House of Lords for one of the most famous trials in the constitution of this land. He went on to a successful legal career, but still managed to contribute some literary articles. His daughter became the wife of Francis Hodgson who, as we know, was Byron’s friend and at one time vicar of Bakewell and latterly Curate of Edensor. Finally, on this walk we will consider a book, which was somewhat of an eccentric production. Only two copies were printed.

The variety of landscapes in this chapter is extensive. The long distant views with the Derwent Valley tucked under the edge, contrasts with the rolling countryside with hidden remote green valleys. The villages comprise traditional Derbyshire cottages that have been there for centuries and are solidly built from local stone. We leave the Grouse Inn and take the route along Curbar Edge, until there is a path on our right to allow a descent. We follow it down the hill, cross the road near the Chequers Pub and eventually come out at the pretty Froggatt Bridge over the River Derwent. After crossing the bridge we follow the river bank towards Baslow, for a short way, until we reach a footpath on our right. This takes us over a road and past a farm and brings us out on a lane which leads into Stoney Middleton. On our right is a small building with a stream emerging from the wall by the side of it. This is an old bath house and the remains of some past aspirations to be a spa. Interestingly, if you place your hand in the water you will be in for a surprise as the water is tepid and not cold as one would expect. On our left before the church is Middleton Hall.

Defending the Queen

If you are an advocate in the courts of London and wish to become a King’s Counsel, then a career limiting move would be to challenge the King in Parliament. But that is exactly what Thomas Denman did. George IV, when he was Prince of Wales, illegally married Maria Fitzherbert. Then shortly after completed a legal marriage to a woman he had never seen before the nuptials, Caroline of Brunswick. After nine months they had a baby and, shortly afterward, they separated. Caroline went to Europe and according to the rumours took a number of lovers. Some fourteen years later, the Prince of Wales became George IV following the death of his father. Caroline returned to England anticipating becoming Queen of England. The King was totally opposed to it and wanted her removed as his wife and Queen.

This prompted furious debates in both Houses of Parliament, and in the press and populace. The returning Queen was seen as a symbol of the reform movement. Thomas Denman was one of the advocates that became part of the Queen’s defence team. Eventually it was settled that she would go away with a large annual annuity. At the time, it did not help Thomas Denman’s career, but a combination of being a Whig MP, a leading advocate and circuit judge, meant that he became a King’s Counsel and went on to become the Lord Chief Justice. He was given this leading legal role in 1832 and served for eighteen years, until he resigned because of ill-health at the age of seventy-one.

Although he lived in Stoney Middleton Hall, he took the title of Lord Denman of Dovedale because of his particular liking for the valley. Here he described, in a letter, his feelings for Dovedale. The letter was contained in a biography of him written shortly after his death by a fellow judge, Sir Joseph Arnould.

Dovedale I traversed yesterday: all its beauties begin on my father’s estate. I am sure that you never saw a more astonishing or romantic place.
Life of Thomas, First Lord Denman
– Sir Joseph Arnould

After our climb from Stoney Middleton the grass finally evens out and we follow a path that is generally straight ahead. In the middle of this open grass area there is a relatively small and low stone. This was the boundary stone that marked the edge of quarantine for the village of Eyam during the Plague. The ‘vinegar’ holes, which are clearly visible in the rock, are where the money was left in exchange for food. We carry on straight ahead and then pick up a path between some low walls and this leads us down into Eyam.

Eyam is famous for being the village that was decimated in the seventeenth century by the Plague, which had spread from London. There are numerous indications of these past times in the village itself, in the museum, and in many books. There are also many helpful information signs dotted around the village. We follow the path as it leads us into the centre of the village. We cross the square and head along towards the church. Just past the church on the right is a row of cottages. The church and the cottages set the scene for us to examine some of the characters and writing when the plague came to Eyam.

The Duty and Tragedy of the Mompesson Family

Many people know the story of the Plague and how it swept through London, however, it is not generally known, except for those that have visited the village, that the Plague spread from London to the small Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665. It is, of course, speculation as to how it made its journey, but the local tailor had ordered cloth from London and he was one of the first to die. The general account of the story says that the local Rector, William Mompesson, persuaded all the villagers to stay in isolation. Many will have wanted to leave and go to the towns, such as the nearby Sheffield, for safety. It is quite possible that the village quarantine stopped the plague becoming widespread across the northern towns of England. The results were devastating for the village and caused a high proportion of deaths. However, the disease was contained and there were no further outbreaks in the area.

