Jilly: Self-Isolation Past and Present

Boundary Stone, Eyam
(via Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday Michaeline shared a fascinating Reddit post about how a foreign resident in China is dealing with food and cooking during the lockdown imposed by the authorities in an attempt to contain the outbreak of coronavirus/covid-19.

In the UK we only have 9 confirmed cases of the virus, but Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of National Health England, has said people may increasingly be asked to isolate themselves here too. This BBC article explains who should self-isolate and what precautions they should take.

It’s sobering to think that one of the world’s most effective tactics for preventing a global pandemic has been around for centuries and depends on ordinary people showing selflessness and self-discipline.

I first learned about self-isolation more than 40 years ago, on a school visit to a local historic site: Eyam, a picturesque village in the Derbyshire Peak District. Eyam is a scant few miles from stunning Chatsworth House (Pemberley!) and Haddon Hall (Prince Humperdinck’s Castle!) but its place on the tourist trail was earned in much grimmer circumstances.

I blogged about Eyam, Historic Plague Village, five years ago, but given current events it seems fitting to revisit the story.

In August 1665 George Viccars, the Eyam village tailor, took delivery of a bundle of cloth from London. The cloth was infested with fleas, and within a week Viccars was dead.

The plague took hold, the squire and the wealthier residents fled, and the villagers were left leaderless. The vacuum was filled by the rector, Reverend William Mompesson. Together with his wife, Katherine, and the previous Rector, a Puritan Minister called Thomas Stanley, they united the village. To slow the spread of disease, they decided the dead would not be given funerals but would be buried by family members in their own gardens. The church was closed and services were held in the open air, where people could congregate at a safe distance from one another.

The deaths continued, so in June 1666 Mompesson persuaded the entire community to isolate themselves from the outside world, knowing this meant almost certain death. They established a system with friends and relatives outside the village whereby food and supplies were left at agreed points and the villagers would collect these later and leave money in return. Two of the places they used can still be visited today – Mompesson’s Well, where money was left in the water, and the Boundary Stone, a boulder with holes where coins could be covered in water or vinegar.

William Mompesson worked tirelessly to bolster the resolve of his parishioners. He made wills, gave out medicines, and nursed his wife when she fell sick, although she asked him to stay away from her for his own safety. Katherine was the 200thperson to die, and she was buried in the church yard. Her tomb can still be seen today.

Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine lasted for fourteen months. When there had been no deaths for a period of several weeks, William Mompesson burned everything he had – clothing, bedding, furniture, the lot – and encouraged the rest of the village to do the same.

In a letter to his uncle, Mompesson described the village as “… a Golgotha, a place of skulls.” More than 260 villagers died out of a total population of 350. Entire families died – a woman called Elizabeth Hancock buried six children and her husband in a period of eight days – but not one person broke the agreement, which saved untold lives in the North of England.

It’s a dark but inspiring story, and one other positive from the terrible event is that it was subsequently discovered that some residents of the village were genetically unique and naturally immune to the plague. Some of their descendants still live in the village today.

I hope we can find a twenty-first-century solution to our twenty-first-century plague very soon.

4 thoughts on “Jilly: Self-Isolation Past and Present

  1. My husband and I just got back from a trip to China. We were both quarantined, although mine was shorter because I had a terrible cold so I was tested and found negative. My husband had a full 2-week quarantine and my son, who was forced to end his year-long study abroad just finished his two-week quarantine. It’s serious business. You sign a legal document that says you’ll stay home and won’t let anyone in and if you do, the health department can take legal action. My husband and I were able to work from home and my son skyped into his classes. I’m not sure how some of these quarantined people are going to be able to keep their jobs, especially the ones on the cruise ship in Japan.

    • Oh, my gosh, Michille, what an ordeal. Didn’t your son just start his studies there? What happens now with that?

      Jilly’s story of the entire village who self-quarantined is amazing. The cooperation of those villagers was truly remarkable. I wonder if entire villages could or would do that today? And yes—let’s hope we either find a cure or see an end to covid-19 soon.

  2. Michille’s saga is so shocking; you just never know who is going to be affected. I’m so glad to hear that her family is safe.

    Eyam did an amazing job, especially considering that they didn’t even really know what caused plagues back then. It could have been anything. We know about the coronaviruses, but we still don’t know exactly how they work and how long they are active. Ten days after you posted, Jilly, there’s news of a woman in Japan who was released from the hospital and then got re-tested only to find she still/again had the virus.

    Fingers crossed, hands washed.

  3. Pingback: Jilly: It’s Grim, But It’s Not All Bad – Eight Ladies Writing

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