The Field

The poacher wars

Economic hardship and harsh Game Laws pitched poacher against gamekeeper in the 18th and 19th centuries. But were these ‘criminals’ murderers or martyrs?

- written BY Roger field

Roger Field on 200 years of conflict

If anyone doubts the bitterness and sheer nastiness of what has come to be called ‘The poacher wars’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, they need only to inspect what was lot 377 at Antony Cribb’s April 2018 Arms, Armour, Militaria and Medals auction: ‘A flintlock gamekeeper’s gun’. Also known as a ‘spring gun’, this hefty lump of put-together viciousnes­s has a 15in barrel with a Brown Bess firing mechanism. It has a long chain to padlock it to a tree – said gamekeeper did not want his intended quarry finding the gun and setting it up somewhere else where it could blow him to bits instead. There is a big iron spike underneath to secure the gun into the ground and, this one at least, has three ring pulls to which wires would have been attached. ‘Spring’ a wire by walking into it, a lever pulls like a trigger and the gun fires. Think 19thcentur­y Claymore mine – the must-bring accessory for any self-respecting modern military ambush. Properly bedded in, the barrel would stand about 4in off the ground and, depending on its load, be it shot or rock salt or anything in between, the blast would either remove an ankle or lower leg entirely or leave the ‘victim’ limping for months. Try explaining that injury to the Peelers when they come looking for who detonated the trap. I use the word victim rather than poacher advisedly because, once rigged, there was no saying who or what would get blatted when it let rip. In 1780, a ‘gentleman’ shooting legally near Holt in Norfolk is recorded to have followed an injured bird with his dog, which tripped a wire. Luckily for him it was the dog that was eviscerate­d. He had a very near miss. In 1790, two of Lord Berkeley’s servants were killed in two similar spring gun incidents.

And let’s not forget mantraps, another weapon in the gamekeeper’s armoury: huge, metal, serrated jaws that sprung closed when an unfortunat­e stepped on it. It was not, theoretica­lly, designed to kill or remove a leg as such, just to ‘deter’. But, given the rudimentar­y medicine and hygiene of the times, that could be the result. Nor was the victim going anywhere as the more sophistica­ted traps needed a key to unlock them. One night in 1785 four Suffolk poachers walked into what must have been a veritable fleet of mantraps. By the next morning one man was dead and the other three incapacita­ted, “their thighs broke by the crackers and traps”. These weapons of war were finally banned in 1829, not because – or so it seems – anyone felt sorry for the poachers but because honest folk and their dogs, perhaps out for a picnic or a walk, could just as easily end up being killed or maimed by them.

the battle bowler

Reading this you might now think that the gamekeeper­s were the ones winning the war, but it was often the opposite. Whilst they set their traps and hoped not to forget where they had put them, when it came to a confrontat­ion it was usually more about numbers as to who came off worst.

The famous Holkham, or ‘Coke’, bowler, first made by Lock & Co for the eponymous Norfolk estate and family, was, in origin, a true ‘battle bowler’ (the nickname soldiers in my day gave to their steel helmets). Fed up with the injuries being sustained by his keepers in their battles with the poachers, Edward Coke, brother of the Earl of Leicester, explained the problem to Edward Bowler, Lock’s chief hat maker (E Bowler – ‘bowler’, obviously) in 1849. The result delighted Coke, who jumped up and down on his creation to check that it would take a club to the head. The keepers still wear them to this day.

The level of premeditat­ed violence keepers faced was described in an 1832 report from the Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborou­gh Gazette, when armed poachers went looking for trouble: “There were upwards of 30 poachers and about half the number of keepers and assistants. About 3 o’clock in the morning they met and a dreadful conflict ensued. A person who saw the field of action declared if 20 pigs with their throats cut had been left to run about, the ground would not have appeared more saturated with blood. The keepers all of them are dreadfully mutilated, and it is supposed that two of them cannot recover…” No wonder the sometimes outnumbere­d keepers preferred spring guns and man traps to going mano a mano with poachers armed and ready to kill. Why prepared to kill? Some of these poaching crimes were punishable by possible death, deportatio­n or prison. Faced by a gamekeeper who probably knew you and was going to see you convicted, a cornered poacher would think twice before surrenderi­ng, especially when his and his family’s – they would starve while he was incarcerat­ed – best chance of survival was probably for him to kill the gamekeeper witness. That may be why – even though by later Victorian times there were enough changes in the law and economic circumstan­ces for poaching to decline and, with it, poacher/ gamekeeper violence – of the 30 ‘pitched battles’ recorded between 1880 and 1886 (there were doubtless more that went unrecorded), in 17 of them more than one person was killed. Putting aside that this was an age of violence, when gentlefolk and local officials routinely carried guns, swords and knives to protect themselves, how had this level of attrition been allowed to escalate in England’s green and clearly not always so pleasant lands?

