There is a little lane in The Peak District that runs along the edge of a field perched on the side of a hill.
I am sure that there are many such lanes, each with their own tale of days past. The tale that this lane tells is not a happy one.
Riley Lane leads to and from Riley Farm. A smallholding on the windswept hillside overlooking the little villages of Stoney Middleton and Calver. The lane carries on up the hill to join the main road to Grindleford and Padley Gorge.
Heading back down the lane leads to the village of Eyam.
In the mid-1600s this little village was ravaged by the Plague. The scars left by the outbreak are most visible today. The Plague Cottages, Mompesson's Well, St Lawrence's Church and the Mechanics Institute all serve as visible reminders of a deadly past. In 1665 the villages locked themselves into the village to prevent the plague from spreading. This huge sacrifice by the simple folk of Derbyshire remains a testament to an unwavering belief in God and a love for fellow man.
At the time of the plague, the Hancock family lived in Riley Farm. Here is a portion of 'The History and Antiquities of Eyam' by William Wood, 1842.
"Those who have visited Riley Grave Stones have unavoidably noticed, about fifty yards from the enclosed cemetery, a small ash tree, it stands in a north-east direction of the stones, and it was a few yards south of this tree where stood the habitation of the Hancocks. There is not the least remains of that dwelling to be seen at this day; the disconsolate mother, after burying her husband and six children, as hereafter described, deserted it; and it was sometime after carried away to repair the neighbouring fences.
"The house in which the Talbots lived was about two hundred and fifty yards west or rather north-west of that of Hancocks; the present Riley-farm house is built on its site. The Manchester road to Sheffield passed, in those days, close by this house, and Talbots, being blacksmiths, had a smithy adjoining the house, and close to the road. Besides this occupation, they farmed part of Riley old land, and Hancocks the other.
"The Talbot family consisted of Richard, his wife, three sons, and three daughters: one son, however, had left Riley, and lived at some distance, before the commencement of the plague, in his own family, and therefore escaped. The high and airy situation of Riley, one would imagine, ought to have operated against the distemper; and being besides a full quarter of a mile from Eyam, the two families were not compelled to have any communication with the inhabitants thereof.
"How or by what means this subtle agent of death, found the way to Riley, is not now known; most probably some of the Talbot family brought it from Eyam, as they all perished before the infection, or at least before the death of any one of the Hancocks. The pestilence had raged full ten months in Eyam, before the Talbots of Riley were visited by this deathful messenger.
"On the fifth of July, 1666, died Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, of Riley. They were young and beautiful: they had sported with innocence and mirth on the flowery heath only a few days before death came and laid his cold, chilly hand on their lovely bosoms. Often had they roved on the neighbouring moors, with hearts swelling with joy, and pure as the snow of their mountains: ah! they had spent full many a sunny day, in chasing the many-hued butterfly, amidst the busy hum of the wild and toilsome bees; and then, like two sweet roses just bursting into bloom, they were suddenly plucked from their lonely, parent bed. Thus these two lovely girls fell victims to the horrid pest; thus they reluctantly stooped beneath death's fearful arch in one sad, direful day. Their weeping and terrified father immediately committed them to the earth beside his mournful home. On the seventh of the same month, he performed the same awful task on Ann, another of his hapless daughters; and on the eighteenth, on his wife Catherine. Robert, his son, died, and was buried on the twenty-fourth, and on the ensuing day, the father himself died and was buried, leaving one son, who on the thirtieth died also, and was buried, probably by the Hancocks, on the same day.
"Thus, from the fifth to the thirtieth of July, perished the whole of the household of the fated Talbots of Riley. They were interred nearly together, close by their habitation; and in the orchard of the present Riley-house, a dilapidated tabular monument, with the following very nearly erased inscription, records their memories:- "Richard Talbot, Catherine his wife, 2 sons, and 3 daughters, buried July, 1666".
"The pest now passed on to the habitation of the Hancocks, where the work of death commenced by the infection of John and Elisabeth, son and daughter of John and Elizabeth Hancock.
"On the third of August, only three days from the death of the last of the Talbots, they both died, and were buried at a little distance from their cottage, by the hands of their distracted mother. Although her husband and two other sons survived four days after the first victims, yet tradition insists that the mother of this family buried them herself, altogether unassisted. John, her husband, and two sons, William and Oner, now sickened of this virulent malady. She became frantic; she saw that the whole family were destined to the same fate as the Talbots, and she wrung her hands in bitter despair. In the night of the sixth, Oner died, and her husband a few minutes after, and before morning, William gave his last struggling gasp. Can imagination conceive anything so appalling as the case of this suffering woman: on the third she buried a son and daughter, and in the night of the following sixth, she closed the eyes of her husband and two other sons. How awful her situation; being far from any other dwelling; not a soul to cheer her sinking spirits; not a being to cast her sorrowing eyes upon, save her two surviving children, whose lamentations were carried afar on the startled morning breeze. Such was the terrible night of the sixth of August, to this woful woman; often she ran to the door and called out in agony for help; then turning in again, she fell on her knees, and
"With hands to heaven out-spread,
Her frequent, fervent, orisons she said,
In loud response her children's voices rise,
And midnight's echo to their prayer replies."