The account of the plague in Eyam is taken from the physical evidence of graves and especially from the work of the local historian, William Wood, who was born in the village just after the turn of the century into the 1800s. Hence his account is a historical one which was written some one hundred and forty years after the plague itself. His most popular work, The History and Antiquities of Eyam, has a an explanatory subtitle, with a Full and Particular Account of the Great Plague which Desolated that Village AD 1666. The book was published in 1842 for the cost of three shillings (15p).
William’s description of the plague is:

From the latter end of 1664 to December 1665, about one-sixth of the population of London fell victims to the appalling pestilence; but at Eyam, five-sixths were carried off in a few months of the summer of 1666, excepting a few who died at the close of 1665.
The History and Antiquities of Eyam
- William Wood

It should be said that the figures have been disputed, but he does give us an idea of timing and the impact of the Plague that arrived at the close of one year, lay dormant for a while, and then re-appeared with vengeance the following summer. The disease is thought to have been delivered from London in a parcel of cloth for a local tailor, who lived in one of the cottages near the church. Thomas Stanley has been the incumbent at the parish, until his removal for Puritan views that had been in favour when he had been appointed under the Cromwell regime. He did, however, remain in the village where he had been known for over twenty years.

William Mompesson had arrived with his wife, Catherine, and their children, a year or so before the outbreak. During the winter phase when the disease seemed to be reducing, the Mompesson’s sent their children away to other members of the family in Yorkshire. Catherine stayed behind with her husband. The plague and the deaths grew in their intensity and this resulted in the village going into quarantine. As part of the way on which they tried to deal with the Plague in the village, the Rector baulked against drawing a crowd into the confines of the church each Sunday. A short distance away in the village there is a deep valley, called Cucklet Delf, which has a mound overlooking it. On that mound that are some limestone arches in which it is reputed that William stood to deliver the service to the people of the village who could spread themselves out in the delf. If we leave the church with its reminders of the Plague and carry on along Church Street. We turn left near Eyam Hall and left again along a footpath and in a hundred yards or so cross into the field on the left. As we walk around the field we can see the Delf and the limestones arches from which the preaching to the plague congregation took place.

William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley both survived the disease, but Catherine Mompesson died. William had the task of writing to his children to tell them. This letter survived the years, and this is how it opened.

To my dear children, George and Elizabeth Mompesson, these present with my blessing.
Eyam August 31, 1666
Dear Hearts, - This brings you the doleful news of your dear mother’s death – the greatest loss which ever befell you! I am not only deprived of a kind and loving consort, but you are also bereaved of the most indulgent mother that ever dear children had. We must comfort ourselves in God with this consideration, that the loss is only ours, and that what is our sorrow is her gain. The consideration of her joys, which I do assure myself are unutterable, should refresh our dropping spirits.
Letter to His Children
- William Mompesson

As a modern adjunct to the history of events over three hundred years ago, The Roses of Eyam is a play written by Don Taylor and first screened on television in the 1970’s. It is based on the village and how the plague progressed and its original stars, were Ronald Pickup, Leslie Sands and Caroline John. It has been revived many times at different theatres and has become a studied play within English Literature syllabuses.

Among the Verdant Mountains of the Peak

In 1821, Mary Botham married William Howitt and after he had given up his business, they set forth to write together. Some were joint works and others were produced by one or the other. We introduced one of his short stories at Monsal Head. They were very productive writers covering a large range of books, over one hundred and eighty between them, and also articles, poems and hymns. Among the most successful for Mary were childrens’ book and she produced the well-known rhyme, The Spider and the Fly. She also learned Swedish and translated many books into English. William and Mary became well-known and respected. Mary’s poetry was compared with Keats, and both her and her husband were good friends with Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, who sent them a draft of her first novel, Mary Barton, before publication. Mary was sympathetic to young women trying to make their way in the world, and we saw earlier, in The Literary Way how she befriended Eliza Meteyard. She also struck up a friendship with Charlotte Cushman the American actress, before she became famous in England. William and Mary moved house many times, but for a short period lived in Belpher, which is in the Derwent Valley. They made frequent trips to the Peak District.

One of their first publications was The Desolation of Eyam which is a long poem about the plague in this village. This is the third verse.

