Another fascinating post from Somerset Genealogy; looking back at family history, few of us have lords and ladies, the rich and landowning forebears – more of us have ordinary people, trying to do the best for their families, in whatever way they could. However honest our ancestors might have hoped to be, sometimes circumstances forced them to take drastic and dangerous steps to feed their children.

In rural areas where the weather  and thus harvests were unpredictable, people would find food where they could, even if it meant stepping outside the law.

Poachers Problems – A Guilty Man’s Trappings

Poaching; the ‘second oldest profession’.

Somerset is mainly a rural county with farming and agricultural businesses forming the best part of the economy.  Today we are lucky enough to have a steady supply of food all year round produced by our wonderful farmers but what happened hundreds of years ago if you were poor and couldn’t work?  Many turned to poaching to feed their hungry families.

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My good fellow I’m sorry I can’t render you any assistance; mechanics being a part of my education that was left out“Print by Henry Heath circa. 1822-1831Image courtesy of The British Museum

Without giving a huge history lesson I will try to explain how our land was divided amongst the rich landowners and the poorer working class.  I am not an historian so please forgive any omissions.

William the Bastard, better known as William the Conqueror came over to England from France in 1066 and fought the Battle of Hastings in order to win the throne of England.  He brought many of his buddies along for the battle with (I assume) the promise of land if they won.  They did and William dished out large swathes of land to be administered by his faithful and loyal lords.  The lords that gained the lands in Somerset were Walter of Douai and William de Mohun.  Neither one of these lords or knights have been proven to have fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings but we might assume from the Doomsday Book that they were somehow involved.

As monarch William the Conqueror owned all the land and ordered a survey now known as the Doomsday Book which recorded all land and its value for the purpose of administrating taxes.  It would have been impossible for William to administer all his land therefore he ‘gifted’ out Estates in Land to his lord’s, as mentioned above.  These lords in turn parcelled out lands and property to tenants.

Tenants and lords had obligations of work, military service, and payment of taxes to those up the chain, and ultimately to King William.  The lowly peasantry (estimated at about 88% of the population) were obligated to work on their lords land, they could not leave without permission and had very few freedoms.  Even those considered free were limited in their freedom and had little or no chance of acquiring property.

Anyway, William lived, he conquered and he died.  Skip on a century or so and along came King John (reigned April 1199 – October 1216) who, by all accounts, was a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  He made up all his own laws to go in his favour and refused to accept the church as having any power over him, he also demanded nobles and lords provide him with money in order for them to keep their lands.

The rebel nobles got fed-up and demanded a fairer system whereby a monarch did not have complete control over all laws and therefore in June 1215 the Magna Carta was written (King John didn’t really have a choice, but we won’t go into all that). The Magna Carta set down a president of fairer laws (although it took a while) for the vast majority of the populace.

One such law was the 1217 ‘Charter of the Forest‘ which allowed people access to ‘common land’, where people could hunt and fish for food.  In medieval England the common was an integral part of the manor, and was thus part of the estate held by the lord of the manor.  A common (usually) gave peasants the rights to;

  • The right to graze their livestock.
  • The right to fish.
  • The right to take sods of turf for fuel.
  • The right to take sand and gravel.
  • Mast or Pannage.  The right to let pigs feed on nuts in autumn.
  • The right to take wood (usually dead branches or from smaller trees or bushes such as gorse) for a commoner’s house. – [Note there are lots of places named ‘Eastover’ in Somerset].

The ‘Charter of the Forest’ certainly would have made the poorest peasants life a lot easier but life would still have been a huge struggle for many commoners.

Being poor with little or no means of climbing the social ladder, a peasant who was tied to his lord and in later centuries reliant on the church for paupers relief would have taken their chances on these vast manorial estates (or even smaller ones) to bag a rabbit or two in order to feed their family or make a few pennies.  However, the law seemed to favour the rich landowners and a succession of legislation came into force to protect their property which included any wildlife that happened to be on that land.

Origins of the word ‘poach’ 1350-1400; Middle English poche. Middle French pocher literally, to bag.

