Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mompesson, William

MOMPESSON, WILLIAM (1639–1709), hero of the 'plague at Eyam,' may be identified with the William Mompesson who in 1662 graduated M.A. from Peterhouse, Cambridge (Cat. Cambr. Grad.); the son and grandson mentioned below were educated at the same college. Becoming chaplain to Sir George Savile, lord Halifax, he was presented by his patron in 1664 to the rectory of Eyam, Derbyshire, then a flourishing centre of the lead-mining industry. To this village the infection of the great plague was conveyed in a box of cloths. The epidemic broke out on 7 Sept. 1665, and between that date and 11 Oct. 1666, 259 persons were carried off (so Mompesson's letters; the register gives 267 deaths) out of a population of about 350. Mompesson and his wife Catherine, daughter of Ralph Carr of Cocken, Durham (Surtees, Durham, vol. iv. pt. ii. p. 208), remained at Eyam and did everything that could be done for the parishioners. When the plague was at its worst, June -August 1666, Mompesson, with the assistance of Thomas Stanley, a former rector of Eyam, who had been ejected in 1662 (W. Bagshaw, De Spiritualibus Pecci, 1702), induced the people to confine themselves entirely to the parish, receiving necessaries from the Earl of Devonshire and from neighbouring villages in exchange for money placed in troughs of running water ('Mompesson's Well'). He read prayers on Sundays in a small valley known as The Delf, and preached from a perforated rock, still called Cucklet Church (figured in Gent. Mag. 1801, pt. ii. p. 785). Dr. Charles Creighton (Hist. of Epidemics, pp. 682-7) describes this visitation medically, and pronounces Mompesson's measures well meant, but wholly unnecessary and unsound. Mompesson escaped the disease himself, but his wife died on 25 Aug. 1666; and after her death, while not expecting to survive, he wrote farewell letters to his infant children and to his patron. Together with a third letter, written 20 Nov. 1666, to John Beilby of York, these were first printed by William Seward (Anecdotes of some Distinguished Persons, 1795, ii. 27-44) from what were described as the originals, in the possession of a gentleman of Eyam (possibly the Rev. Thomas Seward). They appear to be genuine; but though pathetic, are rather stilted, and were probably intended to be copied and preserved as formal records of the events.

In 1669 Mompesson was presented by Savile to the rectory of Eakring, near Ollerton, Nottinghamshire; the people, for fear of the plague, refused to admit him, and for some time he was forced to live in a hut in Rufford Park (note in The Desolation of Eyam, p. 46). He was subsequently made prebendary of Southwell (1676) and York, and is said to have declined the deanery of Lincoln in favour of Dr. Samuel Fuller (not Dr. Thomas Fuller as is frequently stated) in 1695. Mompesson died 7 March 1708-9 at Eakring, where there is a brass plate with three modern windows in the chancel to his memory (note from the Rev. W. L. B. Gator, rector of Eakring).

By a second wife, the widow of Charles Newby, Mompesson had two daughters. His only son, George, was rector of Barnburgh, Yorkshire, and had two sons: John (d. 1722), rector of Hassingham, Norfolk, and William, vicar of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, one of whose daughters died in 1798, unmarried, while another was represented in 1865 by G. Mompesson Heathcote of Newbold, near Chesterfield.

[The best and most accurate account is that by William Wood in the History and Antiquities of Eyam, 4th ed. 1865, and the Reliquary, vol. iv. No. 13, 1863. The original authorities are (1) the letters mentioned above, (2) a Juvenile Letter by Anna Seward (whose father was rector of Eyam 1739-90), written in 1765 and printed in Gent. Mag. 1801, pt. ii. p. 300), based on the letters, local traditions, and (possibly) family information from Miss Mompesson. The story of the plague at Eyam was popularised mainly by William and Mary Howitt in The Desolation of Eyam and other Poems, 1827, noticed in Hone's Table Book, ii. cols. 481-96, 629. It is the subject of a considerable number of poems, on which the later popular versions appear to be based; they state as facts various details due to poetic imagination. Among the latest references see C. M. Yonge's Book of Golden Deeds, pp. 290-5, and Lantern Reading: the Story of Eyam, Sheffield (?1881). See also Le Neve's Fasti (Hardy). A few facts are in Dr. R. Mead's History of the Plague, 1721 (Works, i. 290 or ed. 1775 pp. 216-17). Miss Seward's story of the reappearance of the plague in 1757 cannot be substantiated from the parish registers, but seventeen deaths from a 'putrid fever' are recorded in 1779.]

H. E. D. B.