Matt’s Derby Explorations #3: The Days of the Plague

2013-08-12 18.05.03

The Headless Cross at Friar Gate, Derby

There were signs and portents in the heavens when the plague came to Derby; two comets hung in the sky and an eclipse swallowed the sun, and people looked into the sky and wondered what calamity was on its way. Preachers and prophets walked the land, interpreting the political and social strife of the previous decades as harbingers of the End of the World, especially as the year 1666 was on the horizon, the Number of the Beast making its presence felt in the calendar itself.

Plague arrived in London early in 1665, probably brought over from the Netherlands in bales of cotton. Within a few months it had started to decimate the population, with the city’s inhabitants either falling prey to the sickness or fleeing for their lives. It’s gone down in history as the Great Plague of London, although it wasn’t limited to the capital; York was affected, for instance, as was Derbyshire.

The area’s most famous story of the Plague is of the village of Eyam, whose inhabitants isolated themselves to prevent the contagion spreading to neighbouring towns and villages. It’s a haunting tale, and perhaps rightfully the county’s greatest story of tragedy and heroism. But I’ve never been to Eyam; I have, however, been to a chiropractor, and just around the corner from my chiropractor is the Headless Cross.

Trade used to take place at the local markets, but the Plague meant that the usual routines of everyday life were suspended; instead the Headless Cross was erected at the boundary of the city, on Friar Gate. Merchants left goods there, reducing their risk of exposure; in exchange, their customers left money in a trough of vinegar at the top of the stone – it was believed that this disinfected the coins and stopped the transmission of the Plague. This wasn’t true, of course, nor was the belief that smoking tobacco, which had only been introduced in England a hundred years earlier, prevented the disease. Modern medicine was still a while away, although change was in the air; this was also the age of Newton and Halley and the Royal Society. Those comets that burnt in the sky were astronomical phenomena following predictable laws, rather than omens reflecting the Wrath of God on London and Derby.

1666 saw the epidemic burn itself out, ending the last major outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the UK. Yet the Plague still haunts the city – street names such as Dead Man’s Lane and Blagreaves (‘Black Graves’) Lane mark old burial grounds, and the Headless Cross still stands, testament to dark days in Derby…

Other posts in this series:

Buffalo Bill Comes to Town

St. Alkmund’s Well

One thought on “Matt’s Derby Explorations #3: The Days of the Plague

  1. Pingback: Matt’s Derby Explorations #4: Take Me Out To The Ball Game | Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

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