Datchworth from the air. 1962. From the Datchworth website.

The quiet village of Datchworth located between the towns of Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City holds the dubious honour of being the most haunted place in the county of Hertfordshire. Most of the ghost stories associated with the village are pretty commonplace, others are less so, revealing a rather grim legacy. These include the ghost of a headless elderly woman dressed in black often seen along Hawkins Hall Lane who is believed to have hanged herself after the sudden death of her beloved husband and the spirit of an 18th century highwayman called Walter Clibbons, otherwise known as ‘the murderous pie-man of Hertford’ who was killed after being dragged by a horse through the streets of Datchworth[1]. Possibly the strangest ghost story is that of a jester who was beaten to death on the village’s whipping post after failing to get even a single laugh from his audience![2] The eerie screams and cries of both the highwayman and the jester are said to still be heard at night.

The haunting of Rectory Lane

Datchworth is famous for one particular haunting. People have reported to have witnessed a horseless cart creaking its way up from the Green, along Rectory Lane towards All Saints Church. Many say they have seen lifeless limbs hanging over the edge of the cart. Some say that the cart moved silently whilst others that they heard bells leading some to speculate that the vehicle was transporting plague victims to the cemetery[3]. In fact this particular haunting has its origins in a completely different event, one that shocked and horrified people at a time when life was harsh and people inured to cruelty and death. Although the witness accounts vary one common thread runs through all the reported encounters, a sense of sadness “no-one goes away unaffected by the eeriness of the location”[4].

Rectory Lane. Herts.gov website.

A terrible discovery

On the 23rd January 1769 a shepherd boy stumbled across a scene which must have haunted him for the rest of his life. On entering a hovel which functioned as the village poorhouse he found the skeletal remains of two adults, a young boy and a female infant. The bodies were completely naked with the exception of the adult male whose torso was partially covered by a threadbare shirt. Amidst the squalor and filth a starving boy around eleven years old was discovered. Unable to stand, the child crawled around the decaying remains of his family. The boy was so traumatised by his ordeal that he was unable to remember exactly when his parents had died (tragically he never recovered and spent the rest of his life in a mental asylum). The Parish officers due to either shame or fear panicked and tried to arrange a quick burial. It is reported that the bodies were tossed into a cart, covered with straw and taken under the cover of darkness to the graveyard. It seems that the officials were trying to get rid of the evidence before an inquiry could be held. Unfortunately for them the cart was stopped as it was being taken up to the church and the burial prevented. The next day the bodies were examined by a local surgeon from Hatfield. The sequence of events that led up to this tragedy show how quickly and mercilessly people can turn on each other when they are afraid.

Sketch of the scene by Philip Thicknesse. Website of Royal Society of Chemistry.

How it all began

The harvest in Hertfordshire in 1768 had been a particularly bad one. Crops had failed, men were out of work and famine was rife in the county. Welfare was non-existent in the 1700s and those that were unfortunate enough to seek help from the local authorities had to rely on the generosity and humanity of those that ran the parishes. Some were helped but others as in the case of Datchworth, where many locals were themselves living hand to mouth, found charity severely lacking. Money was raised through voluntary donations and local taxes and people resented having to give the little they had. Many felt that charity encouraged “laziness and dependency[5].

Eighteenth Century farming scene. Thomas Bewick(?)

James Eaves and his family were worst off than most. He had been out of work for months and his family were desperate. Eventually they were forced to place themselves on the mercy of the parish and subsequently moved into the poorhouse which stood on the edge of Datchworth Green near a small pond. The poorhouse was on the verge of collapse, there was no roof, the windows were missing and the only floor covering was a sparse layer of straw.

The events leading up to the bodies’ discovery seems to come straight out of some gothic horror story. The villagers were well aware of the grim saga unfolding on their doorstep but instead of showing compassion they left the Eaves’ to rot.

Shunned by the village

The young Beggar by Bartolome Esteban Murillo [617-1682]

On one occasion the elder boy dressed in only a sack visited one of his neighbours to ask to borrow an oven lid. The neighbour asked him why he did not work. The boy answered that the parish would not clothe him and no one would employ him naked. His heart-wrenching reply shows how the family had been caught in a catch-22 situation and at the same time how easy it would have been for the parish to have helped in such a small way the distressed family.Around Christmas an older son of the Eaves’, who was out at service, returned home on leave and was horrified to see their terrible plight. He went around to the overseer’s house to speak on their behalf and to get something done. The overseer was not at home and he was faced with an angry woman who shouted at him “Send them relief! Send them a halter! – let them die and be d****d”[6]. The sheer callousness which the family faced makes you wonder if the villagers held some personal grudge against the family. The young man never saw his parents alive again[7].

