In 1665, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague came to England. Known as the Great Plague of London, it devastated the overpopulated city for almost two years. Thought to have come from an outbreak in the Netherlands, it killed up to 7,000 people a week and close to 100,000 people overall. There was chaos in the streets of London. The rich and middle-class left the city, leaving the poor and those who didn’t have the means to leave to perish. As the plague spread throughout the city, trade had almost entirely stopped, and businesses were closed.
Eventually, as the disease spread, people were prevented from leaving, whether they were healthy or not. Crosses marked the homes where infected people lived. The homes marked with crosses were barricaded, so even if you weren’t sick, you were sure to die soon. People left their dead family members in the doorways of their homes for the men driving the plague carts to pick up to bring to the plague pits. When the death toll reached its highest point, the pits looked like mountains of dead bodies.
Although the Great Plague was concentrated in London, it spread to other areas–wherever the fleas infected with the disease went. It is believed to have arrived in Eyam, Derbyshire in a box of cloth. Edward Cooper was a trader who lived in the village, and his servant George Vickers was the first person to touch the cloth. Vickers separated the samples and hung them up to dry since they were damp when they arrived. Within four days, he had died of the plague. Others in the household soon died, and Cooper himself was dead two weeks later.
The people of Eyam were beginning to panic. Another 26 people had died by the end of the next month. The deaths slowed down during the winter months, but by summer 1666, 1/5 of the town’s small population of 360 were dead. Many were threatening to leave the town, which would, according to scientific thought at the time, spread the plague further. The people of Eyam turned to the town’s religious leaders, Thomas Stanley and Reverend William Mompesson, for guidance.
Thomas Stanley, the former rector of Eyam, still lived in the small town. He was a Puritan dissenter who had refused to convert to the Church of England when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Although he lost his position, Stanley remained in the town to train his new successor, Reverend William Mompesson. When the plague broke out, Stanley and Mompesson joined forces to reassure the people of the town. The two men had an interesting idea, one that would take some major convincing.