01 April 2009

Datchworth Overseers

The Royal Society of Chemistry's theme for 2009 is the relationship between chemistry and food. They explain that while researching their theme they came across the story of the deaths of the Eaves family in the village of Datchworth in Hertfordshire, 1769.

Village will commemorate the family it allowed to starve to death[,] 12 March 2009

"The bodies of James Eaves and his wife, one of their two sons and an infant daughter were discovered naked and skeletal on straw in a filthy parochial Poor House, a hovel bereft of roof and window panes.

Crawling amongst their corpses was found their surviving 11-year-old son, who descended into insanity from which he was not to recover.


In searching for historical examples of starvation in England, the society located in the historic documents section of the British Library a pamphlet written by a former soldier called Philip Thicknesse who witnessed the cadavers of the family and who then set about demanding that the village authorities be brought to book.

Thicknesse, believed to be a friend of society artist Thomas Gainsborough, visited the scene and afterwards foiled an attempted cover-up by the village.

He later prepared, and paid for, a pamphlet, containing a drawing of the hovel death scene, hoping to jolt the Establishment into action and to bring about changes in the law, as well as to pursue the parish officers he regarded as responsible for the deaths and who tried to hush up the incident by burying the bodies clandestinely.

But those who had reportedly failed to do their parochial duties to the poor by allowing the family to go without food and water for weeks were never prosecuted.

In the pamphlet, headed 'An account of four people starved to death in Hertfordshire 1769', archives Philip Thicknesse says that it was written by himself as "one of the jurymen on the inquisition taken on the bodies, printed for the benefit of the surviving child."

The image of the five is captioned "a View of the Poor House of Datchworth in Herts addressed to the Overseers of England."

The family, he said, "perished from want of food, rayment, attendance and a habitable dwelling."

The bodies were "emaciated beyond any conception, lying on a very small quantity of dirty peas straw spread on the bare earthen floor."

They were, he reports, discovered by a shepherd boy accidentally.

The parish officers attempted to bury them before an inquest could be conducted but were thwarted by Thicknesse after he halted a cart into which the corpses had been cast and covered by straw.

He went to the rector, referred to only as Dr S_________, now known to be the Rev William Smith, of Clare College, to remind him of the consequences of the "dark transaction"

The bodies were taken to the church and the next day examined by a local surgeon brought from nearby Hatfield who commented that he "had never seen bodies so emaciated".

The mother, the account relates, had been seen crawling to the village pond for water but she was too weakened to convey the filled kettle home and that was the final sighting of any member of the family.

He wrote: "These four unhappy persons died a more miserable and cruel death than the felons who we broke on the wheel or those who are tortured to death by the Inquisition in Spain or Portugal."

He concludes that the narrative was "so shocking to humanity and so alarming in this Christian country."

There is a lot that is disturbing about this story.

The title of the picture above, "a View of the Poor House of Datchworth in Herts addressed to the Overseers of England[]" should have been addressed to the Overseers of Datchworth but I'm getting ahead of myself.

From what I can gather from supping at the fount of google (not to be taken as the Pyrean spring) is that overseers were borne of the Elizabethan Poor Law 1601 (43 Eliz C2),

"Be it enacted by the authority of this present parliament, that the churchwardens of every Parish, and four, three or two substantial householders there, ..., shall be called Overseers of the poor of the same Parish".

According to the Act the overseers had to find work for people who couldn't find it; provide relief for people who needed it and pay for all of this out of local taxes which they levied.

So, who were the Overseers in Datchworth in 1769?

The names of these people will be recorded. Why wasn't there any prosecution of these people? Again, this should be a matter of historical record, at least the names of the people who should have and could have prosecuted them will be known to someone.

Setting the story into its then political and legal context gives resonance to our society today. It brings into question the RSC's food campaign. Is it really true that the Eaves family starved because there was a famine? Not as far as I am aware.

This sort of thing continues to the present day. I remember when I used to work in Cambridge; one winter evening a sixteen year old homeless boy froze to death in a bus shelter.

Yes, science is important. Economics and hence politics are predicated upon it.

But with a political consciousness that can allow these things to happen ...

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