THE VILLAGE POACHERS

The late Bob Clarke who was born & bred in Stoke Goldington wrote a series of articles on life in the village in the period between the two World Wars. The first of these covers the activities of village poachers. Other stories in this series:

Childhood Memories - Getting around in the Country
My Mother & Others


   

As those of us born and raised in the country realise, nature is a munificent provider of all things necessary to keep body and soul together. The pheasants, partridges, rabbits and others were in plentiful supply around our village.

Unfortunately they all existed on land owned by other people who had already established prior ownership to anything that grew or resided on their property.

The period between World War One and World War Two was very hard for most country people especially those who worked on the farms. In 1939 immediately before world war two a farm labourer was only paid thirty shillings a week (1.50 in current money). Some of these were intelligent and resourceful men. Others were driven by necessity to feed their families and possibly the largest group inherited the tricks of the poacher from generations of forebears who purloined the products of the countryside as their right.

Because of the conditions existing in that era of my boyhood and teens there seemed to exist a balance of law and order against need. The village "bobby" was usually an ex-serviceman who realised the need for his fellows to live and their families to eat. He knew every poacher in the village. They knew he went to one of the three village pubs for a pint after closing time when he needed one!! So there was a certain tolerance for the poacher as long as he didn't push his luck!

The other side of the provender story was provided by the women and children who garnered in the fruits of the earth. This was not considered poaching. When there were hungry bellies to feed it was remarkable how much food was available from the fields and hedgerows. I can't remember half of the household food that was provided by the countryside but just consider the blackberry. Hundreds of pounds of blackberries were picked from the hedgerows around the village. They were made into blackberry jam, blackberry and apple jam, tarts and pies! Then there was blackberry or bramble jelly and the cough cure blackberry vinegar. There were crab apples to make jelly and damsons for jams etc.

In Stoke woods there were lots of wild strawberries and in the autumn we could pick bushels of hazel nuts. Before the advent of modern farming there were tons of mushrooms all over the area if one knew where to look.

However the real poaching-taking of game or conies was a criminal offence, and therefore the poachers had to watch their step. I think most or all of the village poachers were known to the community. As a strictly brought up member of a large family, I knew very little of these activities until I was in my teens. I then gradually learned the facts of life and also used to talk to the poachers themselves who weren't at all reticent in discussing their activities. In fact I gained the impression that quite a few of them used to brag and chuckle at how they outwitted the gamekeeper or the policeman.

In one family alone there were four men who were all well-known poachers. The ingenuity displayed in their craft was often amusing. I learnt that there were a number of ways of 'skinning a cat'. Rabbits of course were the staple diet and when it is realised that pre-myxomatosis, up to thirty per cent of corn was eaten when green by rabbits; most farmers didn't object to poaching.

The aim of the poacher and the most desirable prize was the pheasant. This was usually alert enough in the daytime to escape the poacher but at night, in the dark, things were evened up. One of the family of four told me how simple it was in the dark to catch pheasants. He related that pheasants would fly up into the lower branches of trees or into hedgerows to escape the wandering fox at night. The idea was to quietly creep up to a spinney or hedge and shine an electric torch into the eyes of the sleepy birds. Your mate then crept up behind them seized them by the legs and hey presto one or two pheasants disappeared from view. It was usually more lucrative to sell these to a willing butcher than eat the birds themselves.

There were many ways of catching rabbits and the lawful way was shooting by the farmer and his friends. The poacher used quieter methods chiefly the snare which was used extensively throughout the countryside. The art of snaring was in utilizing the long held knowledge of choosing a `rabbit run' and placing the snare with the skill born of long years of practice. Of course he not only had to conceal the snare from the rabbit but from the gamekeeper and his fellow poachers.

Another popular method either with or without permission of the landowner was with ferrets and nets on rabbit warrens. On arrival at the warren, nets would be placed over every hole that could be seen. The poachers usually had a well trained dog standing by in case any rabbit emerged from an undetected hole. Then a ferret was slipped into the warren and the nets started bulging as the rabbits fled in panic from the marauding ferret. The poachers were expert in dispatching the rabbits immediately they hit the nets. The rabbit is held by its back legs and a quick chop with the edge of the other hand on the back of its head instantly broke its neck.

Sometimes the men could be seen digging at the scene of the action.This was usually because they had 'lost the ferret'. As the ferret was left hungry in order to ensure he did his business efficiently he occasionally stopped to make a meal of his own choosing. Presumably having gorged on a young rabbit he might decide to sleep it off I understand that the ferret's mate was then put into the same hole with a line attached to a collar around its neck. It would seek out its mate and when the line stopped paying out the poachers would start digging up the hole following the line until the two ferrets were found. It seemed to me the true poacher never went for a pleasant walk in the country for its own sake. If the 'took the dog for a walk' then you can be sure he was always on the look-out for the odd unsuspecting rabbit which his well-trained dog soon 'picked up'.

