Plague Village

I wrote this piece for the Kensington & Norwood Writers’ group in 2009. Occasional dates need to be adjusted. See footnote (1)

Plague Village

After the outbreak of war in September 1939, everyone expected massive air raids to begin at once. Sheffield, a city of about half a million people, where we lived, produced high quality alloy steels and was an obvious target. The firm my father worked for, E Allen and Co, could not move the foundries, furnaces and rolling mills. They decided to close down the office building and evacuate the administrative and clerical staff to the country. They found a large vacant mansion close to the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. By November the move of staff and families was complete. The distance was fifteen miles. We entered a different world.

The village is famous because of the bubonic plague outbreak in 1665-1666. The disease was carried there by fleas contained in a chest of cloth sent from London, where the plague was raging. The vicar, Mompesson, persuaded the villagers to remain at home rather than scattering in flight. He feared they would spread the contagion to other towns. Of about 160 families, half died. Some estimates put the figure much higher.

Although surrounded by spectacular scenery, part of the Peak District National Park, Eyam in 1939 was not the picturesque place that people who have never been to this region might imagine. It was grim, a string of dark stone cottages and houses stretching for an irregular mile along a single winding street. Mining for the fluorspar (2) associated with lead ore, and limestone quarrying, were the industries. There were two small shoe factories giving employment to a few of the womenfolk. Farming, on shallow soils in a wet and often cold upland climate, was a minority occupation.

About two hundred Sheffield folk descended on Eyam like a second visitation of the plague. The total population, before we arrived, had been about six hundred. We had to find accommodation wherever we could. After a few months in a shared house and another temporary rented place, my parents leased Orchard Cottage. There was no orchard. We had two small bedrooms. Mum and Dad took one, my twelve-year-old sister, Audrey, the other. I, nine years old, slept on top of the bath. One of the village carpenters made a big, removable wooden board to fit over it. There had to be holes cut for the taps to poke through. A mattress was put on the board with my pillow at the end away from the taps. If someone was bathing, I had to wait for him or her to finish before going to bed.

We were lucky to have water laid on. Many of the cottages relied on stone troughs that stood along the village street at intervals of two or three hundred yards. Streams came down off the steep scarp slope of sandstone on the north side, then plunged underground when they reached the limestone outcrop. Each small sinkhole had a trough, hacked out of solid grit stone, to catch some of the water before it vanished. The womenfolk walked to the nearest trough, with a yoke across their shoulders, and carried buckets home.

Most of the village had earth closets. The inhabitants of one group of cottages had to cross the street to reach their privies. Ours was in the back yard. A horse-drawn, stinking dung cart was dragged through the town each Wednesday morning. Two or three men worked all day emptying the buckets. The cart was more than full, slopping over, by the time it reached the eastern end where the load was dumped, without treatment, on the council tip.

In the village square, under a locked cover, was an old iron ring that had been used to tether bulls. On request at the nearby pub, a key would be produced to open the cover to see the ring. Nominally illegal in England after 1836, the cruel sport of bull baiting continued in some places until the late 19th century. This, in 1939, was within the memory of some people in Eyam.

At first I attended the village school, the only townie there. The boys all wore wooden clogs with steel toecaps. Wearing my sissy leather shoes I had no defence if they decided, for fun, to kick the furriner in the shins. Next to the school was a mine with an associated fluorspar cleaning plant and a narrow gauge railway on an embankment, taking spoil to the dump. The trains, drawn by a diesel engine, regularly rattled noisily past the school windows a few feet away.

Eyam village Church of England school, in 2008. The adjacent mine has been closed and replaced by housing. The gabled extension on the right and the flower boxes did not exist in 1940. The old earth closets have been replaced.

After a year I passed an exam to go to the grammar school in the market town of Bakewell, travelling daily on the school bus that toured the district, picking up a few children at each village on the way.

Jimmy Cooper, the son of an Eyam farmer, was a bright lad. He won a scholarship entitling him to go to the grammar school without paying fees. He and I, the youngest in the small group from Eyam, sat together on the bus and came to know each other well. Jim’s older brother, Bernard, was senior to us and their sister Molly was younger, so I hardly knew them.