Going back to our poachers – A Chronology of Legislation Relating to Poaching

The following chronology was taken from ‘Poaching in the South West – The Berkely Case‘ by Steve Mills.  Printed by Bristol Radical History Group 2015:

  • 1217 The Charter of the Forests softens the Norman Code, and explicitly states that “none shall lose life or limb” for hunting the King’s game.
  • 1389 following the Peasants Revolt of 1381, King Richard II brings in land qualification for hunting of game.
  • 1603 restrictions are placed on the selling of game in an attempt to stop poaching.
  • 1642-59 The British Civil War, Charles Stuart loses his head, literally.  The monarchy is replaced by a Republic, and many forest laws are overturned, and forests are squatted by commoners in some cases.
  • 1671 The Stuarts are back, and so is the monarchy.  They re-instate “Game Privilege” for gentlemen with property.  Furthermore, they can appoint gamekeepers, and conduct searches of property for dogs, nets, snares, ect.
  • 1723 The Black Act(9 Geo. 1 c. 22).  This notorious Act makes disguising and going out at night to poach a capital offence and creates 200 other offences.  This was a distinct instrument of class power to stop poaching, and enabled the enclosure and capitalisation of forests and rural areas.  A single magistrate could give 3 months for the first offence and 6 months for the second.  An MP from the time called it the most vindictive, oppressive Act…..ever passed.
  • 1800 poachers could be impressed into the army.
  • 1803 Ellenbourgh’s Act meant that it was now a capital offence to resist arrest by a gamekeeper.
  • 1816 The Night Poaching Act introduces transportation for 7 years if armed with a stick or net for the point of poaching, even for a first offence.
  • 1818 Bankes’ Act makes it illegal to buy or sell game, a forfeit a fine of £5, a significant amount.  Importantly, half the fine went to the informer, but still few grassed.
  • 1827 spring guns and man traps become illegal.
  • 1828 a new Night Poaching Act replaces impressment into the armed forces by transportation for up to 14 years.  This is due to a lack of wars.
  • 1831 before the Reform Act Game Reform Act sweeps away the property qualifications.  A licence can be purchased, and a £5 fine for anyone caught poaching.  However, an amendment is forced through the Lords, which leads to transportation being retained for night poachers.
  • 1880 the Liberals win the election.  Unlike present day they stick to their manifesto and bring in the Ground Game Act, which gives tenant farmers the right to shoot or otherwise kill rabbit and hares.

Landowners saw fit to protect their property by employing gamekeepers and in some cases setting traps.  These traps included spring-guns and man-traps and were designed to cause as much damage as possible to a poacher.  When we talk of poaching we think of a man sending a small dog down a rabbit hole in the hope of bagging himself a hare for his families supper.  However it was not uncommon for women and children to ‘poach’ for wood, nuts and berries.

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A Spring Gun.  Image courtesy of  Wikipedia

These traps didn’t discriminate against who or what they caught, quite often it was the poachers dogs who fell victim to them, or even the landowners own game and in some cases an innocent victim such as Mr Lawson who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Thursday 18 January 1816. Image courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive

You can imagine why wealthy landowners would want to protect their property, many destitute people were probably repeat offenders and well known to the local community such as old Mr Ivey who had lost a leg to a man-trap several years earlier but that didn’t stop him stealing 70 prayer-books from a chapel.

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Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Thursday 28 June 1810. Image courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive

Although these traps were outlawed in 1827, they were still used illegally by some to protect their property, and it seems it wasn’t only wealthy landowners who used them.  I wonder if  Mr Wraith of Wilton was ever prosecuted for using a man-trap in his garden a full 12 years after they became outlawed.

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Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser – Wednesday 28 August 1839. Image courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive

It seems these traps became a curiosity to the landlord of the Crown at Bathford.  It is said that Mr Frederick Lavington had “15 fearsome man-traps” in his collection in 1929. Luckily these traps did end up as museum pieces.

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The Crown Inn at Bathford, Somerset, Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Saturday 12 October 1929, Image courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive

Somehow barbed-wire doesn’t seem so bad now.



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