More on ‘Wise Men’, Conjurors and ‘Cunning Women’

The_Witch_of_the_Woodlands

“The Witch of the Woodlands”
Illustration from an 18th century chapbook

I have written before about ‘wise men’ (and women): local herbalists, magicians and clairvoyants, who were often those the ordinary people would ask to cure their illnesses, remove supposed curses and instances of being ‘overlooked’ [effected by the evil eye], bring good luck and foretell the future. In the latest book in my Ashmole Foxe series of mysteries, Foxe is helped by just such a ‘wise woman’, who gives him advice and encouragement when both are needed.

I thought I would take a look through the local newspapers of the time to see if I could find out more about the activities of such ‘conjurors’, as they are often termed at the time. (As an aside, I assume this term refers to their supposed use of spells or ‘conjurations’, not any ability to produce rabbits out of hats!) Here is a selection of what I found, beginning with an undoubted, if only partial, success.

A Success

The house of Mr. Cole, farmer, of Ketton, Rutland, having been robbed of property to a considerable amount; a relation of Mr. Cole’s, advised him, if the thief was not found out, nor the property returned in a few days, to apply to a conjuror (or wise man) who would discover the robber, and also oblige them to restore the effects. Mr. Cole promised his friend to make the application at the end of three days, in case he heard nothing of the money. His intent got wind; and had such an influence on those who committed the robbery, that thirty-one guineas, a 20l. [£20] and a 10l. bank of England notes, and a 10l. Stamford bank (being artfully left in the passage) which is within 18l. 4s. [£18 4 shillings] of the whole sum was returned to him.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 16 January 1790

Two Failures

There were failures as well. I love the snide remark on the conjuror’s abilities at the end of the first excerpt.

Oxford, Dec. 7. Thursday morning, between five and six o’clock, the Bath coach was robbed in going up the hill on the other side [of] Bottley, about a mile and a half from this city, by a single highwayman, well mounted, who took from Mr. Jonas, the celebrated conjuror, his watch and about four guineas in money. It seems more than probable, that either the suddenness of the demand, or the bitter imprecations of the highwayman, might so much alarm Mr. Jonas as totally to deprive him of his wonderful art of conveyance, or we can scarce suppose he would have suffered the robber to pocket the watch and money, and carry it off.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 14 December 1776

The report of this last case is somewhat confusing, so I’ll set down the basics. A woman from the Norfolk village of Hetherset had some cheeses stolen and consulted a wise woman to help discover the thief. The wise woman gave an ambiguous answer, stating the thief had a mark on her nose. This was obviously reported around the village and the village shoemaker, Chamberlain, who seems to have been on poor terms with a couple called Bailey, said something that the Baileys took to be an accusation that Mrs Bailey was the thief. Hence the court case claiming slander.

This action was brought to obtain a compensation for the injury sustained by the character of Mrs Bailey from the slander of the defendant. [a Mr. Chamberlain, a shoemaker] —The facts were these: A Mrs. Witten, of Hetherset, having lost seven cheeses, caused an enquiry to be made of a cunning woman to discover the thief. This cunning woman, by the aid of magic, or some other mode of detecting culprits, unknown even in Bow-street, found out that the offending person had a mark on her nose. Now it happened, unfortunately, for Mrs. Bailey that, under this description, her nose betrayed her guilt; the defendant, at least, (who is a shoe-maker, at Hetherset) entertained no doubt on this point, and roundly taxed her with the robbery. He told her that “he knew very well by the subscription that was given of her that she was the woman who had stolen the cheese,” and said, that “the guilt was lodged on her, and she could not get off it.” These words, however, were, by one of the witnesses denied to have been spoken at the time alledged [sic]; and from this witness it appeared, that all which the defendant had said was, “I don’t say who stole the cheeses, but if the d—d old woman will say ’twas a woman with a mark on her nose, I can’t help it.” Some provoking language appeared also have been used by Bailey to the defendant previous to these words being by the latter, and the case being but weakly supported, the Jury, with the recommendation of the Judge, gave verdict for the defendant.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 12 August 1797

It’s interesting that, although the general tenor of these pieces is sceptical, you get the sense that consulting ‘conjurors’ and ‘Cunning Men’ (and women) was not viewed as out of the ordinary. It’s the attempt to discover what’s hidden that is the source of the disbelief. I could find no suggestion that visiting a ‘Cunning Woman’ (or man) for medical help was viewed with suspicion. After all, as the ‘alternative practitioners’ of their day, at a time when ‘conventional’ medicine had almost nothing useful to offer, they probably offered as much assistance as anyone — and at much less cost as well.