"The beams of the following morning's sun fell on the shallow graves which she had made for her husband and two sons. Dreading to touch the putrid bodies, she, as she had done by the other, tied a towel to their feet, and dragged them on the ground in succession to their graves. Hapless woman, surely no greater woe, ever crushed a female heart.
"The end of two short days, from the seventh to the ninth, saw her again digging another grave amongst the blooming heath for her daughter Alice. On the morning of the next day, the tenth, Ann, her only child left at home, sunk and breathed her last. Thus
"each morn that rose,
Her grief redoubled, and renewed her woes."
"She consigned her to a grave beside her brothers and sisters; weeping in tears of sorrow until the fountains of grief became as dry as the sands of the desert. A few days after the death of her last child, she left her habitation at Riley, and went to an only son who had been, some years before the plague, bound an apprentice in Alsop-fields, Sheffield; with whom she spent the remainder of her sorrowful days. It was this son who erected the tomb and stones to the awful memory of his fated family; and it was one of his descendants, a Mr. Joseph Hancock, who, about the year 1750, discovered, "or rather recovered", in Sheffield, the art of plating goods.
"The houses in the top part of Stoney Middleton are nearly on a level with Riley-Graves; divided by two dells or narrow dales. The inhabitants of these houses, according to a very popular tradition, watched with profound awe the mother of the Hancocks, morning after morning digging the graves for her husband and children; and dragging them on the ground from their dwelling, and burying them therein. Awful and terrible scene. Did they not in imagination hear her audibly exclaim with the holy prophet? 'Oh! that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night.'
"It has been observed by some writers that Riley, or Riley-graves, was the general burial place of the victims of the plague; this is, however, a mistake: none was buried there but the Talbots and Hancocks. The Talbots I have never seen noticed by any writer. Six head-stones and a tabular tomb record the memories of the Hancocks. The site of the graves was originally on the common or moor, on the verge of which was the dwelling of the Hancocks. That part of the common was afterwards inclosed, and the stones, which lay horizontally and marked precisely the places of the graves, were placed in an upright position, and somewhat nearer together. Thomas Birds, Esq., Eyam, an highly inestimable character, and profound antiquarian, caused these memorials to be put in a better state of preservation. He purchased the ground whereon they lay; but, since his death, or just before, it became the property of Thomas Burgoine, Esq., of Edenzor, who for the better security of those relics of the plague, has removed them still nearer each other, and erected a wall round them in the form of a heart. It is hoped that the owner will prevent any further change in the situation of these sacred stones. On the top of the tomb there is the following inscription and quaint rhymes:-
"John Hancock, sen., Buried August 7, 1666.
As thou goest by,
As thou art now,
Even once was I;
As I doe now
So must thou lie,
That thou must die."
"On the four sides of the tomb are the words - Horam, Nescitis, Orate, Vigilate. On the head- stones the inscriptions are as follows:-
Elizabeth Hancock, Buried Aug. 3, 1666.
John Hancock, Buried Aug. 3, 1666.
Oner Hancock, Buried Aug. 7, 1666.
William Hancock, Buried Aug. 7. 1666.
Alice Hancock, Buried Aug. 9, 1666.
Ann Hancock, Buried Aug. 10, 1666.
"It is impossible for the tourist to describe his feelings fully and minutely when he visits this hallowed and lonely place; he beholds, in the language of Ossian, "green tombs with their rank whistling grass; with their stones of mossy heads"; and his soul becomes suddenly overcharged with grave and solemn emotions.
"The scenery around these rude and simple monuments of eventful mortality, is highly picturesque; and adds greatly to the impressiveness of the sensations which a visit to this place invariably creates. Standing within this paling we behold to the left a long range of sable rocks sheltering the ancient villages of Corbor and Calver. Farther on, Chatsworth meets our view, and forms a conspicuous object in the prospect. This costly mansion, surrounded by such wide contrasting objects, has an unique effect: it has a magic-like appearance. Proud Masson is seen in the dim distance holding imperial sway over a thousand lesser hills. To the right we glance on the plain tower of Eyam church rising above the ivy-adorned cottages in rural magnificence. Lovely village, amidst thy dells we hear the muses of thy living and departed minstrels in sweet communion sing. Still farther off we see the peaks of endless hills, where the winding, classic Cressbrook flows,- the minstrel Newton's Arethuse. And behind, plantations of young trees are richly commingled with purple-blooming heather. Such are a few of the most prominent objects viewed from Riley-graves - "The Mountain Tumuli", where heath-bells bloom - where nestling fern and rank grass grow - where lone and still,
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Location: Riley Lane, Eyam, Derbyshire.