by Joe Earp
There has been many outbreaks of plague over the centuries in Britain and across the world. The bubonic plague originated in Central Asia, where it killed 25 million people before it made its way into Constantinople in 1347. From there it spread to Mediterranean ports such as Naples and Venice. Trade ships from these Mediterranean ports spread plague to the inhabitants of southern France and Italy. It had spread to Paris by June of 1348, and London was in the grips of plague several months later. By 1350, all of Europe had been hit by plague. From this time to the mid 1600’s, the disease was seen in England.
Plagues devastated Elizabethan England. They were a constant threat to the people and the land. The most devastating to England was the bubonic plague. London was afflicted over a dozen times during the 1500’s. Beeston just like any other City, Town or village across Britain soon had its fair share of cases of the plague and it quickly spread through Beeston.
On 10th Ocotober, 1593, Thomas Arnold of Beeston, Yeoman, made his last will and testament. He left a quarter of rye to be distributed at ‘the discretion of four honest neighbors’ among the poor of the parish. He left sixpences and shillings to his godchildren, his nephews and nieces. His brother was to have his best hat, a pair of blue stockings and his sword. So far, the will was like many others of the time and place. Thomas Arnold as we know now, was dying of the plague
On the next day, Matthew Baylie, Weaver, made his will,- dictating it, probably to the vicar of the parish, William Jeffries. His wife had already fallen a victim, and he left to his friends and relatives her best frock, petticoat and half her linen, except the sheets. Two of his fellow Beeston villages were to have his hat, his over stockings and his best breeches.
This weaver and Yeoman were just two dwellers in a small village of Beeston, which only had around 300-400 inhabitants. They died at the very height of the epidemic. The accepted figures for the visitation of 1348, is that over the whole of Europe, a third of the population died. In Beeston in 1593, if we assume the inhabitants to have numbered 300, the death roll of the time well exceeded that ratio.
The parish register records an isolated burial on 17th May 1593. It may have been that of a victim. Fourteen burials are registered for June. At the end of July, the parishioners might well have thought that the worse was over, for the total burials of that month had dropped to eight. But the August figure was twelve. In September it was sixteen.
The pestilence had now set in with a vengeance, Thirty four burials in October are recorded followed by thirty three in November. The first fortnight of December accounted for twelve. The longest period without the registration of a burial from the first of October to the thirteenth of December was three days later. There were two or three on may days. On one day there were four and on another, five.
After the middle of December there was a break until Christmas Eve. On that day there was one burial, followed by two on Christmas Day. Five well spread over January might be said to have ended the epidemic, however there were three in March.
For the whole of ten months, 139 burials are recorded, 86 of them in the twelve weeks between 21st September and 13th December.
In Beeston today there is no tradition or tales of this epidemic that has been passed down. There are no tales of heroism like that of William Mompesson of Eyam. There is no stone or plaque to mark the victims. There was no ‘pitch and pay’ gate like that near Bristol. There are no stories of voluntary separation from the surrounding countryside or of compulsory separation.
All we have today in Beeston to mark this great huge loss of human life, is just two or three pages of entries in the parish register and a few wills in the probate register at York. Also there is a rather vague suggestion as to the position of a huge plague pit in the Churchyard of Beeston’s St John the Baptist Church. It has been suggested that the bodies were interred in a communal grave on the east side of the Churchyard, – adjacent to where Wilkinson’s store was. It is a bit bizarre to think that the Tram will pass right over what is known locally as ‘the plague hole’.
Article based on original research by Beeston historian Arthur Cossons.