 

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Georgian Agricultural Labour: “Learning about Capitalism”

late_18th_century_countryside

 

The ‘new’ agriculture required capital in ways that were unexpected. Capital to buy better livestock to improve your own. Capital to purchase marl and lime to add to the fertility of your land. Capital to bring marginal land into full production and capital to buy machinery, if you were in the forefront of progress. Sending your crops for sale in the most profitable markets also took the money to pay for transportation in advance of getting paid for the sale itself. You might also wish to take on more land, if it was available, since the cost of farming it might be only a little more than your current costs, while the value of the produce would be much greater.

The problem with subsistence farming is that it rarely produces a surplus for sale in the market. Why should it? If you can feed your own family, why struggle to produce more? And while subsistence farming demands little or no capital in itself, it generates none either. The great landowners — and almost all the land was in their ownership — might possess huge acreages, but the income in rent had often proved meagre at best. Enclosing the land, carving out separate farms of a sensible size and letting them to tenants with capital of their own to invest made good sense. It also allowed the landowner to charge higher rents. Even so, living from land ownership was never especially profitable. Like the crops themselves, rental income was at the mercy of fluctuating markets, uncertain weather and the efforts of the tenants themselves. In tough times, unpaid rents undermined the income from land ownership. Those landowners who grew rich from their ancestral acres were the ones who mined the mineral wealth from under the soil, not the crops on the surface.

Who wanted to do day labour anyway?

Many, many people. The countryside was awash with poor labourers trying to scratch a living, women eager for whatever work they could do and children sent out as young as four or five to bring home a few pence from scaring birds off the crops. To survive on day labour took a family effort. If there was no work locally, families took to the roads to seek out work elsewhere, despite the dangers of being judged ‘vagrants’ and punished accordingly. Strangers seeking work could expect no welcome. The local poor needed no competition to depress wages even further. The wealthy were determined not to pay higher Poor Rates to support families who were not even local.

Yet still they came. Demand for farm labour might be seasonal and erratic, but it was predictable on a larger scale. Harvesting, hop picking and threshing took place at roughly the same time each year. Knowing this, hoards of families descended on the areas most likely to offer work in the fields. Welsh women walked to Kent for the hop-picking. Irish labourers poured into England at harvest time. Most were so desperate they would work for starvation wages, thus ensuring wages were driven down for everyone.

Leaving the Land

Was it any wonder so many families headed for the new urban manufacturing centres? Living and working conditions might be no better — they might well be worse — but at least the work was regular.

Did nobody care about the plight of the poor, whether rural or urban? Very few. I’ve already mentioned the general belief that poverty was your own fault for not working harder and living more frugally. A large pool of labour was also deemed necessary to hold wages down. Clear-eyed people, like the influential writer Arthur Young in the 1780s, pointed out that even the poor would not work the hours they did, nor endure the appalling conditions and dangers, if dire necessity did not make them do so.

People then did the work machines do now, and were treated in the same way. You don’t feel compassion for a machine which operates 24 hours a day. You want to get the greatest amount of output possible for what it is costing you to run it. That’s how most Georgian capitalists felt about their workers.

Times, however, were changing. By the end of the century, social reformers and those with a strong religious outlook were already questioning the prevailing attitudes. Some built model workers’ housing in the belief that happier, healthier employees would be more productive and reliable. Others noted the working hours lost to alcohol — the cheapest way to numb the pain of poverty — and reasoned that paying higher wages and providing basic social care would pay off in terms of reduced absences and less down-time caused by accidents.

On the land, changes came more slowly. The introduction of machinery increased the demand for skilled workers, but caused a far greater loss in unskilled jobs. Poverty remained widespread, diffuse and easily overlooked. Romantics, like Oliver Goldsmith writing ‘The Deserted Village’, too easily looked back to a golden age of happy, healthy peasants; an age which never was. Working on the land, as opposed to owning and exploiting it, never produced better than a meagre subsistence. If it had, the ploughs and the seed drills would have been taken over by the rich long before.

 

Posted in Agriculture, C18th Norfolk, Georgian Society | 2 Comments

Plus Ça Change: The Georgian Government’s Response to Radicalism

Defending Britain from sedition and the “swinish multitudes”

Loyal-Address

The Norfolk Chronicle, 30th June, 1792

On May 21, 1792, King George III issued a proclamation in which he warned his subjects against the influence of “divers wicked and seditious writings”. It’s clear the principal writing he and his government had in mind was Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man. Part II of this work was even more radical in its ideas than Part I. It was also deliberately published in a cheap edition, thus making it widely available to artisans as well as people of the middling sort. It’s quite likely that William Pitt’s government had used its spies to learn the nature of this fresh content even before copies were printed.

If the radicals had hoped for an upwelling of support in response to Paine’s writing, they were to be disappointed. Paine fled to France to avoid prosecution, but was still tried for sedition and sentenced to death in absentia. The royal proclamation, however, produced a spontaneous outpouring of support for the current English Constitution. Scores of loyalist associations were formed and hundreds of loyal addresses sent to the king. Effigies of Tom Paine were publicly burned in towns and villages throughout the country. The British public, it was clear, had no taste for French-style revolution.

Pitt’s use of spies and informers

Throughout the summer of 1792, Pitt’s government worked hard at suppression. They infiltrated radical groups and societies with secret agents and collected intelligence from informers and local officials. The king’s proclamation had included an order that local magistrates should send information on seditious activities to the central government. All this intelligence-gathering was now supplemented by an intense propaganda campaign to counter the effects of “seditious and wicked works” (such as The Rights of Man) on what was held to be an impressionable populace. Large amounts of financial support was provided for the loyalist associations.

These associations busily wrote and published pamphlets denouncing the radicals, while loyalist newspapers reported rumours of plots and claimed domestic radicals were all colluding with foreign revolutionaries. The “Project Fear” this created will be sadly familiar to many of us today. Indeed, it’s arguable that the most effective counter to the ideas of radicals and reformers was not legislative action or legal prosecution, but the atmosphere of fear produced by government propaganda.

The fear reached something of a climax in December, 1792, when several newspapers contained news of a supposed (but entirely false) insurrection. This was followed by a rumour that there was an army of traitors on their way to London. The authorities responded with a series of swift, harsh actions. They called out the militia and convened a sitting of Parliament. Coaches and carriages were stopped and searched for “traitors,” who were taken to the Tower of London by the thousands (though most soon escaped). Though it all ended in anticlimax, since no “army of traitors” arrived and there was no real evidence to allow any prosecutions, these rumours and alarms further whipped up fears in the populace at large.

Was this Intense Loyalism Real?

Given the constant government involvement in encouraging “popular” expressions of loyalty, it’s hard to be certain how much anti-radical sentiment was genuine and how much was deliberately generated. There’s plenty of evidence of official interference. For example, in November 1792, Lord Grenville was writing to Pitt to ask for advice on the best way to form counter-associations against the radicals. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that even Pitt’s government, willing though it was to resort to measures of dubious legality and questionable ethics, could have manufactured such a strong anti-radical response on its own.

Nevertheless, these events let the government seize the opportunity to crush fledgling movements towards reform. Surviving documents show that most so-called radical or revolutionary groupings at the time did not advocate anything like a wholesale revolution. What they wanted were reforms on the lines of a universal adult (male) franchise, an end to “placemen” (government “jobs for the boys”) and government sinecures. They also demanded more regular parliamentary elections, preferably annually. By now, however, even such modest measures could be portrayed as the slippery slope towards extremism and bloody revolution. The ruling elite were determined to retain the status quo. It seemed the bulk of the populace was happy to support them.

Fear of Immigrants

This is another topic from that time which will seem all too familiar to modern ears. Pitt’s government spies reported that large numbers of immigrants were fleeing France and entering England with little or no control or documentation. They also claimed significant purchases of arms were being made by known French sympathisers in preparation for some kind of uprising. At the same time, many English people believed a French invasion was imminent, preceded by a French-inspired and supported insurrection.

Was this true? It’s certain that large numbers of French refugees were fleeing to England to escape ‘The Terror’. It was also correct no one knew precisely how many there were or where they had gone after they arrived. At first, when the revolution in France turned violent, English people had welcomed refugees and done their best to help them. But as numbers grew and the atmosphere of fear intensified, all that changed. Parliament passed the Aliens Act, requiring all ports to keep a full account of immigrants entering the country. Those who arrived were not allowed to travel without passports or bring arms or ammunition with them. The Act also gave the Secretary of State powers to deport suspicious aliens and restrict the movement of foreigners within the country to certain districts. There they had to submit to registration and were required to give up their weapons. It wasn’t quite internment, but it came very close. At around the same time, the Alien Office, outwardly established to monitor and enforce the act, became the ‘cover’ for a surprisingly sophisticated system of internal espionage — a Georgian version of MI5.

