“A print … is a lesson which all capacities may learn”: Starvation in 18th century England

“I think it necessary to assign the reasons why I have annex’d to this Narrative a plate, that must strike HOME to the hearts of the most harden’d, and prove to the most humane, offensive.; but it ought to be remember’d, that many people who are able to read, and even to write, are, nevertheless, unable to understand what they do read; and many such persons, I fear, are intrusted with the care of the poor. A print, therefore, to such people, is a lesson which all capacities may learn; it is a language every man can read; and as it has some, though very faint resemblance, of the deathly figures from whence it was taken, I flatter myself, it may make a deep and permanent impression on the minds of those men, who are disposed to forget that we are all made of the same composition; and that the day is not very remote, that even the youngest, the fairest, and the most beautiful part of the creation must fade, and become an object in the grave, at least, as ghastly as any of these. I must likewise bespeak the favour of the candid reader, to excuse the many errors of my pen: it was wholly written in the evening of a day, most disagreeably employed in a capacity in which I never served before, and hope I never shall again; a day, in which my mind has been distracted, not only by seeing shocking deformities in death, but in life also; a day, in which I have seen men, sinking with age and infirmities into the grave, violating with oaths and lies, the consecrated ground, which in a few months, (perhaps days,) may cover their bodies for ever.”

— Philip Thicknesse, An Account of The Four Persons Found Starved to Death, at Datchworth in Hertfordshire. By one of the Jurymen on the Inquisition taken on their Bodies. The Second Edition, with Additions. London: Printed (for the Benefit of the surviving Child) for W. Brown…; and R. Davies…. 1769, page 9-10. [Acquired in November 2009; call number (Ex) Item 5642061. According to the English Short Title Catalogue no copy of this Second Edition is recorded as being in a North American library. Princeton’s acquisition of this copy is being reported to ESTC accordingly.]

“In 1769, … a retired officer with a restless moral conscience, Philip Thicknesse, wrote a horrifying account, accompanied with an equally horrifying print, of Four Persons Found Starved to Death, at Datchworth. Such things were not supposed to happen in Hertfordshire, in what were called the Home Circuits surrounding the capital.

But there were probably as many wretched people like the Datchworth victims in the south (especially in the impoverished southwest of England) than in … Northumbria. For it was in southern England that the social results of ‘rural improvement’ — for good as well as for ill — were most dramatically apparent, especially in the lean years of the 1760s, when a succession of wheat harvest failures sent prices soaring and unleashed food riots in the towns and cities all the way from London to Derbyshire.”
— Simon Schama, A History of Britain: The Fate of the Empire, 1776-2000. New York: Hyperion, 2002, page 33.

More on the Datchworth victims from the RSC in London: