Chasing the poachers at Great Linford
Given the rural nature of Great Linford it is hardly surprising that of all the crimes reported in the parish, the most common historically has been poaching. In fact it is hard not to imagine that a constant battle of wills and wits must have been played out between men determined to put dinner on the table, and the hated landowner and their gamekeeper enforcers. Of course this is the somewhat romanticised view of the poacher as the Robin Hood like figure fighting against the evil figure of authority, but no matter the rights and wrongs of this centuries old conflict, it was an activity that sometimes risked life and limb for both perpetrator and pursuer.
A good example of this can be found in a case that came before the Buckinghamshire Lent Assizes in March of 1863, where a 27 year old labourer named Thomas Tibbets was convicted of poaching at Great Linford and sentenced to five years penal servitude. This may seem harsh, but Tibbets was one of a gang of at least 4 men who were caught in the act of night poaching for rabbits and had come prepared with more than nets and bags, having armed themselves with bludgeons and a willingness to resist violently if challenged.
On the night of December 19th, 1863, Tibbets and his accomplices entered Great Linford Wood where they had come under the observation of Thomas Hicks, gamekeeper to the Reverend William Uthwatt. Hicks and his men had staked out the wood until past midnight and in an area known as “the flat” he and a man in his employ named Geary had discovered netting used to snare Rabbits. They also ran into the poachers and in the dark of the night a desperate skirmish broke out, with stones thrown and Hicks incapacitated in one arm by a blow from a flail. With Geary also under attack, the poachers then “hung into” Hicks and beat him to the ground with a flail and bludgeon, drawing blood and relieving him of his “life preserver”, a wooden truncheon routinely carried by gamekeepers. Somehow though the tide was turned, and an arrest made, with Tibbets crying out, “Don’t strike keeper, I will give in.”
Tibbets seems to have been the only one of the poachers brought to court, where he made a plea of mitigation that he had not worked for nine weeks and was destitute, but his words fell on deaf ears and passing judgement the court offered their opinion of the poachers that, “they were prepared to resist the keepers, and to take the lives of the men doing their duty to their employers.” Furthermore the judge observed of Hicks that in his apprehension of Tibbets he was, “a man of great courage and perseverance, to persist in holding him in the face of the ill usage by which he was being treated.”
Tibbets was clearly poaching for money rather than the pot, given he was apprehended with a bag containing 23 rabbits and the gang was equipped with a considerable amount of poaching gear including several hundred feet of net. There is then a distinction to be made between organised gangs of poachers and those who ventured out to feed themselves and their families. Undoubtedly changes to the landscape and the loss of old rights to the use of land by the coming of the enclosure acts had caused resentment and drove people to venture onto private estates in search of game, but there was also a large market for illicitly obtained meat, especially in London markets, with gangs descending on rural areas to pillage estates. In 1814, the Lord of the Manor, Henry Andrewes Uthwatt issued a stern declaration carried in the Northampton Mercury of December 17th, which was almost certainly a response to the ravages of poaching gangs. He gave notice that he was cracking down, lamenting that game and fish in the manor had, “been most unwarrantably destroyed” and that foxes in the woods “nearly annihilated.” Unfortunately the presumption must be that Henry was not as it might appear to modern minds an early unsung conservationist, but was most likely annoyed that the country pursuit of fox hunting was being inconvenienced.
Over the following generations the Uthwatts continued to be zealous prosecutors of poachers and surprisingly were not afraid to get their hands dirty in this endeavour, as can be seen in a number of accounts of actions taken to apprehend those they suspected of illegal hunting. They also extended their remit to other nearby parishes, for instance on occasion pursuing cases in Bradwell and Stantonbury. These fascinating accounts show that that the Uthwatts and their Gamekeepers were engaged in a perpetual game of cat and mouse with their quarry, patrolling the byways and hedgerows, keeping a lookout for suspicious activity and even concealing themselves in the undergrowth in the vicinity of snares to patiently await the poachers return.
The powers of the gamekeepers appear to have been quite broad, including confiscating guns and suspected poaching gear, as well as physically restraining suspects, but poachers would sometimes counter-sue, frequently on the assertion that the gamekeepers and the Uthwatts were exceeding their authority. One particularly aggrieved man, an unemployed waiter named Charles Simpson of Newport Pagnell, successfully won his acquittal in grand style. Brought before the court in 1929 on rather flimsy evidence of poaching at Little Linford, he gave a spirited and defiant defence, asserting with withering disdain that he had refused to confirm his name to Gerald Thomas Uthwatt because his manner reminded him of, “a Prussian Sergeant-Major talking to a recruit with a dirty rifle.” Simpson was certainly not the social equal of Uthwatt, but this encounter provides a fascinating glimpse into the tensions between country gentlemen and those who were expected to doff their caps to them. Unfortunately no response is recorded, but one can only imagine the fury Gerald Uthwatt must have felt at this bold defiance.