“The English Robespierre”

There can be no doubt of William Pitt’s determination to see off any attempts to change the constitution or produce a popular uprising. From 1792 onwards, his government used a range of increasingly draconian measures to suppress opposition of any kind — so much so that John Gale Jones, at a meeting of a liberal debating society in 1795, described Pitt as the “English Robespierre”. If this was going too far, there’s no doubt Pitt and his ministers, supported by the king, conducted a sustained assault on traditional freedoms of association and speech, as well as introducing powers of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, at least for a period.

The history of the domestic crisis that followed France’s declaration of war on Britain in 1793 and the series of French military victories in continental Europe will be the subject of later posts in this series.

 

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

The Georgians and Whist

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Partnership in Whist is an Emblem of Partnership in Trade… It shows how much depends upon good Partnership; and I will venture to say, that a good Whist-Player will make both a good Partner and a good Merchant.

The Polite Gamester; or, The Humours of Whist, 1753

A social revolution swept through Britain in the early-modern period. Its first signs could be seen under Elizabeth I, then its progress during the following century was slow, interrupted by civil war and religious strife. Not until the protestant succession was established by the defeat of James II was rapid progress resumed. During the Georgian and Regency periods, this revolution accelerated to its peak and became the accepted pattern of life in Britain. I am, of course, referring to the rise of the middle class, the ‘middling sort’.

The rapid growth of Britain’s trade and manufacturing in the 18th century brought those whose fortunes depended on them into prominence. No longer was all wealth based on the inherited ownership of land. Merchants and professional men could, through hard work, diligence and personal endeavour, amass fortunes that in many cases exceeded those of the lesser landed gentry. And with wealth came the ability to live in style and indulge in suitable leisure activities. In choosing such activities, they looked to what was most popular amongst the fashionable elite. Gambling came high on the list, especially activities like playing cards, which did not require elaborate training or expensive equipment.

Sensible Gambling?

Members of the landed elite were notorious for their addiction to gambling. Some played for the highest stakes, winning or losing fortunes in the course of a single evening. What allowed for this behaviour was family land ownership. Profligate sons could apply to their elders to bail them out of trouble. When those same elders got into debt, they could nearly always raise another mortgage on their estates. Since many of these estates were left to the next generation in entail — a legal device allowing use of the income without personal ownership of the property — risks were limited to bequeathing an estate encumbered with large mortgages.

The middling sort also liked to gamble, if only to emulate the gentry. However, the risks to them were different. Most had no great assets to fall back on to support loans, while their standing in the market was heavily dependent on maintaining a reputation for sobriety, prudence and stability — especially financial stability. Trading or making a living as a professional are themselves risky endeavours. A physician with a reputation for hard living and reckless gambling would soon have no patients. A merchant who gambled his profits away could expect to end in the debtor’s prison.

What was needed was an acceptable, sensible form of gambling, in which stakes were modest and an enjoyable evening would end without anyone facing ruin. Playing cards was ideal and Whist the ideal game.

The Attractions of Whist

As a game, Whist is easy to learn, yet offers the chance to exercise skill in making best use of the cards in your hand. Stakes were generally modest. Winning or losing was cumulative, not based on a single turn of a card or throw of a dice. Above all, Whist is a sociable game, played by pairs of players pitted against each other, with abundant opportunity for conversation and mutual support.

Merchants and professionals, then as now, relied on building up a wide network of friends and acquaintances. Such networks were essential to support trade, attract new business and discover in advance what opportunities or threats lay ahead. What the golf course once was fifty years ago as a place for doing business, the Whist table was two hundred years earlier.

Add to this the Georgian preoccupation with displaying ‘politeness’ — a mix of clubbability, good manners and conversational skill — and you have the perfect environment for evenings combining the modest excitement of ‘sensible’ gambling with abundant opportunities for polishing friendships, cultivating contacts and displaying the virtues of a ‘good partner’ at the Whist table. Whist could also be played in mixed groups, making it an excellent activity to indulge in after dinner at one of the many private parties or public assemblies.

Don’t overlook Whist or dismiss it as a simple card game for long evenings. In Georgian times, skill at the card table was as much valued amongst the middling sort as skill on the dance-floor and the ability to shine in conversation. Even many of the lesser gentry enjoyed a game of Whist and valued the opportunities it might provide. Making contacts to negotiate a marriage to revitalise the family’s finances via the dowry given to a wealthy merchant’s daughter. Finding a suitable patron for a younger son forced to make his own way in the world via trade or the professions. An evening of Whist was a microcosm of Georgian life: decorous, good natured, sociable, competitive and respectable.


