An Epidemic of the Black Death

Haworth, Spring 2004  Photographs courtesy of Dr. Susan Oldrieve
Haworth, Spring 2004 Photograph courtesy of Dr. Susan Oldrieve

I remember that old Church in Haworth on the North Yorkshire Moors so well, but never its name. I should have remembered it as the Brontes used to worship in it, and the tombs of two of them are identified by plaques on the floor; but somehow the names of churches all sound much the same .

It was a magnificent building, and April sunshine filtered through coloured glass; though this seemed to stop there and made no impact upon the darkened floor. It was dark. Dark and almost dismal. Not only the cold stone, but an atmosphere of almost melancholy that appeared all around you. It was there in the large stone slabs and seemed to almost resonate in the air.

I had gone to Yorkshire with a small group of people. We had been visiting local places of interest; not least, if not foremost, the secluded grave – or supposed grave – of the legendary Robin Hood. That was some 15 miles behind us on this chosen day to visit the birth place of the Bronte family. A town as usual filled with tourists, even before the height of the season. It bustled with activity; though it seemed most of this was in the streets outside compared to the relative few who seemed to have ventured into that imposing Church.

Even the few that had, seemed almost impervious to the potent atmosphere that (I sensed at least) the whole place seemed to radiate. Most seemed content with picking up brochures or coyly signing the Visitors Book, as if to leave some oblique mark of their presence.

Yet I seemed to sense that something was wrong – if not ‘wrong’, then just not quite right or ‘normal’. It just didn’t seem like some distinguished ‘tourist Church’ – rather that some depressing unquiet lay in its internal air that could never be cleared by any form of religious worship. For worship in abundance there must have been there – both in its sad forms and happy ones – but no lingering presence of this seemed to remain, just a vacuum of antiquity that seemed to have stored but little of what may have taken place in its midst.

It was lunchtime now, and a few of our scattered group slowly assembled outside. It’s funny really, but the thought of food always seems to unite people with some common directive.

We were walking back to the main street along some cobbled alley, reading some of the grave stones – or the ones that could still be read.

It was then that a strange thing dawned on me: many of the graves were of families buried close together, and closer inspection showed that family deaths all occurred within a specific year, and family ages – whether from children to those still young – seemed to show no respect for each other. More reading of other gravestones displayed just the same pattern; a plethora of deaths that seemed to have occurred in only a one year period and little more.

At first this seemed like some newly discovered historical ‘detective mystery’. But this was not so as subsequent enquiry was to reveal.

Haworth, like so many rural towns like it, had once fallen victim to an epidemic of the Black Death which had decimated most of its 17th century population.

The old Church would almost certainly been at the centre of such tragedy and loss. Indeed, it seemed to be ‘telling’ me on that sunny April day, although I was not to be made aware of this until later. It seemed to be saying that death is ‘no respecter of persons’; screaming it out in its silence perhaps, immediately, in the busy present. Yet no-one else, staring at the faded gravestones, seemed to share this realisation . . .

David Farrant.

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