MY ANCESTOR WAS A... GAMEKEEPER
Michelle Higgs discovers the essential role of gamekeepers on country estates
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).
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.
A ‘ghillie’ at Balmoral in the mid-19th century
Two gamekeepers rest on a riverbank during a hunting trip