NOSTALGIA: Poaching fines would ‘ruin’ the poor

The Old Gaol
The Old Gaol

The preservation of ancient, poorly drafted Game Laws concerned many sportsmen and gentry with manorial rights across England in the 19th century.

Games were protected. A royal perk that could be transferred to landowners. Killing game required a licence which only the rich (those with houses worth greater than £100, or people who inherited rank) might acquire.

Poor people were doubly condemned as they would suffer from having trespassed by poaching game (even on their own ground!) and punished anew for not holding a licence to kill game.

North Bucks became isolated – a place where double jeopardy (being tried twice for the same, or similar offences) remained the practice into the 1840s.

Poor families could face ruin after paying poaching fines to obtain release of their menfolk from Gaol, yet upon release, their men would be re-arrested and committed back to Gaol for having no game licence.

That offence would produce another fine and with resources already exhausted, many families lost their men, their homes, and their livelihoods.

A third of all prisoners in Buckingham’s Old Gaol in the 1840s were incarcerated for poaching. Chartists, supported by magazines such as Punch, led the battle for fairer treatment for poaching offenders.

Here’s a satirical poem written, probably in 1844.

A CASE AT SESSIONS from Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine:

Yesterday, at the Sessions held in Buckingham, The Rev. Simon Shutwood, famed for tucking ham, And capon into his anointed man, Gravely discuss’d a deadly breach of law. And then committed to the Borough Gaol (After a patient hearing) William Flail, For that he, Flail, one day last week, Was seen maliciously to sneak.

And bend his body by the fence, Of his own garden, and from thence, Abstract, out of a noose, a hare, Which he unlawfully found there. Against the peace, (as may be seen In Burn and Blackstone) of the Queen. He, questioned thereupon, in short, Could give no better reason for’t.

Than his little boys and he , Did often in the mornings see, Said hare, and sundry other hares, Nibbling on certain herbs of theirs. Teddy, the seventh of the boys, Counted twelve rows, fine young savoys, Bit to the ground by them and out, Of ne’er a plant a leaf to sprout.

And Sam, the youngest lad, did think, He saw a couple at a pink. “Come!” cried the Reverend, “Come, confess!” Flail answered, I will do no less, Puss we did catch, puss we did eat, It was her turn to give he treat. Not overmuch was there for eight of us, With a half-gallon o’potatoes,

Eight for our dear Prue lay sick abed, And poor dear Bessy with the dead, We cannot listen to such idle words, The Reverend cried: “The hares are all our Lord’s. Have you no more, my honest friend to say, Why we should not commit you, and straightway?” Whereat Will Flail Grew deadly pale,

And cried, “If you are so severe on me, An ignorant man, and poor as poor can be, O Mister Shutwood, what would you have done If you had caught God’s blessed only Son, When he broke off (in a land not His they say) That ear of barley on the Sabbath day?

Sweet Jesus! In the prison He had died, And never for our sins been crucified. “Constable! Take that man downstairs, He quotes the Scripture and eats hares.