Hanneke has kindly offered this talk to be made available to members, given its relevance to current events. She had prepared the talk before lockdown to be delivered as part of our programme.


When I offered to give this short address, Covid-19 and Lockdown were not even in existence and therefore had not yet appeared anywhere in the world.

How relevant is Covid-19 to the diseases that plagued both Spinalonga and Eyam will become clear.

Although Spinalonga and Eyam are far apart, these two places have some things in common: I wonder if you can guess what makes the question mark in the title of this talk relevant?

I will first talk about Spinalonga, the Island of Suffering, Faith and Hope. The name Spina Longa means ‘The Long Thorn’. Owing to its strategic position, this small rocky island in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and located at the mouth of the port of Elounda in Crete was fortified by the Venetians between 1574 and 1584.  Initially to protect the port of Olous, the original name for Elounda, and it acquired different roles and uses throughout the centuries. The nearness to Crete brought Christianity to the island and the first Greek Orthodox Church on Spinalonga was built in 1709.


Christians initially found refuge on Spinalonga to escape the persecution from the Ottoman Turks in Crete until the Ottomans captured Spinalonga in 1715. Spinalonga was therefore inhabited by mainly Muslims families, who built houses and brought prosperity to the island. Salt became an important industry, harvested from the salt pans in the shallow waters surrounding the island.  But when the economic salt boom collapsed the Turks started to desert Spinalonga and the last Turks finally left the island in 1903.

Leprosy was rife on Crete and when Prince George arrived as High Commissioner, after Crete was declared independent in 1899, he sought a solution for the lepers, who were treated abominably, being stoned or beaten and hunted from their houses.  People thought that it was an infectious disease and that they could catch leprosy. Prince George sought advice from two European doctors, who proposed that lepers should be confined to an island and it soon became law that Spinalonga would be the ideal area of confinement.

Spinalonga is a relatively small island; one can walk around the island in about an hour.

From 1903, on the confirmation of the disease, lepers were led to Plaka, a small fishing village and the shortest sea route to Spinalonga from where all the supplies, such as food and medication were taken by boat to the island. The lepers were dragged from their houses, bound in irons as criminal detainees and pushed into  boats for the short trip across the sea to Spinalonga for their life long confinement.

Hundreds of people were forced to live on the island, stranded away from their loved ones, struggling with the painful disease, movingly described in Victoria Hislop’s book:  ‘The Island’. People suffering from leprosy, had to say goodbye to their families, before they stepped on a boat of no return to make a life on Spinalonga, not knowing what it would be like to live such an isolated life.

There are two entrances to the island, one being the lepers’ entrance, a tunnel, known as Dante’s gate, which is still used today when you enter the island, and the other was used for deliveries of food, medication, etc. Patients received food, water, medical attention and social security payments, which only in a very small way made up for not only their very painful disease, but moreover for the separation from family and friends.

The Greek Orthodox Church, established long before leprosy arrived on the island, became a life line embracing the Lepers in the daily service, giving some kind of routine for the faithful, although many sufferers lost their faith –“ How could God let them suffer so much pain and anguish”. Others found praying helped them cope with the life they now endured.

When we visited Spinalonga in 2018, there still were three churches on the island and the remains of the Leper Hospital, plus some of the houses where the lepers lived.  The fort is also still a prominent feature on the island. Furthermore there is a small museum.

The Leper colony operated until July 1957, when it was discovered that leprosy was not an infectious disease. It is now a memorial island, empty buildings once occupied by people suffering pain and a longing for the life they had to leave behind in contrast to the noise and bustle of the many tourists who now frequent this very special real island.

To my horror, I discovered that in 2018 there were still a quarter of a million people suffering from leprosy, mainly in India and over- populated countries in the world. Fortunately, it is now curable through multi-drugs therapy.

EYAM – The inland Island

Eyam is situated in the High Peak of Derbyshire and lies 800 feet above sea level.  It dates back to Anglo Saxon time, evidenced by the Saxon cross that can now be seen inside the Church, and Eyam is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

The name Eyam is apparently derived from Ea, meaning water and Ham, meaning dwelling place and is named from the springs and rivulets with which it is abundantly supplied.  There are traces of earlier habitation and many Druid relics still exists in the area.

Eyam was a former lead mining village, the remains of which are found in the vicinity.  In 1909, it was better known as ‘The Plague Stricken Derbyshire Village’, according to a book written by Rev. Jas. M. Fletcher, M. A. R. D., and costing 6pence. Today many tourists flock to Eyam to see for themselves the small houses, now called the “plague cottages” in which the people who perished of the plague lived.

In contrast to Spinalonga, Eyam is not really an island but became an ’Inland Island’, because of the Plague that struck the inhabitants of Eyam with such deadly virulence during 1665 and 1666. It is stated that this terrible disease was brought from London in September 1665, in a box of infected, damp, clothing, sent to a tailor, named George Viccars, who was lodging with the Cooper family.  It was thought that, when the box was opened to dry the damp cloths around the fire, infected fleas were released who bit George Vicars and the Cooper family, who all perished except for Mrs. Cooper.

