Revealed - the tragic story of village family starved to death

PUBLISHED: 12:01 17 March 2009 | UPDATED: 21:36 26 October 2009

A contemporary sketch of the bodies of the Eaves family

A contemporary sketch of the bodies of the Eaves family

THE horrifying story of an impoverished family that starved to death in a tranquil village is being commemorated. A plaque will be put up at a church in

Datchworth historian Wally Emms

THE "horrifying" story of an impoverished family that starved to death in a tranquil village is being commemorated.

A plaque will be put up at a church in leafy Datchworth to mark the tragic deaths of James Eaves, his wife, one of his sons and his infant daughter in 1769.

Their naked, emaciated corpses were found in a filthy, roofless poor house on the village green, a tale which is vaguely recalled to this day in a seldom-told ghost story in which a phantom cart transports their bodies up a local lane.

A third child survived the ordeal but went insane shortly after he was discovered.

In an added twist, a contemporary account claims they died from neglect and that some villagers tried to cover up their deaths.

The story has come to light following the recent publication of a research project.

Speaking about the harrowing episode, the Rev Coralie McCluskey, the minister of All Saints Church, in Bury Lane, said: "We should have a memorial plaque in place in a few months hence, in our garden of remembrance.

"We will record the family names and the date of their deaths.

"I think by doing this the village will be showing its respect and will also be able to lay a ghost."

The tragic tale was re-discovered by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), during a project into the relationship between food and science.

Sheena Elliott, from the RSC, said: "This is a very sobering story.

"The issue of hunger and starvation is often associated with the poorer regions of the world.

"This horrifying incident was much closer to home and not far from the capital only eight generations ago, in an age of enlightenment."

In researching the story, the society uncovered a pamphlet written by Philip Thicknesse, a former soldier who visited the Eaves' hovel.

Mr Thicknesse, who is believed to have been a friend of artist Thomas Gainsborough, thought the family died as a result of neglect by the parish authorities.

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

He described their bodies as "emaciated beyond any conception, lying on a very small quantity of dirty peas straw spread on the bare earthen floor".

He also claimed to have thwarted an attempt by parish officers to bury the corpses before an inquest could be held.

But local historian Wally Emms told the WHT the Eaves family died of "forced neglect", when they were segregated after contracting cholera.

"In those days they just isolated them," he said.

"They died from having the disease and not enough food."

Mr Emms said the problem of starvation was not unique to Datchworth at that time and as for the allegations of neglect, he added: "The [parish] overseers were exonerated by both the county court and the King's Bench in London.

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