*Spoiler Alert* Read on only after having read the novel if you want to discover what Elizabeth Hancock’s life and fate for yourself.
The Historical Record
Elizabeth Hancock is one of the three female protagonists in the historical fiction novel, ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague‘ by Jennifer Jenkins. Elizabeth was a real woman who lived through the plague at Eyam in 1665-1666. Very little is known of Elizabeth and what is contained in the historical record is somewhat upsetting.
Elizabeth lived at Riley Farm in Eyam, located on a slope a quarter of a mile eastwards of the main village. Riley was the name of the plot of land upon which the Hancock farmhouse was situated. Here Elizabeth resided with her husband John Hancock and six of their seven children; their oldest son, Joseph, living in Sheffield at the time of the epidemic whilst undertaking an apprenticeship.
Antiquity seems to suggest that John Hancock was a blacksmith, operating a smithy adjacent to the Hancock farmhouse. One can imagine the silencing of the hammer and anvil to weigh heavy on Elizabeth after his death.
The Hancocks shared the land at Riley with another family, the Talbots, who also had a farmhouse here. Neither farmhouse has survived to present day. It was the Talbots who first contracted the plague, with the Hancocks falling sick only after the last Talbot had succumbed to the disease. In the space of a week, our hapless heroine lost all of her family to the terrible pestilence.
The first of Elizabeth’s family to sicken were John Hancock Junior (aged 6- baptised in 1660) and her daughter, Elizabeth (aged 8- baptised in 1658), both dying on 3rd August 1666. Three more of the Hancock family died on 7th August 1666; including John Hancock, Elizabeth’s husband, her son William (for whom no baptism date is given in the parish records) and her youngest child, her daughter Oner (aged 3- baptised in 1663). Alice (aged 15- baptised 1651) followed her father and siblings into the grave on 9th August 1666 and Ann (aged 10- baptised 1656) on 10th August 1666, leaving their mother alone at Riley. The parish records also mention a daughter named Joan, baptised on Christmas Eve 1654 in Eyam, who would have been 12 at the time of plague, but she is not buried in the Riley Graves and nor does historical tradition mention her, perhaps suggesting she had died prior to the epidemic.
Tradition has it that Elizabeth fulfilled the role of sexton herself, burying her husband and all her children without help (depicted in the image above), with the villagers of Stoney Middleton, on the opposite side of the dale, watching her sorrow play out as she dug grave after grave for her loved ones. The most likely method of conveyance from the farmhouse to the shallow graves would have been a towel tied about their feet in order to drag them out.
Elizabeth is the only known person to break the cordon sanitaire instated by the Reverends Mompesson and Stanley (aside from the woman from Orchard Bank who tried to go to Tideswell Market but was recognised, pelted with fruit and vegetables and promptly returned to Eyam). Elizabeth Hancock left Riley Farm soon after her last child was placed in the ground.
Today, the Riley Graves are enclosed within a circular wall and maintained by the National Trust. The site of the grave of John Hancock Senior is his original resting place but the other stones have been gathered together from where they marked the respective burial sites on the hillside. They were first erected together by Thomas Birds (who lived in Eyam Dale House and died in 1828) as Eyam antiquary. At a later date, the inscriptions on the stones were cut more deeply at the expense of Sir Henry Burford Hancock, Governor General of Gibraltar, a presumed relative.
John Hancock’s grave reads:
As thou goest by
As thou art now
Even once was I;
As I die now
So must I lie
That thou must die.
On the two sides and two ends of the tomb read: ‘Horam Nescitis, Orate, Vigilante‘, which means ‘You do not know the hour, pray and watch’, a reference to Matthew 25:13; ‘watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh‘ (KJV).
Visit https://picturethepast.org.uk/image-library/image-details/poster/dchq007918/posterid/dchq007918.html for a great image of a Victorian visitor to the Riley Graves.
One of the main things for me to weave into the story was just how plague arrived at the seemingly-safe farmstead at Riley. The parish records of William Mompesson show that the Talbots, the other family living in a farmhouse at Riley, sickened and died first and so it made logical sense for me to have the Hancocks infected via their nearest neighbours.
Very little is known of Elizabeth Hancock beyond what is mentioned above, but her actions speak incredibly loudly, and so I used these to assign her to one of the Myers-Briggs personality types, choosing ISTP as the most likely. Through researching this personality type, I was able to explore what Elizabeth’s actions and responses to other events during the plague year may have been and how she might have conducted herself.
The linnets act as a symbol of foreshadowing for Emmott. For Catherine, the tradition that upon infection she smelled ‘sweet air’, a sure sure sign of plague having taken hold, was foreshadowed in her love of flora. For Elizabeth, there was no obvious foreshadowing, and still the problem of how to bring the plague to the Hancock family, and so I used the device of the doll that is given to her daughter Elizabeth as a Christmas gift, to act as both foreshadowing (hence the thread on the front cover) and the device through which the pestilence finds its way in.
To begin with, I felt horrified on behalf of Elizabeth and all that she suffered, but not particularly drawn to her. As someone who readily follows rules, I struggled to understand her decision to break the cordon sanitaire others had followed to their peril. But as I wrote the character, and as she directed the narrative (she wanted that sex scene with John; I never planned to write that!), I truly warmed to her. This seems to have been the case for my readers also.
The encounter with Catherine outside Humphrey Merrill’s house was the result of my musings of how a woman who would ultimately lose her whole family and was constantly worrying about how to keep them safe, would react to a woman who had used her privilege as the rector’s wife to send her own children to safety.
I was moved by the idea of her final days with her two daughters and how she might have spent them wondering if they too would be taken, watching them all the time for the signs of sickness but presumably needing to keep an income coming in now the smithy was silent. Her fictitious journey down into the village to sell eggs and butter (where she encounters Mary Darby, soon to join her father George in what are now known as the Lydgate Graves) and to make the stop off at the rectory to report the deaths of her family members to Reverend Mompesson, leads to a meeting with Catherine once more, an encounter which begins the healing between the two women which is ultimately concluded by Elizabeth’s sympathy for William when she learns his wife has perished.
The scene where Elizabeth leaves Eyam is a powerful one. I could almost picture her standing there, her mind made up, her hair blowing in the breeze under the light of the moon, saying her final goodbyes to her family beneath the dirt. It is fitting that thousands still come to visit the place where she left them. I wonder what she did in Sheffield, how long she lived, whether she got to be a grandmother. She is the only one of our three protagonists to survive the plague year but her story drifts off into shadow as much as theirs.