The keeper’s view

Head­keeper David Whitby opens his truly fas­ci­nat­ing fam­ily archives to chart the lives of game­keep­ers of old.

Shooting Gazette - - Game Keeping -

ADiana air­gun, a punch ball and tiny pair of rugby boots were wait­ing for me when I was born. The first helped shape my life, the lat­ter two shaped my nose. I won­der where does a pas­sion for hunt­ing re­ally come from? Is it in the blood, or in­flu­enced by peers? If I’m hon­est I sus­pect it may be ei­ther, or often both, as in­deed it was in my case.

My an­ces­try on my fa­ther’s side was that of Nor­folk game­keep­ers; my grand­fa­ther, who I wor­shipped, had left Nor­folk as a young man. His nick­name as a young­ster was Demo, short for De­mon, and I gather it was well-earned.

The son of a game­keeper, my grand­fa­ther was ap­par­ently al­ways in hot wa­ter. He had killed and skinned every cat within cy­cling dis­tance. Skins made 2s 6d in old money, a ver­i­ta­ble for­tune in those days. He was rather use­ful with his fists, too, and pos­si­bly one of his greater mis­de­meanours was to shoot a car with his ‘twig­ger’ (a special de­sign of cat­a­pult they used in that part of north Nor­folk). Read­ing through the lines, his best chance of em­ploy­ment was to be had where peo­ple were less likely to know him, so he moved to the Mid­lands, shot all his life and did rather well in busi­ness. Though my fa­ther was also a pas­sion­ate shot and fish­er­man, my grand­fa­ther broke the game­keep­ing mould, and the fam­ily had no game­keeper for two gen­er­a­tions.

He was one of five boys and four girls. Two sib­lings died very young, one when he fell through the ice at the mill pond in Snet­tisham. My great grand­fa­ther, who was born in 1857, started keeper­ing for the Greens at Ken Hill. My facts are rather sketchy, but I believe that after a poor sea­son the en­tire keeper­ing staff were sacked by Sir Edward. Not here to de­fend him­self I know, but I seem to re­mem­ber grand­fa­ther’s de­scrip­tion of the man as be­ing rather less than com­pli­men­tary. From there, my great grand­fa­ther went to San­dring­ham, and I believe that is where the pho­to­graphs of him you see here were taken. The pic­ture op­po­site, far right, shows him in a jacket and waist­coat of vel­vet, bowler hat and breeches, with his curly coat re­triever by his side – very much his dog of choice. Great grand­fa­ther is the keeper on the left, the poacher ap­pre­hen­sion tool held by the man third from right looks rather im­pres­sive and one would pre­sume the axe-man on far right is a forester rather than game­keeper. In another pho­to­graph, a very tall keeper died of ra­bies. Ap­par­ently, he had to be tied down be­cause he tried to at­tack and bite peo­ple like a mad dog. At some stage, great grand­fa­ther worked free­lance killing ver­min and as a bird war­den for a Colonel Creswell where he mon­i­tored tern numbers on Wolfer­ton and Snet­tisham beaches – a long time be­fore the RSPB had even heard of such places.

Just prior to the out­break of the First World War, great grand­fa­ther was asked to re­turn to Ken Hill as head­keeper. My grand­fa­ther re­mem­bered Sir Edward’s son, Sir Lycett, go­ing to their house. When it was pointed out that Sir Edward had sacked all the keep­ers in a ‘hissy fit’ [my words], Sir Lycett’s ex­act words were: “That was my fa­ther, I am me”. My grand­fa­ther told me that as a boy he saw four gen­er­a­tions of Greens in the shoot­ing field, and re­mem­bered both King Edward VII and Sir Lycett shoot­ing over 100 birds each on one stand at Ken Hill. Great grand­fa­ther re­mained at Ken Hill for the rest of his life. He had a stroke on a shoot day when, aged 89, they car­ried him home on a five-bar gate.