A slightly different version is found in the book by John Clifford, published in 1989, revised and enlarged in 2003. A William Wood tells us that the widow of a lead miner, Mrs. Mary Cooper was living in a cottage with her two small sons. She had taken in a lodger called George Viccars, who was a travelling tailor.

It is now certain that in March 1665, five months before the plague broke out, Mary Cooper had remarried a tailor, Alexander Hadfield.  The marriage did not last very long as Alexander sadly died of the plague leaving his widow an inventory worth £60.

As we already know, Mr. Viccars was bitten by infected fleas, released on opening the box of damp clothes and died 5/6 days later, and infected Hadfield and the two children, who soon after died.

As sanitation was very poor in those days the plague spread very quickly throughout the village and 259 people in Eyam lost their lives. Once the villagers became aware of this deadly disease, many moved out of the village and indeed the Rector at that time, the Rev. Mompesson sent his two children away to friends in Yorkshire, leaving 350 inhabitants. Mrs. Mompesson wished for them to join the children.  However Rev. Mompesson told her it was his duty not only to provide support to his people as well as to God, which compelled him to remain with his flock in this hour of their need. He wished his wife to depart with their two children, but she would not forsake him and sadly perished of the plague. She was buried in a tomb in the church which is still a place of pilgrimage.

Catherine Mompesson's Tomb, Eyam

Catherine Mompesson’s Tomb, Eyam

With the consent of the villagers, Rev Mompesson, who was only 28, made 3 very important decisions:

  1. There would be no more organised funerals and burials in the churchyard, as the sexton could not cope digging graves for so many dead. Plus the closeness in church gave the plague the chance to spread.  The Rector felt that he should concentrate on giving support to the bereaved and tending to the sick. People were, therefore advised to bury their own dead, which they did in their gardens, orchards or fields, often quite unceremoniously.
  1. The church was locked and services were held in the open air at a place (maybe the first social distancing) called Cucklet Delph, a kind of natural amphitheatre in the landscape above the village.
  1. The third decision was to close the village and seclude themselves from the outside world, a “cordon sanitaire”, now called lock down.  Villagers could not leave Eyam and people were stopped coming into the  village in an attempt to prevent spreading  the plague beyond Eyam’s boundaries.

As the village was not self-supporting, they needed food from the outside.  The Earl of Devonshire, who lived at Chatsworth House, only a few miles away from Eyam, arranged for food and medical supplies, he was able to obtain, to be left at the southern boundary of the village, from where it was collected.

These decisions resulted that after 14 months, it suddenly was all over and as Christmas 1666 approached, though  there was little rejoicing, life was slowly beginning to resume its normal pattern.  What is still not understood to this day is why the plague, which had been around not only in England but also in the rest of Europe for over 300 years suddenly disappeared in epidemic proportions in 1666.

On Tuesday 14th April 2020 The Daily Telegraph had the headline:  The Plague Village in Lockdown once more.  Just as the Black Death, which the Plague was often called, 350 years ago, Covid 19 has found its way to Eyam and has badly affected the present Vicar’s wife.  Rev Gilbert’s wife is still not fully recovered from a mild version of this disease. I have the article here to share with you.

Observations and conclusion:

Many books have been written about Spinalonga and Eyam.  Both, Spinalonga and Eyam have become tourists attractions, and both have a museum explaining what happened in these doomed places.

Religion played a very important part in ministering to the sufferers, as the religious leaders in those days, were held in such high esteem.

I discovered that leprosy and the plague both originated in China and that both still exists for instance in India, Madagascar, the Republic of Congo,  Peru and other over-populated and under developed countries. However now these deadly diseases can be kept under control and are curable with medication and better sanitation.

In 2019 I organised a visit to Eyam, the Plague Village for 28 members of the Field Society.  We were led by an expert in the history of Eyam, Mrs. Ellen Outram, who took us on a guided tour through the plague village pointing out all the relevant points of interest in the church, the plague cottages and some of the burial places of this doomed place and many other points of interest.  This gave me the idea for this short talk today.

As I said right at the beginning, Covid-19, a corona virus, had not yet struck the world. Astoundingly this virus also originates in China and is equally deadly.

Rev Mompesson closed off his village in 1665, now this is called Lockdown and most of the world is in lockdown.  Even in 1665 they knew to have to keep a distance from each other, so as not to spread the disease,  and today, the Government  commands us to keep a Social Distance.  The advice is: “To stay at home, to protect the NHS and to save lives”.

Later this slogan changed.  The government advised that we can help to control the virus, if we all:

 “Stay alert, control the virus, Save Lives”.

It is to be seen how long Corona Virus will stay evident somewhere in the world, or if a vaccine, yet to be produced can save the world.

In conclusion, I would like you to join me in a bit of fun, by reciting the nursery rhyme, so relevant at this time:

“Ring – a – ring o’ roses
A pocket full of posies
A – tishoo, a – tishoo
We all fall down”


Hanneke Dye, April 2020


Further reading (click on Links): Spinalonga, Eyam Village and Eyam Museum