The Tale of the Plague at Cotes

5 May 2020

In their article ‘The Plague at Cotes,’ Joan and Peter Shaw investigate the tale of a clergyman in the village of Cotes who went beyond the call of duty to care for parishioners during a seventeenth century plague epidemic.

Without thought of the danger to his own health, the minister is said to have tended to the needs of the living and buried the dead with his own hands when no-one else would take the risk to do so.

Using articles as their basis by schoolmaster and local historian Thomas Rossell Potter (1799-1873), the Shaws give an overview of the plague in Leicestershire over a hundred year period, including precautions against it spreading bearing similarities to those taken by Leicestershire residents during the current pandemic.  These include cancelling local markets, relocating the quarterly criminal courts away from plague areas, opening ‘pest’ houses for treating the sick and cordoning off infected homes to quarantine their occupants.  Watchmen were also employed to ensure that rules of isolation were being obeyed.

The authors discuss the number and spread of plague outbreaks across the region and hypothesise on how badly Cotes itself may have been affected, despite official records for deaths in the village being missing.  Whilst he number of occupied dwellings in the village decreased significantly during the period, they ask whether this was caused by plague or by the Enclosure Act.

The clergyman in the Cotes story was initially named by Potter as Andrew Glen, a graduate of Jesus College Oxford who would go on to become Rector of Hathern, where he died in 1732.

Potter later changed his mind and named the clergyman as Samuel Shaw, a graduate of St John’s College, Cambridge.  A non-conformist, Shaw was ejected as clergyman for Long Whatton after Charles II returned to the throne and was then granted the living at Cotes.  He was, it seems, a man of strong principles and likely to be someone willing to risk everything for his beliefs.

Using census and ecclesiastical material, the article investigates aspects of the Cotes’ plague legend against facts about Shaw’s life to draw conclusions over whether he was the hero of the story.  Whatever the truth of the matter, Shaw left Cotes to live at Ashby de la Zouch where he became master of the free school and a well-known figure, respected as the author of many religious works.

Read Joan and Peter Shaw’s article on the Plague in Cotes here.

Read a Guardian article about the lessons the Eyam experience can teach us in the current crisis here.

Joan Shaw is a volunteer with Loughborough Library Local Studies Group.  She and Peter write regularly for the Wymeswold Historical Organisation.