Note: I am greatly indebted to the following book for much of my background reading for this article.

Mullin, Janet E. 2015. A Sixpence at Whist: Gaming and the English Middle Classes, 1680-1830. Boydell Press.

Posted in Georgian Society, Leisure | 2 Comments

Scotch Runts in Norfolk

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Old drove road to Craik in the Scottish Borders
 (Photo by Walter Baxter, geograph.org.uk, CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is not a scurrilous attack on certain people born north of the border! The creatures I am writing about were cattle. Large numbers of mostly Galloway bullocks from the generally poor grazing areas of Scotland were driven south to Norfolk every year to be sold by professional drovers. The graziers who bought these “Scotch runts” then fattened them up, partly on grass, but mostly on turnips. Once they had reached a good weight, they would be driven down to Smithfield Market in London, again by professional drovers, and the whole process begun again the next year.

The cattle drovers were skilled men, capable of handling perhaps a hundred beasts on the 300-mile journey. The drovers were trusted with more than conveying the beasts safely, and in good condition, to the cattle fair where they were sold. They handled the sale and were then responsible for conveying the money back to the seller. Since it could amount to a substantial sum, in circumstances where the seller had no direct means of checking what was due, the drovers needed to establish and maintain the trust of those for whom they worked.

Norfolk was a favoured location for these transactions. The typical Norfolk foldcourse system of agriculture included the planting of turnips in the rotation. Along with the rich grazing in the river valleys and the areas around the Norfolk Broads, turnips provided a useful crop for using as cattle feed. They were being grown anyway, so using them to create an extra “crop” in terms of fattened cattle made excellent sense. At its peak, thousands of Scottish cattle were being driven south every year to be sold for fattening in this way. During the Napoleonic wars, in particular, London’s own demands were almost dwarfed by the government’s constant requirement for salt beef to feed its soldiers and sailors. It is recorded that, in 1794, 108,000 cattle were driven to London for slaughter from elsewhere in the country. Around 80% of them came from Scotland.

“They had match’d themselves together with abundance of Discretion; mix’d Fat and Lean like so many Scotch Runts in Smithfield Market, amongst the like number of Lincolnshire-Oxen, that I thought it a lively representation of Pharoah’s Dream, appearing to me as a true Emblem of Plenty and Famine: For one part of them look’d as if they had half eat up the other.” (The London Spy, 1703)

The “Fays Fair” at Horsham St Faiths

Many of the largest droves coming south from Dumfries and Falkirk were destined for the St Faith’s Fair, held at Horsham St Faiths, just north of Norwich, every October. It took the drovers around a month to make the journey from Scotland, driving the cattle by day and penning them in a farmer’s field overnight. This provided a useful extra income for farmers with suitable fields well supplied with grass to help keep the animals going. Even so, the beasts, mostly around 4 – 5 years of age, would lose a significant amount of weight during the journey. All the walking might also take a heavy toll on their hooves, even though they would have been shod before they set out, using two-part special shoes suitable for cloven hooves.

When they arrived, the drovers would need to decide whether the demand from the graziers was enough at that time, or whether it would be better to wait a few more days. Alternatively, the cattle might be moved on to another market not too far away; perhaps the Hempton Fair, held near Fakenham about 20 miles distant a few weeks after the main St Faiths Fair.

Assuming the cattle were shown for sale at St. Faiths, the graziers would be active in assessing how easy each set of beasts would be to fatten to a state suitable to attract London buyers. Indeed, alongside the cattle brought for further grazing, the fair was also an opportunity for graziers to sell those bought the previous year and now ready for slaughter. London butchers would travel to Norfolk to buy the best beasts ahead of their rivals, then contract with local drovers to deliver them safely to the capital — a journey which took about a week.

How much profit could be made on these transactions? One example can be found in the estate accounts of William Windham of Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, covering the years 1676 and 1677. On the side of “costs” for October 1676, he notes:

For 20 bullocks at St Fayes Fayer: £35.00
For 20 bullocks at Hempton Fayer: £36 10s

Under “profits” for 1677, he notes:

For 20 Scotch steers: £60.00
For 20 Scotch steers sould for: £65.00

He therefore made an overall profit of £53 10s overall, a substantial amount in the late seventeenth century.