Among the verdant mountains of the Peak,
There lies a quiet hamlet, where the slope
Of pleasant uplands wards the north-winds bleak ;
Below, wild dells romantic pathways ope;
Around, above it, spreads a shadowy cope
Of forest trees : flower, foliage, and clear rill
Wave from the cliffs, or down ravines elope;
It seems a place charmed from the power of ill
By sainted words of old: so lovely, lone, and still.
The Desolation of Eyam
– William and Mary Howitt

A Swordsman and a Painter

A local paper is called the Derbyshire Times and was founded in 1854 as the Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald. It original owner was Francis Augustus Hatton, a printer and bookseller at Chesterfield in Derbyshire. One of his sons was Joseph Hatton, who would follow his father into the newspaper business, but not as an owner but as a journalist and editor. At different periods in his career, he was the London correspondent of the New York Times and editor of the Sunday People. However, we have an interest in one of the fifteen novels that he wrote. It is entitled The Dagger and the Cross, with the sub-title, A Romance. It was published in New York, in 1897.

If we return to the main road through Eyam and turn left. Just past the turn to the right there is an open space as an entrance to some cottages. It was also the site of one of the village wells. Just behind this space is the ruins of Bradshaw Hall. The book is set around Bradshaw Hall, of which, only a few remains are left in the current day. The opening of the book is set in Venice with one of the key figures being a painter, discussing with a friend, the escapades of a swordsman who had the reputation as a chaser of women. The book quickly moves on to Derbyshire and the village of Eyam. The owner of the Old Hall and his daughter wished to decorate their house with the finest murals possible. The father wished to rival the elegance of Chatsworth, so he had sent to Italy for the best painters and artists. The story then takes shape as the Italian painter’s entourage arrive and, a little latter, the swordsman also moves into the village. Reuben Clegg is Eyam local man in the story and he is infatuated with the daughter, Mary Talbot, of the Lord of Old Hall.

To add to the contrast between the local villagers and their visitors the story is set in the year before the plague arrives. Local characters, who had key roles during the spread of the disease, are included in the story. Those mentioned include Vicars, the tailor’s journey man, and William and Catherine Mompesson. The winter passed and in the spring the new arrival in the village was Zilleto, the swordsman, who was a womaniser.

The Swan of Lichfield

Nearly 150 years after the Plague, Eyam church, or more precisely the rectory, gave us a poet. We will let Sir Walter Scott, her biographer and literary executor, guide us through her contribution to the literary world. Anna Seward also gives us the opportunity to draw together several of the notable people in literature at the time. She also provides a significant link between the two giants of English Literature, Samuel Johnson and Sir Walter Scott. The latter was only 13 years old when the former died, but Anna Seward knew them both.

The name of Anna Seward has for many years held a high rank in the annals of British literature; and the public has a right to claim, upon the present occasion, some brief memorials of her by whom it was distinguished. As the tenor of her life was retired, though not secluded, and uniform, though not idle, the task of detailing its events can neither be tedious nor uninstructive.
The Poetical Works of Anna Seward with Extracts from her Letters and Literary Correspondence
- Sir Walter Scott

She spent her early life in Eyam, where her father was the Rector. He was responsible for building the Parsonage in the village. Her family then moved to Lichfield where she joined the literary circle of the town, which had already been strongly established as it was home of Samuel Johnson. As his fame became more widespread so people of literature had gravitated towards Lichfield. This was accentuated with the arrival of Erasmus Darwin. The Seward family had moved to Lichfield, in 1754, when her father became a Prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral. They moved into the area near the Cathedral and had Erasmus Darwin as a neighbour. Anna gradually became known as ‘The Swan of Lichfield’. She wrote both poetry and a poetical novel, Louisa. It was very popular at that time although it is the type of work that is not in favour today. She was also a great correspondent and exchanged letters with many of the leading figures of the day.

Anna had particular praise for Erasmus Darwin’s most significant poem. It was called The Botanic Garden. It was divided in two major parts The Economy of Vegetation and The Love of Plants. The poems go beyond just flat descriptions. For example, Darwin introduces the new idea of the Linnaeus’ classification of plants, and the reproduction methods he frequently compared with humans. He also brought forth, in the poems, other scientific discoveries what he knew about through his wide range of friends. Despite its large size and cost, it did become a good seller because of the attempt to bring new discoveries in science to the reading public. Anna Seward never married and there has been speculation about her sexuality. She stayed at home and looked after her ailing father for many years and by then she was of an age where marriage would have been difficult. However, she did strike up female friendships, which wouldn’t have been unusual, but she was very distraught when one of her close female friends, Honora Sneyd, married.

One of Anna’s more noticeable poems is the Vale of Llangollen. Anna dedicated this to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby who were known as the Ladies of Llangollen. They shocked society at the time by eloping together. Both Anna Seward and Sir Walter Scott visited the Ladies at Llangollen at their home.