Left to die!

About three weeks before their bodies were discovered, the family were taken ill with fever. It is believed that they were also suffering from cholera probably as a result of malnutrition and the unsanitary conditions they were forced to endure. Although nowadays we know that it is rare for cholera to be passed on from person to person, the terrified villagers refused to go anywhere near the family for fear of infection. It is not surprising they were afraid but what is harder to stomach is that they would neither give the family food or water or even fetch a doctor.

Cholera death. Wellcome Institute.

Eventually the overseer visited the family and left half a crown on the floor. He must have arranged for a woman to go and purchase the supplies the family requested as they were not in a state to do so themselves. They asked for a bundle of firewood, some brown sugar and a candle. The meagre nature of their shopping list shows how little the money bought. When the bodies were removed, the firewood was found lying near them on the ground. It had never been lit.

The final act!

The last reported sighting of a member of the family was probably shortly before they died. The mother was seen making her way slowly along the ground on all fours towards the pond holding a kettle. On reaching the water she managed to fill it but the weight proved too much and exhausted she collapsed dropping the kettle. Despite being at the end of her strength, somehow she managed to crawl back towards the hovel.

The story becomes public

The surgeon who examined the bodies was himself horrified by what he saw. He is reported to have said that he “had never seen bodies so emaciated”[8]. The bodies were eventually buried in a mass grave in the cemetery of Datchworth Church. The man who became the champion for the family and is credited with having stopped the cart as well as arranging the autopsies was Philip Thicknesse. Thicknesse was an ex-soldier and well-known eccentric and philanthropist. How he came to hear of what had happened in the tiny, isolated village of Datchworth and managed to be in the right place at the right time to stop the cart is unknown but it is through him the story of the Eaves family came to public attention. The suffering of the Eaves’ obviously struck a chord with him and he was instrumental in trying to bring someone to account.

The failure of the system

An eighteenth century charicature of Philip Thicknesse. Wikipedia.

Somehow Thicknesse managed to get himself put on the jury at the inquest into the deaths. He was pretty derogatory about the other jurors and a trial which in his view was a travesty of justice. He believed that the jury was purposely filled with illiterates in order to ensure that the officials escaped charges. He also accused the coroner of being deliberately unhelpful. Thicknesse held the established view that the gentry were the upholders of morality and that the lack of big houses in the vicinity of Datchworth was a major factor in both the deaths (which meant the parish offices were filled by uneducated freeholders whose only interest was in giving out money to those already in work) and the failure of his attempt to get justice. The parish overseers were eventually exonerated of all blame and the case dismissed by both the County Court and the King’s Bench due to lack of grounds for a prosecution[9]. This was despite the stark evidence against them and the fact that the officials were obviously aware that their treatment of the Eaves’ had been wrong  – otherwise why the haste to bury the bodies and at night? Another damning piece of evidence that Thicknesse discovered was that a man had starved to death in the Datchworth poorhouse under similar circumstances only a few years before.

Failing to get any justice for the family he decided to write an account of their tragedy. He prepared and published a pamphlet on the Eaves’ death and the court proceedings. The pamphlet included an illustration which he commissioned which showed the poorhouse hovel and emaciated corpses. In the booklet he stated the reason for publishing the account was for “the benefit of the surviving child[10]. In his introduction he expresses his disgust and states that the case was “so shocking to humanity, and so alarming in this country…that it cannot but make a deep impression on the mind of every reader, who possesses one spark of humanity or feeling for the woes of his fellow creatures[11]. The story of the Eaves eventually faded from memory leaving nothing behind except a village haunting.

Breaking the silence

The Eaves’ story came to light recently by accident. Members of The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) whilst doing research into another completely unrelated topic in 2009 came across Thicknesse’s little known pamphlet held by the British Library. Intrigued they began to search for more information and gradually started to put the pieces together. It was their efforts that finally led the village to commemorate the deaths of the Eaves around 240 years later and to make peace with the past[12]. The former vicar of All Saints Church, Reverend Coralie McCluskie campaigned to have a plaque made in honour of the family. In 2011 the plaque was unveiled at the church. The inscription reads “In memory of James Eaves, his wife and two children, who died in January 1769, Neglected, in a poor house on Datchworth Green ‘forgive those who pass by on the other side’. May they rest in peace[13].

