Page last updated at 09:53 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Plight of starving family marked

Plans are under way for a plaque to mark the death by starvation of four members of a family 240 years ago.

The vicar at Datchworth, Hertfordshire, wants a plaque to mark the deaths of James Eaves and his wife, one of their sons and an infant daughter in 1769.

Their emaciated bodies were found in a hovel and it is alleged villagers at the time tried to cover up the event.

Several people recorded the event in pamphlets and pictures which the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) uncovered.

The history of the deaths was rediscovered by the RSC as part of its research into chemistry and food.

The Rev Coralie McCluskey, who is now backing the idea of a monument, said: "We should have a memorial plaque in place in a few months in our garden of remembrance. We will record the family names and the date of their deaths.

"I will also probably preach on the story one Sunday. I think that by doing this the village will be showing its respect and will also be able to lay a ghost."

Want of food

The RSC had been searching in the British Library for historical examples of starvation in England and found a personal description of the Eaves' deaths and a drawing of the scene accompanied by a indictment of those whose neglect had led to the tragedy.

Former soldier Philip Thicknesse, believed to have been a friend of the artist Thomas Gainsborough, wrote a pamphlet on the deaths after seeing their bodies and foiling, as he saw it, an attempt at a cover-up in the village.

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".

'Cruel death'

The mother, the account relates, had been seen crawling to the village pond for water but she was too weak to carry 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."

Scientist Sheena Elliott, of the RSC food campaign, 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."

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