In the summer of 1665, the village tailor received a parcel of material from his supplier in London. This parcel contained the fleas that caused the plague. The tailor was dead from the plague within one week of receiving his parcel. By the end of September, five more villagers had died. Twenty three died in October.
Some of the villagers suggested that they should flee the village for the nearby city of Sheffield. Mompesson persuaded them not to do this as he feared that they would spread the plague into the north of England that had more or less escaped the worst of it. In fact, the village decided to cut itself off from the outside would. They effectively agreed to quarantine themselves even though it would mean death for many of them.
Whether this act of collective self-sacrifice really did prevent the plague spreading to neighbouring villages – or worse to the slums of nearby Sheffield – we’ll never know. But it seems to me a rather apt – albeit morbid – illustration of what we might understand by the ‘Big Society’. The villagers of Eyam didn’t have to listen to Mompesson the local vicar. They could have left the village – fleeing the plague. They chose not to out of what appears to be a belief in doing the right thing, together.