Settlement Day

When the drovers returned home, a day would be appointed for them to settle with those who had employed them and hand over the profit made. Here’s a description of such a day, covering the onward journey from Norfolk to Smithfield Market in London. Settlement was made at the Angel Inn in North Walsham in 1780, not too far from the site of St Faiths Fair.

“There was a roomful of graziers who had sent bullocks to Smithfield the previous week. The weekly journey was made alternately by the drover, J. Smith of Erpingham, and his servant. Smith sat with each man’s account and a pair of saddle bags with money and bills lying on the table before him. A farmer would sit at his elbow, examine the salesman’s account, receive his money, drink a glass or two of liquor, throw down sixpence towards the reckoning and return to the market …”

St Faiths Fair had begun around 1100 and lasted until 1872, when the ease and speed of sending cattle directly to London by rail had rendered it almost totally obsolete. It had survived wars and famines, outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and other disasters, fears of invasion, and many cycles between high demand and severe agricultural depression. Nowadays, it, like the great drove roads which criss-crossed the countryside, had left almost no physical traces to show its past importance.

As a child living on the borders of England and Wales, I remember my mother taking me for “country walks” along what were known as the Green Lanes: unmetalled roads with wide grass verges on both sides. Neither she nor I knew then that we were walking along some of the last remnants of the great drove roads. All are now gone, I believe, swallowed up by agricultural fields and out-of-town housing estates. I am grateful I managed to see one or two in time.

Posted in Agriculture, C18th Norfolk | 9 Comments

Poachers in the 18th Century

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“The Wounded Poacher”,
Henry Jones Thaddeus, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Much of what we think we know about poachers and poaching in the past derives from the 19th-century. That was when the conflict between the poacher and the game-loving landowner reached its peak, with considerable violence shown on both sides. Poaching is also one of those crimes which has become romanticised. Folk songs like “The Lincolnshire Poacher” preserve the notion of poaching as a kind of sport for the labouring classes in the countryside.

“Oh, ’Twas my delight of a shining night, in the season of the year.”

Thus goes the chorus of the song, with its implications of a daring young fellow pitting his wits against both quarry and gamekeepers — and coming out triumphant in the end.

There’s also a tendency in this romanticised version of events to portray most, if not all, poachers, as poor local men. Fathers desperate to feed themselves and their families. As large-scale capitalist agriculture spread during the 18th century, so this version goes, the commons and woods where ordinary people once grazed a few sheep and shot a few rabbits were fenced off as private property. Deprived of access to wild animals for the pot, the peasants were driven to taking illicitly what they had once enjoyed without hindrance.

I’m sure that did happen. Yet local, small-scale poaching would never have produced the Draconian anti-poaching laws which disfigured the period from around 1810 to the 1830s. The petty ‘crimes’ of local poachers were almost always dealt with as misdemeanours. The poacher would expect a severe lecture from the magistrate, followed by a small fine or a few weeks in prison. Poaching for money, not for the pot, was the problem. Gangs of men who descended on an estate to take large amounts of game to sell. It started in the 18th century, then grew into almost a class war in the 19th. A letter of 1785 reported this type of poaching at a plantation near Holt in Norfolk:

The poachers behaved in a most impudent manner, saying they must have a certain number of pheasants, which some of the party shot, whilst others confined the game keepers …

Gangs of poachers would raid an area, stripping it bare of all the game. What they shot , trapped or netted went to London via middlemen. There, pheasants, partridges, hares, woodcock and deer fetched high prices. A fat pheasant would sell at retail in London for two shillings (around £30 today) and a side of venison for appreciably more. The poachers were not paid as much, but they might still get a shilling or so per pheasant. That was more than enough to make a night’s haul of 50 or more birds a profitable business. As far back as 1723, the so-called Waltham Black Act was passed in response to violent poaching gangs who attacked properties and shot the deer in the area of Waltham Chase. It made poaching at night and in disguise a felony punishable by death.

The Landowners’ Point of View

To the landowners, poaching was theft, pure and simple. They valued the game on their estates highly. Not only for sporting purposes either. Game from the estate supplied their own kitchens and could serve as a ‘cash crop’ when supplies were plentiful. They employed gamekeepers to look after what was there and — in the case of pheasants — to breed birds to complement the local stock. It was not on the scale of breeding undertaken during the 19th century — and today — but it was still an expense from which a return was expected. The local poacher taking a few birds, rabbits or hares for the pot was like the fox: a nuisance to be driven off where possible and put up with otherwise. Many local landowners were also magistrates, so these petty poachers could expect little sympathy if they were brought to court. Nonetheless, records show their punishments were rarely too harsh.