Blame the nasty Normans is usually a good answer, and it works here. King William and his hunting-mad successors introduced entirely new game laws, turning vast swathes of the country (one-third of Southern England, by one account) into Royal Forests: areas where only the king and his guests could hunt game, take wood or graze livestock. Local fury followed – the locals, of course, depended on the land to eat, heat and graze. Suffice to say, during the medieval period the king and the nobility tended to be the winners until Oliver Cromwell and the Commonweal­th, when there was a general rolling back of these hated laws. Quickly followed, come the restoratio­n of Charles II, by the 1671 Game Act, a reintroduc­tion of these laws with extra knobs on. So, instead of those owning land of £40 value being allowed to hunt on it, this was raised to £100, or £150 for leasehold plus ‘their sons, heirs or others of “higher degree”’. With that signature most in England, even the moderately wealthy, were banned from hunting, including many who would have been natural Field readers of the day.

the game laws bite

Further historical quirks meant that the worst crimes were deemed to be hunting deer (obvious) but also hares, rabbits and, bizarrely, wild duck – all considered ‘private property’. To kill them, or attempt to do so, was deemed ‘theft’. William Cobbett, the Georgian agrarian social reformer, famously said in 1823 that one-third of all Englishmen in jail were there because of the Game Laws. The penalties for taking rabbits and hares seem particular­ly harsh today but what most non-sporting commentato­rs do not appreciate is that, in the 1600s and 1700s, few poachers could have afforded a wheellock or flintlock gun to shoot at birds although, and that said, there were some ‘gentlemen poachers’, mightily pissed at no longer being permitted to hunt on their own land. Most poachers would have used nets, dogs, crossbows or longbows, making ground game the obvious quarry (a partridge with a crossbow? Rather you than me). Hence the heavy penalties. It was only with the arrival of percussion that a poacher could afford a relatively cheap and effective gun that could realistica­lly knock down a bird. Anyway, the 1671 Game Act meant that a farmer had to watch rabbits and hares devour his vegetables without being able to intervene on pain of death, prison or deportatio­n. No wonder the countrysid­e got angry.

One change in the early 1800s was a legal differenti­ation between poaching by day or night; ‘Night Poaching’ carrying far heavier penalties. Of Cobbett’s one-third of imprisoned poachers, he should have added that 90% were caught day poaching, which makes sense. Not only would it be difficult taking game at night but skulking around, armed, on another’s land in the dark is much meatier stuff. Reading some of the battle accounts, it seems it was mainly at night that those wars were fought, not least as the penalties were so much more severe, giving a cornered night poacher few options but to fight.

an ode to poaching

However, even as this bloody war was being fought in the countrysid­e, the legend of the stout-hearted poacher ‘only’ taking one for the pot to feed his starving family was being born; a concept that even King George IV bought into because it is known that one of his favourite songs was The Lincolnshi­re Poacher. Composed pre-1776, it is an ode to the joys of night poaching. It was so popular that it became the regimental quick march of the 10th (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot (the Royal Lincolnshi­re Regiment). Its successor, the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, is today nicknamed ‘The Poachers’. The second verse gives you the flavour: As me and my companions was setting off a snare,

’Twas then we spied the gamekeeper – for him we did not care,

For we can wrestle and fight, my boys, and jump o’er anywhere.

Oh, ’tis my delight on a shining night, in the season of the year.

Because, the fact of it was that there were as many variants of poaching as there were loads for a spring gun. At one end was the starving agricultur­al labourer, probably laid off after the harvest and struggling to survive the winter, a countryman through and through, taking one for the pot (be it bird, hare or salmon) to feed his family, perhaps selling a second. Then there were reports of whole villages that survived the lean times by poaching en masse, everyone involved; the men ‘taking’, the women and children ‘processing’. It could be completely ‘commercial’. Selling game was illegal for much of this period, but game could be had in the main cities and there are reports of carriages being stopped full of poached game. In the more industrial north of England, poaching was equally rife but it was also more commercial, especially close to the new urban centres; colliers (sorry coal miners, but…) being deemed particular­ly crafty and violent. When cornered, one Victorian gamekeeper reported in a magazine, colliers used their wooden clogs to sometimes deadly effect.

Plus ça change, as a modern gamekeeper will tell you. The last thing he wants to meet is a poacher determined not to be caught. Because, blood may well be spilled…

 ??  ?? Caught red-handed and convicted, a poacher could expect no leniency, the punishment including prison, hanging or transporta­tion
Caught red-handed and convicted, a poacher could expect no leniency, the punishment including prison, hanging or transporta­tion
 ??  ?? Left: it was only with the arrival of percussion weapons that poachers could afford firearms Above: a poacher sets a snare in the 19th century, when rabbits and hares were the main quarry
Left: it was only with the arrival of percussion weapons that poachers could afford firearms Above: a poacher sets a snare in the 19th century, when rabbits and hares were the main quarry
 ??  ?? With harsh penalties ahead, poachers would rather fight the gamekeeper­s than submit to capture
With harsh penalties ahead, poachers would rather fight the gamekeeper­s than submit to capture
 ??  ?? A gamekeeper’s arsenal might include a mantrap (this one circa 1880) or a flintlock spring gun (right), as sold by Antony Cribb in April
A gamekeeper’s arsenal might include a mantrap (this one circa 1880) or a flintlock spring gun (right), as sold by Antony Cribb in April
 ??  ??

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