Monday, 16 September 2013

Ring a Ring o' Roses

illustration by Jessie Wilcox-Smith
As a small child you probably danced around to this nursery rhyme ending up in a heap of laughter at the end when you all fell down.
However, there is a much more sinister tale connected with this childish rhyme which I was reminded of when visiting childhood haunts in Derbyshire last week.
The ring of roses is alleged to be symbolic of a rosy skin rash which turned purple, a plague symptom in England during 1665. The posies were herbs and flowers carried as a protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and 'all fall down' - death!!!
Eyam - a village in the Peak District of Derbyshire.
The village of Eyam has drawn visitors for centuries. Situated in magnificent scenery it has both a grim and heroic story to tell. A contemporary window in the church of St. Lawrence tells the story.
In 1665, clothes arrived in the village from a London tailor which were infested with flea larvae responsible for spreading the plague.
After the first deaths, amongst them the tailor, the inclination of the population was to flee, but the young rector, William Mompesson, won the villagers' agreement that nobody should leave until the infection passed. This was in order to protect the rest of Derbyshire's population.
Emmott Sydall, a young girl from Eyam, had for sometime been courting Roland Torre from Stoney Middleton, the neighbouring village. When Eyam was closed off, the sweethearts continue to meet secretly calling to each other across the river. As the months wore on, Emmott lost her father and 5 of her siblings leaving only her mother and herself. In fear, Emmott begged Roland to stay away. They were never to meet again for on the 29th April 1666 she too perished. When Roland finally was able to enter Eyam after the plague was finished, he was given the sad news. He lived to an old age but never married.
The message went out that Eyam had been turned into a quarantined fortress, with requests that food should be left for the villagers at a parish boundary stone well outside the village.
 
Elizabeth Hancock had the heartbreaking task of burying her husband and 6 children within 8 days. Stricken with grief, once the plague was over, she fled Eyam to seek refuge with a surviving son in Sheffield.
Most of the tombs are still near the homes and fields where they died, not in the churchyard. It was important that they were buried immediately. 
The plague lasted in the village for over a year, during which time ¾ of the population perished, including Mompesson's wife. Derbyshire was saved, and Mompesson, who survived, entered the annals of English heroism.
The tomb of the vicar's wife, Catherine Mompesson, in the churchyard
Two of many tombs to be found scattered all around the village.
In this little row of cottages 18 people died.
We decided to go in search of the boundary stone, and were surprised how far the villagers had to walk along terrain which must have been very difficult to negotiate during the cold and snowy winter months. 
Food was left at this parish boundary stone - the villagers paid for it by placing coins in the small holes, cut into the boulder, which were filled with vinegar to disinfect the money.
A generous benefactor was the ancestor of the Duke of Devonshire, from Chatsworth House, who donated food and medicine to the village. 
The Bubonic Plague was actually caused by a bacterium spread from rats to fleas. Apparently it has been discovered that those who survived had a chromosome which gave them protection. This same chromosome has been shown to still exist in direct descendants of those who survived the plague, and who are still living in the village at the present time.

62 comments:

  1. What a terrible story!So interesting to learn it and looking at all these fantastic images and illustrations!Thank you Rosemary, you always invest in so much infos and research into your posts.

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    1. Dear Olympia - perhaps it is a story that we need to be reminded of, and realise just how fortunate we are today with so much medical help available to us.

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  2. Thank you Rosemary - I always learn so much from your posts.

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    1. I am pleased that you enjoyed learning about the tragic story of Eyam, which today, over 350 years later, is actually a thriving community

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  3. How did the Rector know to quarantine the village? Divine inspiration perhaps?
    Thank you for the story and the wonderful photos..

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    1. At that time the rector would not have known that the plague was caused by bacterium, but he must have realised that it spread from one to another. Knowing that the village was fairly isolated he decided that this was the only way to contain it. I think the villagers must have held him in high regard for him to be able to achieve this response from them all.

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  4. Thank you for this potted history of Eyam's history Rosemary. Those stained glass windows are absolutely gorgeous and really tell the story of the villagers and their fate. Stunning photos as usual.
    Patricia x

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    1. I shall do another post on Eyam Patricia - there is much more there than just the plague story, but this post was getting too long. Glad you enjoyed the photos.

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  5. Wow, what a story Rosemary. Of course I don't know the rhyme here but now I do know the terrible story behind it. Terrible as the story may be, you do show us a piece of beautiful England again in your pictures. You really have a lovely country.
    Marian

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    1. Dear Marian - we should all be grateful for modern medicine - what a terrible tragedy was suffered by this village in the mid 17th century.

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  6. What an incredible story, Rosemary. I knew the rosey rhyme was connected with the plague but I've never heard the story of the village of Eyam. Particularly fascinating is the way they disinfected the coins with vinegar, when we are often told that the concept of infection on surfaces was unknown until much later. Wonderful illustrations, and a great post!

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    1. Presumably the vinegar worked as the plague was confined within the village. Glad you enjoyed reading the post.

