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The vital role played by the gamekeeper’s partner

A gamekeeper’s partner has always been a linchpin behind the scenes, but today they are more significant than ever, writes Lindsay Waddell

It’s fair to say that the fairer sex, if I dare use that term these days, have often had a hard life in rural Britain — from domestic service to gutting fish that came off the herring boats, the hours could be long and the pay was poor. 

Interestingly, it is often imagined that keepers in the past were all men, which isn’t entirely accurate. Some readers may have heard of Mary Fishburne, who worked on the Holkham Estate in the 1800s as a gamekeeper and went on to live until the ripe old age of 80. These days there are quite a few female gamekeepers, which is great to see, but Mary was certainly an exception. In decades past, gamekeepers tended to be men, and in the Victorian period when shooting and game management became a far more organised thing, keepers’ wives had a very important role. 

In the 1800s, day-to-day life would have primarily involved domestic chores

So just how did Mary’s counterparts who were married to gamekeepers play their part in their husband’s lives? 

That seems to have depended upon just how grand an employer their husband worked for. For the gamekeeper who held the top job on a large estate with numerous staff under him, which could have been well into double figures, there were plenty of men, or boys, to do all the menial jobs. For those ladies, life would be, as it was for most at that time, mainly one of domestic chores. 

The main role of a Victorian gamekeeeper’s wife was to tend to the needs of her working husband


Feeding the team

Some would also have to cater for the needs of a boy employed on the bottom rung of the gamekeeping ladder. He would have lived in the same house or in close proximity to his headkeeper, and his wife would have made sure the lad was at least fed. Even in the 1960s that was how I began my career, although many lads had to cater for themselves in a bothy, which was at times not much more than a glorified shed. 

The gamekeeper’s wife would also, if she was interested, tend the garden, as it was very often a major source of their fruit and vegetables in the days of self-sufficiency. The Good Life is nothing new. 

If, however, her husband was on one of the numerous smaller, family-type shoots, very often on his own, then his wife was called upon to fulfil a variety of roles. She would help him with hatching and tending chicks, looking after litters of pups and young dogs coming on, and in general do many of the things a young man would be expected to do. 


Impact of war

Perhaps the greatest change came at the outset of World War I. Almost 30,000 gamekeepers left their jobs and headed off to the front, many never to return. Although sporting shooting was seriously curtailed due to a lack of men, and numbers of birds because of a lack of management, some shooting carried on. 

Some of the ladies left behind carried out a number of the jobs their husbands had done, albeit on a smaller scale, hoping for their return. It was the rural equivalent of the ladies stepping into the munition factories in the industrial heartlands.

Sporting life returned to some sort of normality after 1918, but gamekeeping had been dealt a serious blow. Vast numbers of estates, along with their shoots, folded up as sons and heirs failed to come home. The countryside would never again be quite the same place as before, as the world was not on a good financial footing and worse was yet to come in a couple of decades with another war.

There were though, even after everything, a good number of gamekeepers employed after the end of World War II, and right up to the present day. There is no doubt that the role of the gamekeeper’s wife — or in today’s world, ‘partner’ — has changed. Many husbands and wives now work as a team, with partners playing a much more active role on shoot days and beyond.

On the lowland shoots, a number of wives help out in the beating line and picking up, with some also managing shoot bookings. In the uplands, many act as flankers and as part of the dog team. When the gamekeeper is also the host for the day, mainly in the lowlands, wives and partners often help with hosting dutings, including providing elevenses and lunches. 

In short, partners have become a far more integral part of the overall workings of the shoot, rather than just seeing to the care of their spouse and children. 

Many partners play an active role in the management and upkeep of shoots



Social media

Partners also often have a crucial role on social media, promoting the part game management plays in the countryside — something their predecessors would never have envisaged doing. 

There is no doubt that the modern gamekeeper’s wife or partner has a much more important role than those of the bygone age. Although their predecessors kept their husbands going, the modern lady may well help to keep the sport itself going. I suspect that gamekeepers’ husbands are set to become a growing group — let’s see how they fare. 

Today, it’s common for husbands and wives to work as a team when keepering