Welfare was virtually non-existent for those fallen on hard times in the 1700s. As a last resort, some many ended up in locally administered poor houses, dependent on tiny sums raised through local taxes or charity. Many resented even this, believing it encouraged laziness and dependence.
On 23 January 1769, James Eaves, his wife and two of their children were found starved to death, their naked bodies lying on straw, in a poor house in Datchworth, Hertfordshire. Their third child, a boy of about 11, was still alive but unable to stand. It transpired they had been taken ill three weeks before and had only been given 2s 6d – which even for a farm labourer was only two days’s wages – from the overseers during that time.
Villagers tried to cover up the affair, but the Datchworth incident received wide publicity when the author and eccentric Captain Philip Thicknesse (1719 – 92) wrote an exposé in this pamphlet. There was an inquest, though in the event no one was punished. A plaque in the village now commemorates the family and their wretched fate.