MY AN­CES­TOR WAS A... GAME­KEEPER

Michelle Higgs dis­cov­ers the es­sen­tial role of game­keep­ers on coun­try es­tates

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Michelle Higgs on the es­sen­tial role of game­keep­ers on coun­try es­tates

Game­keep­ing has a long his­tory in Bri­tain with the first game­keep­ers pro­tect­ing deer in me­dieval royal hunt­ing forests. They were em­ployed by wealthy landown­ers in the 18th and 19th cen­turies and were classed as do­mes­tic out­door ser­vants, usu­ally liv­ing in a cot­tage pro­vided for them.

The num­ber of game­keep­ers kept de­pended on the size of the coun­try es­tate. A head keeper su­per­vised the un­der-keep­ers be­neath him, and each one had his own ‘ beat’. There might also be men em­ployed specif­i­cally as watch­ers, who kept an eye out for poach­ers, or rab­biters skilled in killing rab­bits.

Game­keep­ing of­ten ran in fam­i­lies, with fa­thers teach­ing their sons from an early age. A boy could start out as a keeper’s helper and work his way up to un­der-keeper or even head game­keeper. For this kind of pro­mo­tion, it was of­ten nec­es­sary to move away since head keep­ers tended to stay in their posts for as long as their health al­lowed.

Any­one want­ing to be a game­keeper needed a deep knowl­edge of wildlife and the ways of the coun­try­side. There were four main du­ties: hand-rear­ing game pheas­ants; train­ing and break­ing in dogs; guard­ing game against poach­ers; and trap­ping ver­min

Game­keep­ing of­ten ran in fam­i­lies, with fa­thers teach­ing their sons

such as stoats, weasels, moles and rab­bits, and shoot­ing hawks, mag­pies and crows.

Shoot­ing for sport

From the early 19th cen­tury, the game­keeper’s role de­vel­oped when the ‘ battue’ hunt­ing method was in­tro­duced. Es­tate work­ers acted as ‘ beat­ers’ to drive birds to­wards the guns and in­crease the size of the ‘ bags’ of game. The game­keep­ers’ skill and knowl­edge meant the dif­fer­ence be­tween a good day’s shoot­ing and a poor one. To this end, they spent nine months of the year rear­ing pheas­ants and pre­par­ing for the shoot­ing sea­son be­gin­ning on the ‘Glo­ri­ous Twelfth’ of Au­gust. By the late Vic­to­rian pe­riod, week­end shoot­ing par­ties were very pop­u­lar on large coun­try es­tates, and there was usu­ally a big Christ­mas shoot too.

The game­keep­ers’ hey­day was from the mid-19th cen­tury un­til the First World War. In 1851, there were 1,944 game­keep­ers in Scot­land and 7,542 in Eng­land and Wales. By 1911, num­bers had soared to 5,908 and 17,148 re­spec­tively.

Pay var­ied con­sid­er­ably be­tween es­tates, de­pend­ing on ex­pe­ri­ence. For ex­am­ple, in 1865, at Holkham Hall in Nor­folk, there were five game­keep­ers. One was paid £ 80 per an­num, three re­ceived £ 60 and one £55; this clearly il­lus­trates the hi­er­ar­chy be­tween game­keep­ers. Com­mon to all es­tates was the po­ten­tial to earn sub­stan­tial tips, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing shoots. A head game­keeper could ex­pect a sov­er­eign for a good day’s par­tridge shoot­ing and two guineas for pheas­ants.

If the es­tate records sur­vive, there’s a good chance you’ll find your fore­bear men­tioned in its wage books or staff ledgers. Search The Na­tional Ar­chives’

Dis­cov­ery cat­a­logue ( dis­cov­ery.

na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk) or the Scot­tish Ar­chive Net­work ( www.scan.org.uk) to find out what’s avail­able. Landown­ers’ bi­ogra­phies and wills may re­fer to game­keep­ers, as do some trade di­rec­to­ries. You might also find obit­u­ar­ies of long-serv­ing game­keep­ers in lo­cal pa­pers.

