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.
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.