The keeper’s view
Headkeeper David Whitby opens his truly fascinating family archives to chart the lives of gamekeepers of old.
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.
WHITBY WAR HEROES
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.