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  7. That is very interesting, thanks for telling it.
    I once used to say that poem with others and didn't know the reason behind those words until I was much older. It's odd how some poems come out of tragedy, as in so many nursery rhymes.

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    1. Yes, you are right - some of the nursery rhymes origins would make a good post. Three Blind Mice is supposed to be an allusion to the 16th century Queen 'Bloody' Mary and her enthusiasm for everything involving torture, and death.

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  8. What an interesting post, Rosemary. Every age seems to have its version of the plague, but nothing has been as devastating as that one.

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    1. Thank you Pondside and pleased that you found it of interest. I suspect that if such a thing were to happen today then villagers in a similar situation would not heed the words of the rector in such a responsive way as they did then.

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  9. Dear Rosemary, What a fascinating story! I understand from our National Public Radio that a very good book has been written on the subject within the past year or so. You might also be interested to know, as I was, that a number of long-term AIDS survivors have been found to retain the same chromosone that saved a lot of English during the Great Plague.

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    1. Dear Mark - I did read that people with the same chromosome as descendants of plague victims were protected against AIDS.
      I was mentioning to H last night that it is surprising that a film about Eyam has not been made - it is such a compelling story.

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  10. Dear Rosemary,
    what an awful disease it was! People so helpless, not much medical help in sight. As Pondside above said: it is not that we don't have our versions of 'plagues' - Aids, malaria on the rise... Here a lot of people have become very careless of vaccination, so Berlin's youth has a bad increase of measles - but of course nothing to compare with the dimensions of plague.

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    1. We have had the same problem here in the UK with measles mainly due to a researcher saying that the vaccination caused autism which was not true but it frightened mothers into not having their children protected. However, in comparison with the 17th century we have so fortunate today.

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  11. I knew a bit about the history of this but there was so much more I didn't know. So sad to read but also very interesting. Thank you for sharing it.

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    1. By introducing some of the villagers in this tragic story, I hope that it makes it seem more personal and reveals the great difficulties that they endured.

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  12. What an interesting post - I knew the origins of the rhyme but have never heard of Eyam or it's tragic history. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. I am pleased that you found it interesting Marina - may be you will visit Eyam one day yourself and see the little church and village - it brings history to life.

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  13. Hello Rosemary, From the opening pictures, I was expecting another of your "pretty flower" posts, and so was quite taken by surprise by the sad story you unfolded. An eerie coincidence is the similarity of the children in the Jessie Willcox Smith print and the form of the posts and chains surrounding the monument in the picture right below it. By the way, Jessie Willcox Smith was a very popular illustrator in America, but I didn't know that she was known in England also.

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    1. Dear Parnassus - I think that Jessie Wilcox Smith is known to many here, in particular for her magical illustrations of Charles Kingsley's Water Babies.

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  14. A sad story but so interesting! Now I now the symbolic of the ring of roses. I am captured by the beautiful images of the Derbyshire landscape, should like to have a walk there on a public footpath.

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    1. I think that you would enjoy a visit to Derbyshire - it is a county with lots of beautiful walking country, many wonderful historical homes, towns and churches to visit.

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  15. A fascinating post Rosemary, but how awful it must have been for the people of Eyam. A real life horror story.

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    1. It is impossible to imagine how awful it must have been - it went on for almost 14 months - the hardships would have been so difficult. Life then was hard anyway - no public transport, no power, and no medical help are just three things that come to mind.

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  16. Dear Rosemary,
    I enjoyed this post. We were in Eyam some years ago, drawn not only by the main 'story' but by the various acts of heroism in the face of such adversity. I too am surprised that to some degree it remains an untold story.
    Bye for now
    Kirk

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    1. Dear Kirk - how lovely to hear from you, I have missed you. As I mentioned to Mark, I am really surprised that a film has not been made of the heroism shown by the villages in Eyam. I would do one myself if I was a film maker.

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  17. So interesting but very sad. I hope it is okay for me to say I enjoyed reading this post. As an antiques dealer, I love to look back, research and learn about the past. The parish boundary stone....such sadness and hope there.

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    1. Dear Loi - I am pleased that you enjoyed reading the post - I think it is actually also a story of survival as well as being a tragedy. Visiting Eyam there is a tangible sense of history being all around - many of the little cottages have plaques saying who lived there and how many in the family died. One house we looked at had 9 deaths out of the 10 occupants, the only survivor being a 3 year old boy.
      The villagers were totally reliant on the goodwill of people in the nearby communities - it was good to take the walk to the boundary stone and follow in their daily footsteps.

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  18. Such a sad story Rosemary. What a horrible thing to have happened in such a small village. The gravestones must be really old. I don't think we have gravestones of that age in Holland.

    What a special man Mompesson was! So sad he lost his wife as well.....

    Happy week!

    Madelief x

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    1. It is a sad story Madelief, but would have been so much worse if Mompesson had not taken the action he did. Whatever would have happened if it had spread throughout Derbyshire, and then crossed over into neighbouring counties.

