Life was hard for the poor in the 19th and 20th centuries, with many living on their wits — and other people’s game, says David S D Jones
Poaching has been part and parcel of rural life for centuries, usually carried out to procure food or as a means of making a slightly better living than other country people. The practice was particularly rife during the late Victorian and the Edwardian periods, when penalties were less harsh than in the past and large stocks of gamebirds and ground game could be found on sporting estates throughout the country.
The persons involved were invariably poor and were quite prepared to face the prospect of serving a short prison sentence in return for putting a few decent meals on the table or to earn ‘beer money’. Most poachers eventually got caught and had to pay the price for their misdemeanours. A few of the more daring characters, however, had highly successful poaching careers, outwitting keepers and policemen for decades and became legendary but now forgotten figures.
Tom Davey was a larger-than-life, early-20th-century Norfolk poacher who earned the unlikely admiration of my headkeeper great-uncle for his brazen cheek and bravado. Based in a village near Thetford in the midst of some of England’s finest shoots, he had started life as a farm labourer but had somehow scraped together enough money to buy a small cottage with a couple of paddocks and to buy a horse and cart. His day job involved transporting goods to local market towns for farmers and collecting parcels from shopkeepers and railway stations for villagers and others.
An all-round poacher when not otherwise occupied, Tom snared rabbits, netted partridges and hares and shot pheasants with a .410 folding gun on moonlit nights, invariably with one of his lurchers or Labradors in tow. He usually sent his ill-gotten gains in hampers by train from Thetford or Brandon stations to dodgy dealers in London, who sold everything on to hoteliers or middle-class households who were quite happy to purchase game at a discount price on a no-questions-asked basis.
From time to time he himself travelled down to the metropolis with a couple of hampers of rabbits, selling them on a friend’s stall in the East End at two shillings — 10p and the equivalent of £7.50 today — charging an additional 6d ( 2½p) to skin them; he sold the skins to a furrier.
Tom stole pheasants’ eggs from nests in springtime, selling them on and despatching them by rail to unscrupulous small-time shoot owners in the East Midlands. He was not averse to stealing hens from runs near keepers’ cottages. Indeed, after taking all but one of the hens belonging to a headkeeper foe, he apparently left a note pinned to the hen house stating: “I rob the rich to feed the poor but leave you one to rear some more!”
Occasionally, Tom fell foul of the law but was always able to pay any fines out of the substantial profits he made from poaching. Arriving at Thetford magistrates court in an early motorcycle and sidecar, after being summonsed by the police, he was asked by the magistrate, the 8th Earl of Albemarle, why he needed such a vehicle. He replied: “Well, my lord, my estates cover such a large area now that I need better transport.”
A story is told that Tom turned up in shooting attire with an expensive gun at a big pheasant shoot at Shadwell Court near Thetford just before the outbreak of World War I in his horse and cart, along with his brother. He stood near the end of the line of Guns on the drive immediately before luncheon, then remained behind when the Guns, keepers and beaters walked off for their lunch, picking up a haul of birds that he and his brother took away in their cart.
Several of the Guns are reputed to have asked the host who the end man was, he was such a good Shot. The host, realising that he had been duped, slickly answered: “An old friend who has fallen on hard times whom I occasionally allow to have a few shots.”
Unlike Tom Davey, who had made a good living out of his poaching activities, Robert Grass was driven to poaching in order to feed his family. A gamekeeper, he had a secure job with Lord Rivers on the Rushmore estate on the Dorset-Wiltshire border and a young wife with five small children. Sadly, his wife, Naomi, was recruited by the Primitive Methodists in the summer of 1870 and quickly developed a religious mania, with the result that she was admitted to the Wiltshire County Asylum on an indefinite basis early in 1871.
Unable to look after his family properly and work at the same time, Robert was prosecuted by the Tisbury Board of Guardians in July 1873 for failure to maintain them, making them chargeable to the common fund of Tisbury Poor Union. He was subsequently sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour at Devizes Gaol.
Upon his release, with a criminal record and having already been dismissed by Lord Rivers, Robert was unable to seek employment as a gamekeeper again. So he put his keepering skills to good use as a professional poacher. For the next 14 years or so he snared rabbits and other game illicitly on estates on the Dorset-Wiltshire-Hampshire borders solely to survive and to maintain his children, selling the game on to coachmen, carriers and innkeepers.
Robert was not the most successful of poachers, being prosecuted for Trespass in Pursuit of Game on more than 36 occasions between 1873 and 1887. In addition to paying numerous fines of £2 ( £133 today), he served 14 short prison sentences with hard labour during this period.
When he was charged with stealing six pheasant eggs at Tollard Royal by Tisbury magistrates in 1883, he was fined five shillings (£17 in today’s money ) per egg plus £2 and costs, so chose the prison option.
Robert gave up poaching after receiving an above-average fine of £4 at Cranborne magistrates court in 1887. He spent the final two decades of his life working on farms in the Dorset village of Farnham in the middle of Cranborne Chase, though no doubt he continued to take the odd rabbit for the pot. He died in the workhouse at Blandford Forum in November 1908 aged 66.
Something of a rarity, Kit Nash was a female poacher who lived with her mother and children in a tiny thatched cottage set in an acre or so of land on the outskirts of the village of Digswell near Welwyn. Over 6ft tall and a crack Shot, she pursued a highly successful poaching career during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, taking hares, pheasants and partridges by train from Welwyn North to Hatfield on market days and selling them to members of the public.
Usually dressed in men’s clothing with a skirt worn over a pair of trousers and a large apron draped over the skirt to hide her ferrets, snares and spoils — and whatever else she might be carrying in the large pockets stitched underneath the skirt — Kit was able to appear empty-handed if stopped by a gamekeeper or police constable. She is said to have been particularly good at night shooting and took a great pride in her work, which not only enabled her to make a living but gave her the opportunity to eat game every day.
Some local farmers and members of the landed gentry felt sorry for Kit and her young family, giving her the odd brace of rabbits or pheasants for the table — with the ulterior motive of encouraging her to poach elsewhere. She managed to outwit the law for several decades but was eventually sent to prison for five years after shooting a PC Summerling in the pants to scare him off after he delivered a summons to her house for non-payment of rates.
Kit continued to poach after her release from prison until old age forced her to give up her chosen profession. Neighbouring farmers later sent her baskets of food to enable her to continue to live at home. Like her contemporary, Robert Grass, she ended her days in the workhouse, dying at the age of 83 in 1932.