The poaching gangs were another matter altogether. In their case, both sides escalated matters into a widespread “poaching war”. Small battalions of gamekeepers and their assistants, representing the landlords, fought well-armed gangs of poachers. People died on both sides. In time, the conflict acquired a political edge. As the rich resorted to more and more violent measures to protect their game, local labourers regarded the poachers as their champions against the many injustices and humiliations inflicted on them by the gentry. As I noted earlier, this was mostly a 19th-century phenomenon, but its roots stretched back into Georgian times. The start of the enclosure movement and ‘scientific agriculture’ coincided with a growth in the popularity of hunting and shooting parties amongst the elite. Together, they cut off supplies of wild animals to the poor and turned serious poaching into a felony punishable by death or transportation.

The violence was not all on the one side. Gamekeepers and their assistants were as likely to suffer harm from encounters with poaching gangs as the other way around. Norfolk’s Parson Woodforde wrote thus in his diary for 12th December, 1785:

Poor Tom Twaites of Honingham who was beat by Poachers at Mr Townshend’s the other day, is lately dead of the Wounds he then rec’d from them.

Fourteen local men were later listed as wanted in connection with this murder and others were added later. In the end, though, only two men were tried for the crime. One was acquitted and one was convicted and hanged. Getting evidence was problematical, both from fear of the gangs and an unwillingness to testify on behalf of the gentry against neighbours and friends.

On Sunday the 31st ult. [last month] at four o’clock in the morning, a gang of poachers, about fourteen in number, entered the plantations of the Earl of Buckingham, at Blickling. After they had fired thrice, the keeper and his watch, in all fifteen, came up with them, and an engagement ensued, when the poachers threw vollies [sic] of stones, and very much wounded one of the watch. The poachers, at length, finding themselves pressed, threatened fire, and did fire two guns, but, as is supposed, with powder only; soon after, however, they fired with shot, and wounded three of the watch, and then fled.

(Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 20 January 1787)

The Poachers’ Viewpoint

Politics aside, this is harder to establish, since few have left any record of their feelings. Perhaps the best we can do is look at one of the folk songs, “The Poacher’s Fate”, which can be traced back at least as far as 1812. Here is a selection of its verses:

Come all you lads of high renown
Who love to drink strong ale that’s brown
And pull a lofty pheasant down
With powder, shot and gun.

Me and five more a-poaching went
For to get some game was our intent.
Our money being all gone and spent,
And we’d nothing else to do.

But the keeper heard us fire our gun
And to the spot he swiftly run.
He swore before the rising sun
That one of us should die.

And the bravest youth of all our lot
It was his misfortune to be shot;
His memory ne’er shall be forgot
By all his friends below.

He was a brave young youth,
I’m telling you the truth.
But the bullet it went right through his breast
And it felled him to the ground.

A Balanced View?

I can’t resist ending with this letter, printed in the Norfolk Chronicle for Saturday, 11th October, 1783. It shows that some people at least were trying to consider the ‘problem’ of poaching in a rational light.

To the Printer of the Norfolk Chronicle.

SIR,

At a time when the city is alarmed with many most audacious robberies, and is at very great addition of expence [sic] to preserve the public peace and security, it is a duty peculiarly incumbent upon the inhabitants to join in suppressing such practices as lead to these daring villainies.

Smuggling has been very wisely pointed out by the last Grand Jury at the assizes, and poaching manifestly alluded to as certain sources of these wicked practices: It is therefore very seriously urged upon all the inhabitants, that they unanimously resolve neither to buy, give, or accept of any presents of game that do not come legally qualified, and must therefore be procured from a set of desperate men, who, living in the habits of idleness and injustice one part of the year, are induced to commit acts of violence and plunder to provide for themselves for the other part. — A resolution of this kind, would, from the difficulty of their getting rid of the game, make it less worth their pursuit, and either bring them back to a habit of industry, which will be much better for their comfort and subsistence, or unfortunately, through their own obstinacy, plunge themselves into the commission of crimes which will subject them to certain detection, and the severest sentence and punishment of the law.