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  19. What a sad story, but also verry interesting.
    The colored windows tell verry nice the story.
    beautiful photo's..

    Greetings,
    Inge, my choice

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    1. It is good to reflect on how fortunate we are today with the medical help that we have at our disposal, but also important to remember how difficult life was for our ancestors.

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  20. Such a sad story, but what bravery!

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    1. I doubt whether people today would stay put - they are not so readily controlled as they used to be several hundred years ago.

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  21. Very sad but fascinating, I have traveled through Eyam many times (on the way to the Barrel Inn) but never stopped off, it is on my list of visits
    Thank you for sharing
    Thea x

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    1. I have one more post about Eyam which hopefully will reveal a little more about what is there to see.

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  22. Wow, what an engrossing story, Rosemary. So heartbreaking. How these people must have suffered. It's almost beyond comprehension. But what bravery too. What strength of character.

    Thanks for the beautiful photos once again. Thank you for sharing these wonderful images of England with an Anglophile in New Jersey. :)

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    1. Thank you Yvette - I appreciate your kind remark. Derbyshire, as a county, has such a lot of fine houses, countryside, and interesting places to visit.

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  23. What an interesting and tragic story, terrible what they have had to endure ! Your photos are beautiful and really add to the tale xx

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    1. Dear Jane - it really makes you appreciate what a charmed life we have today in comparison with the past.

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  24. Dear Rosemary,
    welcome back!!I remember this child song from Australia!
    Your post is very interisting!A sad story about the town and the people you lived there.Wonderful pictures!!!!Have a lovely week!!!
    Dimi...

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    1. Dear Dimi - I did not actually live in Eyam but I did live several miles away in Derbyshire as a child. It is interesting that a childhood rhyme should actually be recording a tragedy.

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  25. Dear Rosemary, What a most fascinating story. And how beautifully you tell it with words and photographs. ox, Gina

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    1. Dear Gina - thank you for your kind comment. It was lovely for me to revisit old haunts last week - there is much of interest in my old childhood county of Derbyshire.

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  26. Such a heart wrenching story and so well told and illustrated by your beautiful photos. I had no idea as to the origins of the Ring-a-Ring O'Roses song/game which of course we all found so much fun as children!

    Happy week - Mary

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    1. Dear Mary - many of the old nursery rhymes that we grew up with have another side to them with a tale to tell. Glad that you enjoyed the photos, thank you.

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  27. Hi, rosemary! I read this post with increasing interests. I think I’ve read briefly the “Journal of the Plague Year “ by Daniel Defoe regarding this 1665 outbreak, but I don’t remember the contents well but only that experience. Such a horrible incident in this beautiful, peaceful place! Though nowadays many bacterial infections can be treated successfully with appropriate antibiotics, humans will have to fight against the unknown malicious bacteria and viruses. It’s surprising a certain chromosome saved some people from the disease. This village is a reminder how people tried to contain the disease.

    Yoko

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    1. Dear Yoko - we have been negligent regarding keeping up with the advances that bacterium have made, and this is at our human peril. I wonder if you read the post I did about my husband's fight with bacteria, if not you may be interested to read it here:-
      http://wherefivevalleysmeet.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/beware-bacteria-repost.html

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    2. My father died of the complications from pneumonia fifteen years ago. He looked to have been on the way to recovery but when pneumococci were thoroughly killed, the mutated ordinary bacteria proliferated to stop his life.

      It is so frustrating and helpless when we don’t know the reason while there is a big, serious problem. I’m happy for you and H that H could restore himself and is in fit now, rosemary.

      Yoko

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    3. I am sorry that the bacterium outcome for your father was so tragic Yoko. H was extremely lucky to come out of his experience as well as he did, but it has made us very aware of the need for researchers to find alternative treatments for bacterium infections - I think that it is a ticking time bomb for us all.

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  28. Dear Rosemary,
    Hello hello! I've been away for so long-- I feel I've missed out on so many of your wonderful posts! This one is fascinating, a heartbreaking story so beautifully shared-- thank you! I was unfamiliar with the practice of using vinegar to disinfect the coins-- those holes in the boundary stone are poetic and poignant, aren't they?!
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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    1. Dear Erika - we were very aware that we were treading in the footsteps of the villages whilst searching for the boundary stone - isn't it amazing that it is still sitting in the field 350 years later? I expect that vinegar was all they had at their disposal, but the fact that the plague did not spread to surrounding areas seems to indicate that it worked.

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  29. Such a sad but fascinating post, Rosemary. Of course I know the broad outlines of the heroic story of Eyam, but you brought it to life by telling us of individual tragedies. I marvel at the fortitude and selflessness of the people of Eyam as they made such great sacrifices for the sake of others.

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    1. The plague lasted for about 14 months and that is a long time in which to carry such hardship and grief. They must have shared a huge confidence in the rector to be able to sustain their isolation in the way that they did. Could you imagine that being the case today?

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  30. Great post, Rosemary. I always learn so much from you. Beautiful, sad, and intriguing.

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    1. Knowing the story makes you realise how fortunate we are today.

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