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Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds holding new exhibition on poachers and trespassers in 18th and 19th centuries



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It is impossible to look into its razor sharp jaws without wincing. Known as the iron wolf, its vicious metal teeth are capable of severing a leg.

The toothed mantrap - as opposed to the later ‘humane’ version that might simply break the limb rather than ripping it in half - is a truly fearsome sight.

Both are examples of the terrifying weapons used against poachers and trespassers in rural England in the 18th and 19th centuries.

West Suffolk Council heritage officer Ben Ridgeon with a terrifying ‘iron wolf’ mantrap from the exhibition. Picture: Mark Westley.
West Suffolk Council heritage officer Ben Ridgeon with a terrifying ‘iron wolf’ mantrap from the exhibition. Picture: Mark Westley.

And they are among the items on show at an exhibition that turns a spotlight on the darker side of country life in centuries past.

Perspectives on Poaching at Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds looks at the subject from all angles.

West Suffolk Council heritage officer Ben Ridgeon, who has researched and organised the exhibition, has strenuously avoided taking sides between poachers, landowners and gamekeepers.

Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds is holding an exhibition on weapons used against poachers and trespassers in rural England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Picture: Mark Westley.
Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds is holding an exhibition on weapons used against poachers and trespassers in rural England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Picture: Mark Westley.

“Not all of this exhibition was easy to do,” he said. “Sometimes it was very dark history and could be quite upsetting and grim. I hope I’ve done my job as a historian to present a balanced view.

“I was very anxious that we were objective so visitors can make up their own mind.

“I called the exhibition Perspectives on Poaching because I did find so many different perspectives - I wonder whether it might offer another viewpoint if people have already got an opinion.”

Before the Norman Conquest the creatures that roamed the English countryside were fair game for anyone needing a meal.

Gamekeeper Charles Frederick Clarke with his dogs.
Gamekeeper Charles Frederick Clarke with his dogs.

That all changed when huge swathes of forest were claimed by royalty and aristocracy who hunted for sport. For anyone else, killing animals such as deer or wild boar on the newly-private land was outlawed.

Over the next eight centuries punishment for poaching - the illegal taking of game while trespassing - ranged between execution, mutilation, castration, fines, imprisonment and transportation.

“In the 1700s really draconian anti-trespass measures were put out which could maim or be fatal,” said Ben.

Ben said he hoped he had done his job and presented a balanced view of the history. Picture: Mark Westley.
Ben said he hoped he had done his job and presented a balanced view of the history. Picture: Mark Westley.

“The spring gun, triggered by a tripwire, and mantrap with teeth were outlawed in 1827, although they still had traps with no teeth which could break a leg.

“But they were catching more innocent members of the public than poachers, who tended to know where the traps were.”

Fred Rolfe with his dog Patch. Picture: Charlotte Paton.
Fred Rolfe with his dog Patch. Picture: Charlotte Paton.

One unwary victim was the Rev Mr Lawson, a curate from Needham Market, who was strolling through a plantation studying plants when he accidentally stepped on a ‘humane’ mantrap.

The jaws snapped shut and although his cries for help alerted people nearby, no-one could free him until the gamekeeper was found.

When he was finally released his leg was severely lacerated despite the trap having no teeth.

The exhibition runs until May 1. Picture: Mark Westley.
The exhibition runs until May 1. Picture: Mark Westley.

In the 19th century poaching was such a common crime in Suffolk that the majority of the inmates in Bury Gaol - where punishment could include hard labour on a treadmill - were there for game law offences.

“My dissertation at university was about Bury Gaol so I could go back and look at what I wrote 15 years ago,” said Ben.

“Around here it seemed to be a lot of poor people who were poaching. But it soon became clear as I started to research that the stereotypical poacher didn’t exist.

Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds is holding an exhibition on weapons used against poachers and trespassers in rural England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Picture: Mark Westley.
Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds is holding an exhibition on weapons used against poachers and trespassers in rural England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Picture: Mark Westley.

“There were many reasons for doing it, not just their own dinner table but selling the game, for instance.”

So the image of the cash-strapped countryman taking a brace or two of pheasants to supplement his meagre income was not always the case.

Ben says at times in the past some poaching was viewed as a kind of social protest, and he cites the legends of forest dwellers like Robin Hood as romanticised visions of what a poacher might be.

But gangs of poachers could be quite violent - not just taking an animal, but committing assault and even murder.

And for some it was a lucrative business with stagecoaches used as a way of getting their haul to markets.