From 1710 on­wards, every Lord of a Manor was legally re­quired to ap­point one game­keeper who had the author­ity to kill game as their deputy on that par­tic­u­lar es­tate. The reg­is­ter was held by the Jus­tices of the Peace and each named in­di­vid­ual had a li­cence to kill game and to cap­ture it out of sea­son for breed­ing pur­poses. Most sur­viv­ing game­keep­ers’ li­cences are de­posited at lo­cal ar­chives in quar­ter ses­sion records. An­ces­try ( an­ces­try.co.uk) has digi­tised game­keep­ers’ li­cences for the Mid­dle­sex Ses­sions (1727-1839).

Work­ing life

Game­keep­ing was a job with long hours. AH Bryer was the son of a head game­keeper to the then Lord Le­con­field, when 24 keep­ers worked on the es­tate. He left school at 12 and was trained by his fa­ther as a keeper boy for seven shillings a week. In The Day Be­fore Yes­ter­day edited by Noel Streat­feild, he re­called: ‘It was a life you had to en­joy to take it up, for it was… seven days a week all the year round.’ He stayed for two years, and then moved “to where I could earn 14 shillings and a suit of clothes.”

He re­turned to work on the Le­con­field es­tate af­ter the

A head game­keeper could ex­pect a sov­er­eign for a good day’s par­tridge shoot­ing

First World War: “I had two pounds ten a week, my cot­tage, a hun­dred fag­gots and a load of wood, and all the rab­bits on my beat.” He was paid an ex­tra pound for train­ing two Labrador pup­pies every year.

In ad­di­tion to prac­ti­cal skills, game­keep­ers needed to be good with peo­ple, es­pe­cially with lo­cal ten­ants who could turn poacher in times of need. Ac­cord­ing to Richard Jef­feries in The Game­keeper at Home (1880): “The too of­fi­cious man… cre­ates a feel­ing among the ten­ants against him­self and the whole ques­tion of game. But the quiet ex­pe­ri­enced hand, with a shrewd knowl­edge of men as well as the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of his pro­fes­sion, grows to be liked by the ten­antry, and be­comes a lo­cal author­ity on an­i­mal life.”

Every game­keeper had his own tried and tested meth­ods to deal with poach­ers. AH Bryer pre­ferred not to get the po­lice in­volved: “With rab­bit poach­ing I never in­ter­fered… but when it was a pheas­ant some­thing had to be done… more of­ten than not, I didn’t hand the man over to the po­lice, for times were hard. So what I did was give the fel­low a good hid­ing and take away his gun… my beat­ings and tak­ing the guns of­ten did bet­ter than a mag­is­trate’s sen­tence.”

Pro­tect­ing game against poach­ers could be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. Be­tween Novem­ber 1880 and July 1896, there were at least 30 se­ri­ous in­ci­dents across the UK in­volv­ing game­keep­ers and poach­ers, re­sult­ing in the deaths of ei­ther a keeper or a poacher in 17 of the cases; in the re­main­der, the vic­tims suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries.

With the de­cline of the landed gen­try and the sale of many coun­try es­tates af­ter the First World War, the num­ber of game­keep­ers dwin­dled. By 1931, there were 10,706 in Eng­land and Wales and 4,050 in Scot­land. To­day, there are around 3,000 full-time game­keep­ers in Bri­tain. Michelle Higgs is an au­thor spe­cial­is­ing in so­cial and fam­ily his­tory

In 1911 in game-pre­serv­ing Nor­folk and Suf­folk, there were three or four game­keep­ers in every vil­lage, out­num­ber­ing the po­lice.

Two game­keep­ers rest on a river­bank dur­ing a hunt­ing trip

A ‘ghillie’ at Bal­moral in the mid-19th cen­tury

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