St Ives youngsters recreate the village that was killed by plague

A HUNTINGDON woman whose ancestors are from a village which sacrificed itself to stop the spread of plague in 1666 visited St Ives on Thursday (July 21) to see a play about her remarkable relatives.

Jude Hadfield was at The Burgess Hall to see a performance by St Ives Youth Theatre. They staged the musical Eyam, named after the Derbyshire village where the inhabitants agreed that no one would leave the village, and thus stop the disease spreading.

The infection had been brought to the village from London on some fabric for a special gown. After the tailor died, and some of the people he lodged with, the rest of the village gave up any chance of escape.

Some 260 died, including entire families. According to the play, one old woman cured herself by accidentally drinking bacon fat from the stove. Unknowingly, she might have taken penicillin – nearly 300 years before it came into common use - but neither she nor her neighbours would have known that the bacon had to be mouldy.

The 40-strong cast visited Eyam. At the very spot where every villager took the oath to stay put, they rehearsed that scene. One woman, Mary Durnley, played strikingly by Frankie Morgan, regretted the decision and left.

However, when she arrived at nearby Tideswell, the inhabitants stoned her. When she returned to Eyam, she was welcomed back. As reported by The Hunts Post, the stoning was re-enacted in St Ives Town Square this month to publicise the play.

Audiences were moved by the touching and informed performances from Wednesday to Saturday last week. The story, deftly choreographed by Jordi Guitart and directed by Jonathan Salt, is told through the eyes of the village children. They mourn their playmates. Lily Mead as Elizabeth Frith was devastatingly good when she described her anguish at the loss of her friend, Hannah. She showed a real understanding of grief.

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To some extent normal life carried on. Children still had the resilience to laugh at older people’s antics. Teenagers fell in love. Emmott Sydall, played by Ellie Tudor is betrothed to a boy from outside the community. He is forbidden to visit for the months while the plague rages. When it subsides, he is the first one to run there, only to find that she has died.

Not everyone caught the disease. One woman lost her husband and all six children. She was seen dragging their bodies across a field to bury them, but she stayed healthy. It is now believed that the survivors had stronger immune systems, possibly a genetic predisposition. Examining their descendants could help in the search for a cure for AIDS. A sacrifice 400 years ago may save lives today.