Who Do You Think You Are?


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).

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
Two gamekeeper­s rest on a riverbank during a hunting trip
 ??  ?? A ‘ghillie’ at Balmoral in the mid-19th century
A ‘ghillie’ at Balmoral in the mid-19th century

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