The Cooper’s home and farm building, all under the same sandstone – flagged roof, was right on the edge of the main village street which, here, had no footpath. Passing traffic was only inches away. There were small windows set into the very thick, dark limestone walls. Entry to the property was through a gloomy gennel (3) between this and the next dwelling. Along the back was a wider passageway running the full length of the building, with a steep, slightly overhanging limestone cliff looming over it, higher than the chimney. Narrowly confined in this deep alley were the earth closet, a few small lean-to sheds, a chicken house and a rabbit hutch. Hanging on the wall was a galvanised steel bath. This back way, with doors to the cowshed and stable at the further end, opened to a steep, winding side lane.

The only way into the house itself was a single door opening on the side facing the cliff. On entry, one stepped down onto a stone flagged floor, laid directly on the earth and perpetually damp. There were two rooms on this low level, separated by a staircase enclosed in rough wooden boarding. The first room, entered immediately, was the kitchen-living room with a black iron, coal-fired cooking range and open grate. The other ground floor room was the parents’ bedroom, into which I was never invited. Above were two more small rooms, one opening off to the right of the stair head for Molly, the other on the left for the two boys. The flat stones of the roof, resting on old, gnarled timbers, sloped down steeply to the outer margins. The children could barely sit up in bed.

Water came from a trough, fortunately just across the road from the house. Mrs Cooper had an axe to break the ice on winter mornings. There was no electricity. Lighting was by gas, with a shilling meter. Jimmy told me the family often sat by the fire cunningly cheating the gas company in the evenings. They let the meter run out but a pilot light still burned. With this free illumination and the glow from the fire they could see each other. They were literate but did not read. Jimmy told me once, quite proudly, that he had never read a book except the ones specified for school. In our first year, required reading for English was Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. There were few greenwood trees on the Cooper farm.

Next to the boys’ bedroom was the loft, with a square hatch opening about ten feet above ground on the street side. When needed, the hatch was opened to take hay in. The horse drawn wagon would temporarily block more than half the street. Stowing the hay was done with pitchforks. Bernard would stand insecurely on top of the load, forking hay through the hatch. His father laboured inside under the low roof, stacking. Jimmy would hold the horse. When the loft was well filled the boys were never cold at night. The hay, slowly cooking itself, gave their room a kind of central heating.

Below the hayloft were stalls for some of the milch cows. One of the boys’ duties before leaving to catch the school bus was to milk the beasts, by hand, into open buckets. The farm had another shippon (4) with the main herd of shorthorn cattle lower down the village, immediately opposite Orchard Cottage where we lived. Jimmy and his Dad tried a few times to teach me how to milk a cow. I never got the knack of it. After a few minutes of my fumbling the cow would begin to object, kicking and pulling away from me, threatening to knock the bucket over. Jimmy had to take over. After milking, full churns were left at the roadside to be collected each day and taken far down the dale to the bottling plant.

When the hay harvest was to be gathered, Audrey and I, with other children and some of the adult neighbours, used to help. A mower was drawn by the horse. Patches of grass that could not be reached by this machine were cut by scythe. I could not even lift the scythe, let alone swing it rhythmically as required. If the sun shone, the cut grass, lying flat in rows, was turned over and over with pitchforks to dry, then bundled up by hand into stooks. It was exhausting work, all the more so because we were always racing to finish before the rain came, which it often did before the whole crop was in.

The hay bundles were loaded onto the cart and taken to the loft. I was asked once to hold the horse’s head while Bernard was up on top and Jimmy elsewhere. I was nervous and the big horse sensed it. He would not stand still, shifting his great, heavy feet and causing the wagon to move. This was terrifying for me and dangerous for Bernard. One of the helpers had to take my place.

There were two or three other cattle farms in Eyam, not very different.

Sheep were kept on the high, bleak moorlands above the scarp, where there was another active mine and several abandoned pits, each about half a mile deep. In a bad winter, and 1940-41 was a very bad winter, snow swept across the uplands and formed deep drifts wherever there was a hollow or a rock outcrop. Sheep would huddle in the sheltered places out of the wind. They were in the very places where the snow piled up most. They died unless the farmer could reach them in time, dig them out and take them down into the valley on a truck.