Even Mrs Beeton mentions it in her famous 1861 Book of Household Management.

“She made the comment she doesn’t see poaching finishing because so many wealthy people living in cities have no access to game except from an illegal market,” said Ben.

Moyses Hall has always featured poaching as part of its crime and punishment gallery. But Ben, who says there is never a day in his job when he doesn’t learn something, realised there was scope for much more.

“Working with the stores and the collection, and seeing what we have, I came across other items like the spring gun which hadn’t been out for a while, and thought there is a bigger story we could tell,” he said.

“It took ten months of looking into it. I wanted to make it as expansive as possible. It was a question or really immersing yourself.

“Also, it’s a bit of a personal thing for me because a lot of my childhood was spent in Sicklesmere on my grandad’s farm.

“You get brought up in the countryside and it’s idyllic and a wonderful childhood, then you come here and realise how much conflict there was in the countryside, and a darker side.

Moyses Hall’s own items have been supplemented by exhibits brought in from other museums.

And as well as the tools of the poachers’ and gamekeepers’ trades it also highlights poaching in literature, including books like Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

But the real life stories are just as fascinating. “What surprised me was how many tales of poachers there were - there wasn’t space to put them all on the walls, so the others are on a digital screen,” said Ben.

“You can find gamekeepers who were poachers and vice versa. And landowners could sometimes be quite sympathetic to poachers, and let them get away with a certain amount.

“Occasionally landowners would also give money to magistrates to pay their fines.”

A good dog was a poacher’s best friend. It was often a female lurcher - a cross between a sight hound and and herding or terrier dog.

They were trained not to bark when pursuing game, and to run away rather than stand and fight in a confrontation.

Poachers carried guns but used shots sparingly so keepers couldn’t track the sound.

A top tip for keepers was if they heard shots to get dressed in the dark, so the poacher was not alerted by a light in the window.

One notorious local poacher was Tom Davey who plied his illicit trade near Thetford, snaring rabbits, netting partridges, and shooting pheasants.

Davey sold his wares by sending hampers down to London where hoteliers and middle-class households asked no questions as to where they came from.

He once stole all but one of the pheasants from a keeper’s run and left the poetic note: “I rob the rich to feed the poor but leave you one to rear some more!”

The poacher even sneaked on to a shooting line at Shadwell Court near Thetford, and when the participants went for lunch, loaded up a haul of downed pheasants in his cart.

When the host was asked who Davey was, he realised he had been duped but simply said the poacher was an ‘old friend who has fallen on hard times whom I occasionally allow to have a few shots.’

Not all poachers were men. Kit Nash of Welwyn was active in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Over six foot tall and a crack shot, Nash took her catch into Hatfield on market days and wore men’s clothes when trespassing.

She spent time in prison for shooting a policeman delivering a summons for non-payment of rents.

Local farmers and gentry showed her some leniency and even offered gifts of game, perhaps as encouragement to poach elsewhere.

But only old age put a stop to her exploits, and she died in a workhouse at the age of 83.

In the early 1800s East Anglia also had a fearless female gamekeeper. Polly Fishburn first served at Holkham Hall in Norfolk as a maid, but her family involvement in gamekeeping inspired her to change roles.

Lord Abermarle recalled her as ‘a pretty girl, with large black eyes, red cheeks and white teeth and unusually as having cropped hair and wearing a man’s hat.’

Polly was unafraid to tackle poachers and frequently hauled them up before magistrates.

She even took on a bull that had killed a labourer. The beast backed down when it recognised her, after she had previously halted his charge with a dose of shot to the muzzle.

Fred Rolfe - King of the Norfolk Poachers - was the scourge of gamekeepers at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

When he found himself in front of a judge, he always maintained he was not a thief because pheasants had no owners’ names on their tailfeathers.

After a manuscript of his recollections was seen by local writer Lillias Rider Haggard, she edited and published it in 1935.

His story ended tragically. Crippled with arthritis and facing the workhouse, he used a snare wire to hang himself at the age of 77.

Decades later historian, writer and speaker Charlotte Paton retold his story in a biography The King of the Norfolk Poachers after discovering she was living in his former home.

She has also produced a DVD about the elusive Rolfe, and he is the subject of one of her historical talks. Details are online at: www.thepatons.co.uk

Perspectives on Poaching runs until Sunday May 1. Dr Harvey Osborne from the University of Suffolk is giving a talk on poaching in the 19th century at Moyses Hall on April 22 at 7pm. Book at www.moyseshall.org