In 1778, when Anna was forty-six, she passed through Eyam on her way to Sheffield. This is how she describes returning to Eyam.
Not two short miles from thee, - can I refrain
Thy haunts, my native Eyam, long unseen?
Thou, and thy loved inhabitants, again
Shall meet my transient gaze.- Thy rocky screen,
Thy airy cliffs I mount; and seek they shade,
Thy roofs, that brow the steep, romantic glade;
But, while on my the eyes of friendship glow,
Swell my pained sighs, my tears spontaneous flow.
- Anna Seward

Currier, Teacher & Medic

Richard Furness, born in 1791, was a studious boy and when the time came for his first job, he aspired to be the bookkeeper at the mill, but his family had other ideas. He was sent to Chesterfield and apprenticed as a currier, where he duly served his time as an apprentice and qualified to be accepted into the craft guild of leather makers. He began as a journeyman and set off for London. Nothing unusual we might say for a hard-working and bright young man in 1810. The difference with Richard was the additional things that he did with his time whilst an apprentice. The hours to do his job were long and no doubt frequently tedious. However, he would use the time, while others slept, to read. As Chesterfield was a main town, there was more reading from the library available for him than in Eyam. His interests were widespread, and this, in later times, influenced his poetry.

After his spell in London he returned to his home village and during the annual wakes week, a celebration festival, he met the woman, who was to become his wife. She came from Hathersage and that is where they married against her father’s wishes, but we have to assume that all was made well, as he continued to live in the village. Richard’s self study had led to a knowledge level that impressed many, and he soon took the local post of teacher. He also helped others and was a regular aid to the doctor in Hope, a nearby village, and began to deal with minor medical matters leaving the doctor to focus on more complex problems. He responded to an advert for a village teacher. He and his wife moved to the village of Dore, a few miles over the hills towards Sheffield. Again he became of central part of the community. He remained in Dore until his death in 1857. In the following year his poetical works were published. The book also included a brief sketch of his life. The role of his biographer sheds some more information on how much Richard developed through self-study.

Often the biographers of village people tend to come from the same locality and document one of the local well-known people. We have given the name and background of Richard’s biographer:
G Calvert Holland M.D. Edinburgh, Honorary Physician to the Sheffield General Infirmary, Bachelier-eslettres of the University of Paris, Formerly President of the Royal Physical and Hunterian Societies, Edinburgh. So not only was his biographer, a man of great skill and knowledge, and who made a major impact on the medical profession, but he was also of a different class in society at the time, and normally there is likely to have been very little contact between the two. In the Preface he describes Richard Furness:
The many, who have to labour for their daily bread, and who experience difficulties and hardships, may learn from the career of Richard Furness valuable lessons. He was one of their number. He came into the world to work, and he bravely did his part. By industry, perseverance, and untiring energy of purpose, he rose, if not high, above the drudgery of a manual occupation. Intent on the acquisition of knowledge, he gained it, and luxuriated in the rich possession. It scattered in his path numerous sources of happiness, and enabled him to leave a name that will long be cherished in the wild and beautiful districts of his county. His spirit was ever with its bold and picturesque scenery, and, embodied in his writings, will live associated with it to future times.

The work, for which Richard’s name is mainly associated, is Rag Bag. The story starts with a rag collector who has filled his bag from various houses and loaded them on to his donkey. When the animal will go no further, the contents, which belonged to people of all different classes, spill out of the bag and become a succession of speakers. Let us leave Richard and move up towards Eyam Ridge.

One of the glories of reading the books published centuries ago is their wonderful flowery descriptions. We had William Adam‘s, Gem of the Peak, a travel guide to the Peak, and in Eyam, some eloquent language from William Wood. As we climb up the steep slope to the north of Eyam let’s enjoy William Wood’s description of the hill. A little farther north, nearly in the centre of the parish, rises Sir William – the Parnassus of the Peak; a mountain of great altitude, and honoured by numberless classical associations. From the summit of this Prince of Derbyshire Hills, the view extends over countless hills and luxuriant dales. Masson, Ax-edge, Mam Tor, Kinderscout and Stanage lift their hoary head and, beckoning to Sir William, tell in language stronger than words, of a companionship of ages. How rapturous must be the feelings of the tourist who mounts the peak of this mountain, and with fire-kindled eye beholds on every hand the uneffaced landmarks of Nature! How joyous his sensations to perceive...
The History and Antiquities of Eyam - William Wood
We turn up the cul-de-sac called the Nook. This leads us up the ridge behind Eyam and at the top we come to Highcliffe which adjoins the moors.