The long-expected bombing of Sheffield came in December 1940. In Eyam the sound of the bombs was heard and fires lit the sky. On the first night the city centre, with the main shops and public buildings, was almost completely destroyed. A couple of nights afterwards more than 3000 homes were burned in the crowded eastern, working class districts. None of the major steelworks was hit. The empty Allen office block was undamaged.

A few bombs fell near the village later in the war, the result of random ‘hit and run’ attacks. Two Junker 88s bombed a quarry near Eyam. I saw them about half a mile from where I stood, mistaking them at first for British aircraft. They machine-gunned the mighty palace of Chatsworth, a few miles down the valley, as they flew on.

Jimmy fell behind in his schoolwork and left as soon as he legally could. I lost touch with him. I heard that he persuaded his father, at last, to buy a small tractor. He found a girl friend, got her into trouble, as people used to say, and was obliged to marry her. When another farmer in the village died leaving a house and some land vacant, the Coopers managed to buy it. Jimmy with his wife and infants moved in. They now had electricity and water.

The danger of bombing was much reduced by 1944 and the Allen’s staff returned to the city. Bernard took a clerical job with the firm and went with them. My parents bought a bigger house and remained for years more.

I visited Eyam last year in August, sixty years after I had left home.

The Eyam quarries today continue to gnaw and blast away at the limestone hills. The shoe factory buildings now house various small businesses. The fluorspar mine is closed, the pit is filled in and the site developed into a housing estate. The little school is still there, but the boys do not wear clogs now and there are flush toilets. There has been other residential building. Commuters with cars and computers have moved in. In the National Park, satellite TV dishes are discreetly hidden from the general view. Prices now demanded for houses, even for tiny cottages, are far beyond the means of the old village families. The daily bus still runs to the Bakewell school.

The plague village is a tourist attraction. Every building where someone died in 1665 – 6, carries a sign listing the names of the victims and their dates of death. The cottage where the chest of flea-ridden cloth was opened is still lived in. This and other cottages have been brightened up with hanging baskets of flowers and attractive gardens, where there is enough space. There are relics to be seen and a small museum tells the plague story. Several of the ancient stone water troughs are elaborately decorated each year as part of the revived, pagan, well dressing ceremony. The well dressings were there for me to see, though they were past their best, the flower petals beginning to shrivel and fade. The church, parts of which are Norman, is interesting with some recently uncovered medieval murals and a Celtic cross.

There is a fine Tudor style Hall, built in the local sandstone, with tearooms, craft shops, souvenirs for sale, and car parking. There are thousands of visitors. The village has its own web site. (5) The old bull-baiting ring was buried for many years under layers of bitumen. It has recently been re-discovered and can be viewed by anyone interested.

Eyam village hall, with tourists, in 2002

If you go to see the Hall, it is quite possible your elderly tour guide will be Bernard Cooper. I met him there and spoke with him. After leaving the village, he studied at night school and eventually became a lecturer at the Sheffield Technical College. His pretty little sister, Molly, died at sixteen of a brain tumour. When his parents died he returned to the old house. It is no longer a farm. Externally it looks the same, a long, dark, rather grim limestone building with sandstone-flagged roof, next to the cliff. There are larger windows on the street side now. Internally, everything has changed.

Jimmy, that bright, lively, strong, handsome boy, was still farming until recently but in his long struggle with the land and the harsh climate, Bernard told me he suffered a succession of accidents, injuries and consequent crippling illnesses. He has become a bent old man. He did not recognise me and I could not bear to speak when we passed in the street.

I wonder if he ever found time for some reading.

A few decades of intense foreign competition achieved what bombing did not. E Allen & Co, steel makers, no longer exists. The Sheffield steel industry has died. My parents at last retired to the south coast where they entered yet another world.


(1) Names of the village people have been changed. They and their relatives are still living.

(2) Fluorspar, calcium fluoride, was used in the steel industry as a flux

(3) gennel or ginnel, a north English dialect word for a narrow passage open to the sky. Compare snicket meaning the same only usually covered.

(4) shippon or shippen, dialect, cowshed


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