All Saints Church. By Julian Osley.

Peace at last?

Were the spirits of the Eaves’ family really replaying their last journey up Rectory Lane or was the haunting an echo emanating from the collective guilt of the complicit villagers of 1769? Many hope that now the Eaves’ terrible suffering has been acknowledged and the village’s murky past finally uncovered that the ghosts are now at peace. Others are not so sure. The Churchwarden Peter Large in 2011 claimed that the spirits’ presence could still be felt along the lane[14].

My final thoughts

The Eaves’ story would not have been a unique one. Many people over the centuries in England died in horrific circumstances through neglect or abuse. What I found disturbing was that unlike the big cities of the time where people could and still can live invisible lives, this was a small isolated insular village where everyone knew each other, had grown up with each other. How an entire community including clergymen could have just turned their backs on the agonising suffering of their neighbours is for me hard to fathom.

Plaque commemorating the death of the Eaves family, unveiled in 2011 at All Saints Church, Datchworth. By Roger Briffett.

Bibliography

Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
Datchworth village remember the Eaves family who were allowed to starve, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/datchworth-village-remember-the-eaves-family-who-were-allowed-to-starve-rfj8tdqszck
Village will commemorate the family it allowed to starve to death, http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2009/Datchworth.asp
Plaque erected in memory of 18th century family that starved to death in Datchworth
http://www.hertfordshiremercury.co.uk/plaque-erected-memory-18th-century-family-starved-death-datchworth/story-21978909-detail/story.html#qEE6RM8bdiVzSi42.99
Laying ghost of village’s shame, http://www.hertfordshiremercury.co.uk/laying-ghost-villages-shame/story-21970371-detail/story.html
Revealed – the tragic story of village family starved to death, http://www.whtimes.co.uk/news/revealed-the-tragic-story-of-village-family-starved-to-death-1-22178
An Account of Four Persons Starved To Death in a Workhouse, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/an-account-of-four-persons-starved-to-death-in-a-workhouse
Plight of starving family marked, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7939082.stm
Datchworth Overseers, http://nodeinthenoosphere.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/royal-society-of-chemistry-s-theme-for.html
Datchworth, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datchworth
Villages in Britain: The five hundred villages that made the countryside, Clive Aslet, 2011
The non-representative of the agricultural labourers in 18th and 19th century English paintings, Penelope McElwee, 2016
5 haunted places in Datchworth, http://eerieplace.com/haunted-places-datchworth/
Hertfordshire – Paranormal Database Records, http://www.paranormaldatabase.com/hertfordshire/hertdata.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=103

Notes

[1] 5 haunted places in Datchworth, http://eerieplace.com/haunted-places-datchworth/
[2] Hertfordshire – Paranormal Database Records, http://www.paranormaldatabase.com/hertfordshire/hertdata.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=103
[3] Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
[4] Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
[5] An Account of Four Persons Starved To Death in a Workhouse, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/an-account-of-four-persons-starved-to-death-in-a-workhouse
[6] Villages in Britain: The five hundred villages that made the countryside, Clive Aslet, 2011
[7] Villages in Britain: The five hundred villages that made the countryside, Clive Aslet, 2011

[8] Village will commemorate the family it allowed to starve to death, http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2009/Datchworth.asp
[9] Revealed – the tragic story of village family starved to death, http://www.whtimes.co.uk/news/revealed-the-tragic-story-of-village-family-starved-to-death-1-22178

[10] Village will commemorate the family it allowed to starve to death, http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2009/Datchworth.asp
[11] Villages in Britain: The five hundred villages that made the countryside, Clive Aslet, 2011
[12] Village will commemorate the family it allowed to starve to death, http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2009/Datchworth.asp
[13] Plaque erected in memory of 18th century family that starved to death in Datchworth
http://www.hertfordshiremercury.co.uk/plaque-erected-memory-18th-century-family-starved-death-datchworth/story-21978909-detail/story.html#qEE6RM8bdiVzSi42.99
[14] Plaque erected in memory of 18th century family that starved to death in Datchworth
http://www.hertfordshiremercury.co.uk/plaque-erected-memory-18th-century-family-starved-death-datchworth/story-21978909-detail/story.html#qEE6RM8bdiVzSi42.99