Considering the game-laws are so express and extensive as to deprive a very respectable part of the community of the means of fair supply of what nature has made common and bestowed liberally; the country gentlemen, who have monopolized as much as they can these kind of gratifications, ought to be at the trouble to distribute a prescribed quantity of qualifications for each species of game to such neighbours and farmers as they chuse [sic] to confide in; this would provide legal means for a reasonable and open supply, and so operate in endeavouring to destroy the temptation to poaching, prove a more effectual protection to the game itself, by making it the interest such entrusted persons to detect poachers, and render it a greater stigma to people of character to buy game illicitly.

Posted in Crime, Georgian Society, Uncategorized

A Lesser-Known Item for Smuggling: Silk

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Man’s waistcoat of French silk, made in England c1750.

Smuggling of goods was a major industry along the lonely coastline of north Norfolk, with its easy access to the Low Countries and northern France. Kipling’s well-known poem neatly summarises the main goods brought in by the smugglers throughout the country, not just in Norfolk.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

What Kipling omitted, however, was another source of trade for the smugglers : silk.

The History of Regulations on Foreign Silk

English silk manufacturers in the 18th century were assiduous in working to protect their businesses from foreign imports. As a result, bans on bringing foreign silk into the country dated back to the very beginning of the eighteenth century. It was all part of the ‘mercantilist’ ideas of the time, which emphasised the importance of exports as a way of producing wealth for the country as a whole.

Parliament banned the use of manufactured fabrics mixed with Asian silks as early as 1700. In 1706, a ban was placed on French ribbons and laces. By 1749, all imports of foreign gold and silver lace were prohibited. Ready-made garments of foreign silk, plus foreign silk fabrics and velvet, were banned in 1765. Those found ignoring these regulations could be fined the enormous amount of £100 (perhaps £25,000 in today’s spending power) and have all the illegal goods seized.

Demand Creates Supply

The trouble with all such prohibitions and punitive customs duties in the eighteenth century was simple. By producing a shortage of desirable goods, and driving up the price of legal imports to excessive levels, the authorities made smuggling highly profitable. The elite members of society wanted fine silk clothes and were not especially careful where they came from — especially if those offered by the ‘free traders’ could be obtained more cheaply than those from legitimate sources.

Smuggling had grown hugely in eighteenth-century Britain as a direct result of the shift in taxation from direct taxes on wealth to indirect taxes on goods. High duties were placed on commodities that could not be satisfied by domestic production, in a effort to finance Britain’s constant wars in the period. As a result, consumers looked to ways to avoid these taxes. Indeed, few seemed to have felt any great scruples in buying contraband goods. Parson Woodforde happily received brandy from the local smuggler. Even Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, ignored his own government’s regulations to fill his cellars at Houghton Hall with contraband wines and spirits.

With silks and fine fabrics, the obvious demand came from the fashion-conscious, those desiring to deck out themselves and their homes with the finest brocades and velvets, and all those who valued French influence on fashion and style as evidence for superior taste. Since many of these customers for contraband were aristocrats and gentry, the authorities often found themselves powerless to intervene, let alone prosecute. The best they could do was try to disrupt the supply by chasing down the smugglers. Like today’s drug dealers, these free traders saw the occasional loss of a cargo or prosecution of some ‘small fry’ as the natural cost of doing business.

Why Silk?

The staples of the free trade were generally high-value, bulk imports, such as tea, tobacco, and brandy. Nevertheless, silks and laces made a welcome addition to the smuggler’s profits. Textiles fitted well into the many opportunities for small-scale smuggling by individuals as well as organised gangs. They could be obtained from many sources, Asian and European. They could be folded and hidden inside boxes and packages. Individual travellers could hide them in their luggage. Officials of The East India Company, many of whom were allowed to make ‘personal imports’, quietly exceeded their legitimate allowances. Official cargoes on East India Company vessels were an ideal source of deliberate pilfering and diversion.

Despite all the efforts of the government and British manufacturers, French and Far Eastern fabrics remained highly fashionable throughout the eighteenth century. Asian silks in particular offered elaborate patterns and bright colours that were typically not available from domestic manufacturers — at least until the burgeoning demand forced them to attempt to catch up.

For example, silk handkerchiefs, a staple of item of dress for men and women, were smuggled in large quantities from Asian sources. Kashmiri shawls started a strong fashion trend, so much so that Norwich manufacturers produced fine woollen shawls using copied patterns. They proved so successful that there was enough demand for ‘Norwich shawls’ to help prop up the city’s declining weaving industry — a decline caused mostly by the shift to bright cotton cloth produced in Lancashire and machine-made woollens from Yorkshire mills.

Posted in Fashion, Georgian Society | 1 Comment