The mass production method of poaching was long-netting. This operation was described to me by the youngest of the four brothers. Bill worked on a farm near Little Linford which was on the road to Wolverton where I worked after I left school. As I was biking home one evening after work I caught up with Bill who seemed to be somewhat lethargic. As we exchanged greetings Bill said he was tired as he'd had no sleep last night. Naturally he needed no encouragement from me, when I asked why, to recount his exploits. Bill said it was a lovely moonlit night and about 2 a.m. he and his mate arrived at the field to be worked and they quickly and quietly ran out the long net down the hedge. Then they walked to the opposite side of the field keeping to the hedge. When they had reached the other side they then ran back towards the net driving all the feeding rabbits into the net. Since the rabbits had run into the unseen net they all got tangled up and the two poachers traversed the length of the net dispatching the 'catch' with the well-known rabbit punch. Bill said they had caught a hell of a lot and it took ages to `gut' them all.

However when the 'milk lorry' came by pre-arrangement at 6 a.m. they loaded one hundred and twenty rabbits onto the lorry which transported them to a local butcher. As Bill said they got three pence a time for the bunnies which meant for one nights work, they earned a farm labourer's wage for a six day week!

Not the least enjoyable part of the exercise to Bill was the fact that he and his mate had extracted one hundred and twenty rabbits from under their employer's nose while he slept in the farmhouse two miles away. As Bill remarked "He was a mean old bugger who wouldn't give you the time of day".

It follows that the eldest of the four brothers was the most professional. He brought to the poaching art a mixture of experience, cunning and a wide knowledge of the countryside. He had an entertaining and idiosyncratic vocabulary with an amused contempt for the gamekeepers and police. It was obvious, by his way of life, that he made his living mostly by his wits, as he never had a recognised job. He did casual labouring and confessed to digging holes for electric poles at so much per hole, when electricity came to the village in the early thirties.

P C Grace
Apparently he ranged far and wide in his illicit activities. This was necessary after an arrest for poaching by the local Constable Grace. Our hero was being transported to Newport in a pony and trap, when he got to thinking he preferred freedom to prison. He says he knocked the Constable's helmet over his eyes, jumped out of the trap and made off across the fields! He didn't return to Stoke for two years! He lived by his wits and poaching. He recounts when he used to poach in Burghley Park , with gamekeepers thick on the ground. The pleasure and thrill it gave to elude capture and come away with a couple of game birds. When poaching rabbits, he never carried snares or nets, the tools of the trade, because if he was stopped and searched, he could be arrested. He did, however, always carry a ferret which could easily be slipped down a hole if he was likely to be apprehended.

If he was walking around the fields and saw a short 'bolt hole' which rabbits made, he would place a sycamore leaf at one end and slip the ferret in the other end. When the rabbit made a dash to escape the ferret, the air it pushed in front of its nose would make the leaf flutter. That's when you made a grab to catch the bunny because if you waited to see it, it would be gone!

His idiosyncratic turn of phrase is summarised in the description he gave to my brother in the pub when a local walked in. He said, "Look at the bloody man there, his skin doesn't fit him, his eyes are sewn in with red cotton, he ought to go and jump off Tyringham Bridge and say there goes nothing"!

As my family kept poultry, we had our fair share of amusing incidents when the poachers and thieves endeavored to relieve us of a 'hen or two'. However, as I remarked on the poacher and the well trained dog, I should mention our resident cats at the smallholding. Cats are necessary residents at any farm building where food is kept, which draws in the rats and mice. My brother Jack always reckoned the mother cat was the most ferocious animal in the district.

One Sunday morning, as was his habit, one of our friendly poachers walked into the field with his dog, Growler. This was a well set up mongrel trained to catch and kill rabbits and was a well known cat killer. The mother cat must have sensed this and having a batch of kittens at the time, it went for the dog like a 'bat out of hell'. Growler turned tail and fled to the gate, not, however, before the old she-cat had jumped on his back and was clawing the fur off the back of his neck. Whenever its owner came into the field after that, 'Growler' always stayed outside the gate!

Although it is the modern practice to view gypsies as romantic wanderers who made pegs to sell at the back door, they would also tell your fortune if you crossed their palms with silver! Poultry keepers had a more jaundiced opinion of the gypsies who passed through the village on their travel! Their particular trick to steal hens was to discover a few of them picking up tit-bits on the grass verge outside the field. They then threw fish-hooks on lines, the hooks being baited with bread, towards the birds. It was only a matter of time before one of the hens picked up one of the pieces of bread with a fish-hook embedded. The gypsies soon had their evening meal. They didn't stay around the village to cook the bird!