Gothic Moors

Highcliffe Nook is near the wide sweeping moor that leads to William Hill. These moors, featured in the novels of R Murray Gilchrist, who lived overlooking Eyam. In some of his writings, there is the fictitious village of Milton, which is synonymous with Eyam. The books such as The Peakland Faggot are short stories with each focusing on a particular character in the village. In many ways his book about Milton can be seen to be a ‘soap opera’ of the time. The Last Posset opens by introducing the character of Miss Brimble. A characteristic of Murray’s writing was the use of local accents in the speech which can make for difficult reading.
By ‘r leddy,” she muttered, “ et ‘s more nor hot—et ‘s griddlin’. I reckon I suffer more wi’ bein’ fat. When that poor lad Aitchilees were a-courtin’ me, we used for to think nowt o’ th’ climb—et were but child’s play then. But I measured nineteen inch raand th’ waist i’ those days, an’ naa I’m forty an’ five inch ! Solid flesh, tho’/ she struck her bosom heavily with her
closed hand; “ better nor ‘s to be fun’ naa’-days !

The Last Posset – Peakland Faggot - R Murray Gilchrist

He only lived in the village for a short period as he mainly lived in Cartledge Hall and was a friend of Edward Carpenter. Murray was born in 1867 and died aged 50. He wrote over twenty novels and many short stories as well as some regional books about the Peak District. He was a very private person, but did support charity work and is known for his support of Belgian Refugees. As well as his writing about characters in Milton, he developed another theme in which his writing returns us to the genre depicted at Haddon Hall, on The Literary Way, by Ann Radcliffe. While there is the underlying common theme of Gothic, Ann developed the romance of the genre, whereas Gilchrist emphasised the horror. One of his best known works is The Basilisk.

We pick up the tracks and paths towards the summit of Sir William Hill and then take the path until we reach the vicinity of Leam Hall.

Only One Poem

When a poet only publishes one poem, and that work is not well known, then it is difficult to claim a place in any literary review. For this reason we would normally have excluded this writer from The Literary Way. But, he was quite intriguing and the reason for his poem is difficult to discern. He was an important and busy man so why take the time to write? We shall let William Wood introduce him.
Throughout the whole of this parish are scattered many elegant and substantial dwelling – some for situation and elegance are rarely to be met with at so great a distance from places of commerce. Amongst the latter description is Leam Hall, the residence of M M Middleton Esq, an old English gentleman, alike distinguished for urbanity, good sense and literary taste.
The History and Antiquities of Eyam - William Wood

Marmaduke Middleton’s only book is Poetical Sketches in a Tour of the West of England. So why was it interesting? First, it is the background of the author. As Wood says, he was an English gentleman, in fact he was at one time the High Sherriff of Derbyshire, an ancient post at the discretion of the monarch. He lived at one of the larger estates in the parish, Leam Hall, which is high above Eyam and overlooks the Derwent woodlands. His work is about one thousand five hundred lines long and follows the title as he has snippets of poetry about a tour of the West Country commencing at Bridgewater, going to Penzance and returning to the Mendips.

Marmaduke never intended his work to become widespread as he published it privately in Sheffield. The intrigue is particularly in the dedication which is to:
the Misses Strutt, of Bridge-Hill, near Belpher, Derbyshire, the following pages, (written to divert the solitary hours of affliction), are dedicated with great respect by their obedient servant, the author Leam, Feb. 28, 1822.

These ladies were part of the Strutt family who had Bridge-Hill House, noted above, as the family home. Jedidiah was a wheelwright who was at the forefront of the inventions of the industrial revolution. Strutt and Arkwright would establish the heart of the spinning industry in the Derwent Valley. Jedidiah and his sons established their mill at Belpher, while Arkwright had his mill, as we have seen at Cromford. The mills along this stretch of the river now form a World Heritage site and are approximately fiftenn miles from Leam Hall which overlooks the same river. Our footpath will eventually lead us to a main road and we come out at Leadmill with the Plough Inn on the opposite side of the road.

Let’s Rest awhile at the Plough

Eyam is only a small village tucked neatly under Eyam Edge, which is topped by Sir William Hill. It is surprising how many literary characters it has produced, and to this must the added the number of visitors who have penned their thoughts. The plague in the time of Charles II has providing has been a great source of inspiration, even if there are no worthy contemporary accounts. Anna Seward through Erasmus Darwin, as her neighbour, would have been friendly with the Lunar Circle of scientists, although she was ready to pounce on any interpretation of science that did not conform to the scriptures. In and around the later 1820s and early 1830s we have learned before about Earl Grey’s Reform Bill, and it was at that time that Mary and William Howitt wrote about Eyam, and Thomas Denman was adding his legal skills to the formulation of the historic bill.