Of my grand­fa­ther’s sib­lings, two were at one time keep­ers: Ge­orge, and for a short time, Billy. I know lit­tle of Ge­orge, other than he worked for Lord Vi­vian as a keeper. Great un­cle Billy I knew very well, one of my all-time he­roes and without doubt the most re­mark­able man I have ever had the plea­sure of know­ing.


Pri­vate Wil­liam Arthur Whitby of 1st Bn. Nor­folk Reg­i­ment lied about his age and went off to South Africa to fight the Bo­ers. I spent hours talk­ing to Billy as a young­ster. I was ap­par­ently the only per­son he had re­ally spo­ken to about the South

African cam­paign, First World War or in­deed his in­volve­ment in the Second World War. Per­haps it was the in­no­cent per­sis­tence of youth that bought out his war ex­pe­ri­ences. What­ever it was, I re­mem­ber one state­ment above all else about the Boer War: “We were wrong, boy, we were wrong!”

Billy returned from the Boer War rel­a­tively un­scathed, but re-en­listed prior to the out­break of the First World War. Billy was one of the first Bri­tish ex­pe­di­tionary forces to meet the en­emy. He fought the du­ra­tion, and one can only be­gin to imag­ine the hor­rors he witnessed. Wounded twice, he spoke of Ypres, Hill 60, Vimmy Ridge and that name syn­ony­mous with hell: Pass­chen­daele. It was at Pass­chen­daele that he met up with his brother Guy, just prior to the at­tack. Guy was killed, his re­mains never found and his mem­ory is a white cross at Tyne Cot Me­mo­rial. After the bat­tle, another Tommy found Billy and told him he was with Guy when he died, that they were pinned down in a shell hole and Guy took a bul­let in the head, “strange how many peo­ple died from a sin­gle bul­let to the head”, Billy said. He was 93 when he died, smoked and drank rather heav­ily all his life, per­haps drown­ing scars. The day be­fore he died a slither of shrap­nel worked its way out of his ear, I won­der why it waited un­til the last minute?

Guy, by all ac­counts, was a re­mark­able man, a won­der­ful swim­mer, boxer, crick­eter and soc­cer player. He was in both grand­fa­ther’s and Billy’s words “as hard as nails”. He was also the ap­ple of his fa­ther’s eye, some­what sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing Great un­cle Guy was a renowned poacher. He promised to show my grand­fa­ther how to tickle trout in Bab­blingly Brook when he returned from France, so sadly, my grand­fa­ther never got to learn.

There are no more Whitby game­keep­ers in the of­fer­ing, but thanks to their up­bring­ing, both my sons are ecol­o­gists, some­thing that I am ex­tremely proud of. My step­son is, how­ever, train­ing to be a keeper, a clas­sic case of that ‘peer in­flu­ence’ I would sug­gest. Due to start his fi­nal year at Sparsholt, his hope is to work with wild or bantam-reared birds and deer. I wish him all the luck in the world, as shoot­ing faces a very un­cer­tain fu­ture.

So, there we have it, a pot­ted his­tory of my game­keep­ing an­ces­tors. Am I proud of what they did, of course I am. Would they be proud of what I do? Dif­fi­cult to say. They cer­tainly would not recog­nise the Bri­tish coun­try­side. They would won­der where grey par­tridges, lap­wings, curlew and so many other species had dis­ap­peared to. They would be ut­terly dis­mayed at preda­tor numbers and though big bags may not have been a stranger to them, I won­der what they would make of the beast that game shoot­ing has mor­phed into.

Great un­cle Billy, left, en­tranced the au­thor with his Boer and WW1 sto­ries.

The au­thor's great grand­fa­ther as an old keeper at Ken Hill. The au­thor's great grand­fa­ther is in the front row, third from left, pic­tured with a group nick­named ‘The Vel­veteens’.

The au­thor's great un­cle Ge­orge, who keep­ered for Lord Vi­vian.

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