During and for five or six years after the second World War, with tight rationing in force, poultry keepers and farmers had a hectic time trying to hold onto what was their own livestock.

Towards the end of the war, quite a few Italian prisoners of war used to work on the farms in the area. During this period, Jack noticed that from one particular hen roost, the egg production dropped off dramatically. It was obvious that the eggs were being stolen. He armed himself with Dad's twelve-bore shotgun (not loaded) and hid in an adjacent roost. Sure enough, his vigil was rewarded when there appeared two Italian prisoners of war, one of them very small. This one disappeared into the roost through the hen trap door and began passing eggs out to his mate. At this juncture Jack appeared on the scene brandishing the twelve bore. I should explain here that Jack was venturing into uncharted waters. He, of all five brothers, was at home because he was unfit for military service. Nevertheless, his spirit was willing and as the humorist of the family, his descriptions of events following were far more picturesque than I can detail.

Suffice it to say, the Italians did what all good Italian soldiers did at the sign of aggression they placed the eggs quickly on the ground and raised their arms in surrender! Jack, by means of signs and indications with the gun, propelled his prisoners to the main building. He then telephoned down home, where my father, a World War One veteran, received the information with furious incredulity. Here was a man who at the outbreak of war and the threat of German airborne invasion, placed his loaded twelve-bore under the bed saying that if they came in the middle of the night he'd get two of the buggers before they got him! He obviously regarded the egg stealing by Italian prisoners of war as a personal affront. The enemy had got in behind the defences.

Jack was marching his captives down to the village police house but was met before halfway by our irate father, who incidentally, had been nick-named "The General" by Jack. The General seized the gun from Jack and thrust the muzzle under the chins of the terrified Italians, threatening to blow their brains out. They had obviously not encountered such danger on active service! Jack persuaded him to calm down and resumed the march to the police house, where the prisoners were handed over to the village 'bobby'.

Another tale involved the police on our smallholding. As previously mentioned, after the war, from 1945 to 1951, food rationing was still carried on and people were desperate to enjoy a good square meal. They, therefore, looked to the countryside, where poultry and animals were kept and raised. Thieving of poultry, turkeys, geese etc., became rampant, to such and extent that the police were very concerned about rural crime.

Our family tackled the problem in a technical fashion. After the war, a lot of war surplus equipment became available, especially equipment from aircraft. Master minded and planned by the family electrician, we obtained a number of aircraft micro switches, hundreds of yards of plastic covered, low voltage electric cable and other odds and ends. We had a dozen hen roosts at the time, each contained about a hundred laying hens. A micro switch was fitted behind each roost door and depressed by fitting a turn-button on the outside. Every roost was connected, in batches of three, to the main shed where a control panel was fitted with four indicator lights, to denote which part of the field was being invaded. A two-way switch controlled either an internal buzzer or a large external fire-bell, which would easily be heard in the village, if activated. As the system was twelve volt dc a couple of six volt batteries were used to power the system and a charger connected to the main electric supply kept the batteries topped up.

If any intruder so much as turned on one of the turn-buttons, which allowed the door to move away from the depressed micro switch, the large fire-bell burst into life.

The local policeman, Bill Fisher, was so impressed that he reported to his County Headquarters that we had the perfect answer to midnight raiders. Several high-ranking policemen came to see the system and were duly impressed.

As Christmas approached and the poultry thefts reached a crescendo, several of the brothers used to sleep in the main building. With an electric kettle, the 'phone and coke stove installed along with a camp bed, it was no problem to make yourself comfortable.

The two-way switch was set to sound the internal buzzer when the building was occupied. A twelve-bore and a four-ten gun were kept in the `shed' during this period.

One night, P.C. Bill Fisher decided, after midnight, to check the efficiency of the system so he crept into the field and operated the nearest hen roost turn-button. Of course, he didn't detect the tiny click of the micro switch. So he walked back towards the shed and as he rounded a smaller shed and approached the main building, the top half of the shed door was flung open. "Put your hands up or I'll blow your bloody head off' shouted

Walt who was 'on duty' that night. "Don't shoot Walt" cried Bill in alarm.

Walt said later he knew it was the policeman but he thought he'd give him a fright for a bit of fun. Bill was a decent sort and took it in good part. He was one of the old style of village coppers who knew when to turn the occasional blind eye, as well as exercise his authority to enforce the law when required. He certainly proved the system worked efficiently! We didn't lose a single bird during the period from 1945 to 1951 when rationing was abolished and the pressure eased.


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