Over 194 years ago on a large country estate in Norfolk a group of working-class, if not peasant, men clashed with those who were on the side of the Landed Gentry. The intruders were intent on poaching game for their tables and yes, probably profit. The land owner on the other hand was determined to stop them, see them off the property and, if needs must, punish them with the help of strict and almost unforgiving laws! The Heydon Affray, as it was called, was only one incident in what were once known as the “Poaching Wars”, an almost continuous bitter class conflict which started in earnest in the mid-17th century and came to infest the countryside across the whole of England – but never more so than in Norfolk. According to “The Stuart Constitution” by J.P. Kenyon (Cambridge University Press 1969):
“A similar distinction between the God-given race of landowners and the rest was made by the Game Act of 1671, the most stringent and comprehensive of the famous Game Laws. It gave gamekeepers the power to enter houses to search for guns, nets and sporting dogs, which those below the rank of esquire were nor only forbidden to use but even to own; it gave a single justice – usually the landowner concerned-power to award summary punishment, and the decision of Quarter Sessions, staffed by neighbouring land owners was final. Such blatant class legislation confirmed the social ascendancy of the squirearchy, but in the end their administration of the Game Laws, ‘grossly partial, selfishly biased, and swayed by consideration of their own class interest even to the verge of corruption’, wrecked the reputation of the rural justices and made an important contribution to their ultimate downfall.”
In this war between Peasant and Landowner, men were sometimes killed on both sides of the social structure whether by intent or accident, some were even murdered. Those from the lower order who were caught received sentences of death, imprisonment or transportation – all for the sake of a rich man’s rabbit or pheasant. A particularly vicious phase of the poacher’s war began in 1816 with the passing of the Night Poaching Act; this introduced transportation for seven years, if the convicted culprit had been armed with ‘net or stick’ and had the intent to steal rabbits or game. In 1828 a new ‘Night Poaching Act’ introduced transportation of up to fourteen years for such offences.
In 1825, and a little over twelve months before the Heydon affair, Lord Suffield said in the House of Lords: –
“The recipe to make a poacher will be found to contain a very few and simple ingredients which may be met with in every game county in England. Search out (and you need not go far) a poor man with a large family, or a poor man single man, having his natural sense of right and wrong….give him little more than a natural disinclination to go to work, let him exist in the midst of lands where the game is preserved, keep him cool in the winter, by allowing him insufficient wages to purchase fuel; let him feel hungry upon the small pittance of parish relief; and if he be not a poacher it will only be by the blessing of God.”
William Savage in his blog “Poachers in the 18th Century” added: “There’s also a tendency in this romanticised version of events to portray most, if not all, poachers, as poor local men. Fathers desperate to feed themselves and their families. As large-scale capitalist agriculture spread during the 18th century, so this version goes, the commons and woods where ordinary people once grazed a few sheep and shot a few rabbits were fenced off as private property. Deprived of access to wild animals for the pot, the peasants were driven to taking illicitly what they had once enjoyed without hindrance.
I’m sure that did happen. Yet local, small-scale poaching would never have produced the Draconian anti-poaching laws which disfigured the period from around 1810 to the 1830s. The petty ‘crimes’ of local poachers were almost always dealt with as misdemeanours. The poacher would expect a severe lecture from the magistrate, followed by a small fine or a few weeks in prison. Poaching for money, not for the pot, was the problem. Gangs of men who descended on an estate to take large amounts of game to sell. It started in the 18th century, then grew into almost a class war in the 19th.”
This bleak picture of England by the early 19th century was, in no small measure, made worse by the collapse of wheat prices to 65 shillings 6 pence following the Wars against France; foreign grain flooded into the country. From 1815 onwards a series of Corn Laws were passed in an attempt to prevent the importation of wheat until prices reached at least 80 shillings. This blatant protectionism failed but the price of bread, which was the staple food of the English poor, remained high; this was coupled by the increasing number of enclosures of land which greatly reduced the opportunity for supplementing the diets of the rural poor with rabbits, hares etc.
Tensions were therefore at a high level in the countryside as a result of working people’s desperation and the fear they had of the far richer landowners who vigorously pursued their fight to protect what they believed was rightly theirs. The Night Poaching Laws had brought with them the sentence of transportation for seven years for poachers caught in the act of taking game. It was said that in the eleven years following the introduction of these Laws, 1700 people in both England and Wales were convicted and sentenced to be transported.
If it was desperation that persuaded peasants and labourers to poach, then it was the fear of transportation, if caught, which drove many to violence when resisting arrest. Transportation meant never returning to England and to families; equally, it was extremely unlikely that convicts who were only transported for a limited period would ever return to their native land. Those transported for life were, of course, banned from ever returning, although many were conditionally pardoned within the colonies.
Costessey, Norwich – A Hotbed for Poaching:
The pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette for the period in which we speak provided ample evidence and comment on the fact that the area in and around Costessey village, Norfolk was a hotbed for poachers, whether indivuals or large poaching gangs. The proximity of this area to the City of Norwich made disposal of ill-gotten game relatively easy. In return, the city itself was a fruitful source for recruiting poachers for the likes of the notorious “Cossey Gang” of that time. The city’s crowded yards and courts also provided excellent hiding places for planned poaching forays into the gaming preserves of the surrounding country estates.
“On Sunday the 31st ult at four o’clock in the morning, a gang of poachers, about fourteen in number, entered the plantations of the Earl of Buckingham, at Blickling. After they had fired thrice, the keeper and his watch, in all fifteen, came up with them, and an engagement ensued, when the poachers threw vollies [sic] of stones, and very much wounded one of the watch. The poachers, at length, finding themselves pressed, threatened fire, and did fire two guns, but, as is supposed, with powder only; soon after, however, they fired with shot, and wounded three of the watch, and then fled.”
(Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 20 January 1787)
In 1818 both Richard Harvey and David Banham of Costessey were imprisoned for poaching in Taverham. In the 1820’s the most frequently named offender in Costessey was a John Adcock. He was a ploughman, transported in 1827 to serve seven years as a convict labourer in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania); it would be most unlikely that he ever returned to Norfolk and his family. Adcock was transported despite a plea from Lord Stafford to the Home Secretary to let him serve his sentence in England. Adcock’s offence was for taking three pheasants at Costessey Hall, the property of Lord Stafford. Others poaching with him were Henry & James Harvey, James Edmunds, Thomas Paul and Thomas Riches.
The Heydon Hall Affray:
It was on Monday, 11 December 1826, when there was much to-ing and fro-ing between Costessey and Norwich by men planning to do a bit of poaching that night. Five men went to the city in the morning and met up at Crook’s Place before taking a short walk to St Stephens to buy powder and shot. Two then went off to the Brickmakers on the Trowse Road in search of a further colleague, before returning and moving on the Eight Ringers in St Miles – it would seem that the process of ‘rounding up’ a party was in progress. From St Miles the party walked the short distance to St Augustine’s where they all had a further pot of beer before going outside.
A total of fourteen men gathered under a tree at St. Augustine’s Gates where they held a meeting to finalise a plan for what would turn out to be a poaching foray to Heydon Hall, some 14 miles north-east of the city. Those men who made up early numbers were (1) William Howes, aged 32, (2) Edward Baker, (3) William Elsegood, aged 28, (4) George Goffin, aged 30, (5) Richard Harvey, aged 27, (7) James Harvey, aged 20, (8) Thomas Paul, aged 26, (9) James Paul, aged 18, (10) William Olley, aged 34, (11) Thomas Skipper, aged 17, (12) John Catchpole, aged 26, (13) John Perry, (14 ) John General, and (15) Matthew Howlett (16) Richard Turner. More would join them at the Red Lion at Drayton. – Take note of the sequence of numbers against the names for later reference when each was sentenced.
It was while they were still at St Augustine’s that there was a realisation that they only had four guns between them and it was James Paul and John Perry who volunteered to return to Costessey to get more weapons whilst the other men moved on to the Red Lion at Drayton where they met up with (15) Matthew Howlett. Later, Paul, Perry, plus a sixteenth member, (6) William Skipper arrived to report that they had managed to get two more ‘nippers’ (guns). In total, sixteen men settled down in the Red Lion for an evening’s drinking before setting off for the Heydon Hall Estate for a night’s work.
Mary Howard was to remember Monday, 11 December 1826 long into the New Year and beyond. She was the Red Lion publican’s daughter who served behind the bar and generally kept order, particularly when her father was absent. She remembered most of the proposed poaching party turning up, at intervals, to kill time before moving on. Mary witnessed them ‘loosening up’ and generating increasing levels of noise. This included a drinking challenge of ‘downing the flincher’ over pots of beer, accompanied by the rider “b**** to the first who flinches”. Not everyone took part; James Paul, for one, refused to take part for he “would flinch”! As for John Perry, he proclaimed at some point well into the evening that he would bet “five shillings that he would not miss a shot that night”.
When the party eventually left the Red Lion public house, it was just before half past nine; they had some ten more miles to travel before they reached the Heydon Estate and their feather and fur quarry. The route was along the Attlebridge Road and then across country to Felthorpe where William Olley obtained a gun from a cottage and gave it to James Harvey. Seven men now had guns: Edward Baker, William Elsegood, John General, James Harvey, Richard Harvey, John Perry and William Skipper – the others armed themselves with stakes from a hurdle, broken off during their journey. From Felthorpe, they made their way to ‘Blackbridge Wood’, which was on the Heydon Estate and about a mile from the Hall itself.
The wood was large and surrounded a lake and boathouse before reaching almost as far as the gamekeeper’s ‘Bluestone Hall’ cottage which lay alongside the Holt to Norwich road and not far from Dog Corner. The poachers made certain that they were well clear of the gamekeeper’s cottage as they moved towards a nearby area where they hoped the game were roosting; but it was a bright moonlight night and they feared “the game birds would quickly fly”. Some nearby rooks had felt sufficiently disturbed to fly to more distant trees. But the poachers had arrived, they were committed to make the most of the conditions and they approached their task in a loose formation, with those armed advancing forward in front of those who only held stakes and bludgeons.
Somehow, suspicion had been aroused amongst Estate staff with the head gamekeeper, James Carman, organising a ‘Watch’ or ‘Posse’ which would assemble at his cottage; the party consisted of estate workers Phillip Brewster, William Southgate, William Spray, Richard Carmin and George West. It was just before midnight of the 11 December 1826 when a section of this party headed out towards Blackbridge Woods. No one had yet seen any intruders, nevertheless Carman went armed with a brace of pistols and a double-barrelled gun which he soon handed to William Spray at the cottage gate; the weapons were their insurance should ‘armed’ men be out there. All was still and quiet as they came within a furlong of the wood; then suddenly some crows flew and one in the party was immediately convinced that there was someone or other afoot amongst the trees. Carman’s first instinct was to dismiss the thought, on the basis that no one would poach on such light night. He soon changed his mind when a gunshot sounded – and then a second. Carman immediately drew his pistols and fired into the air so as to attract the attention of the remaining members of the Watch who were waiting back at the cottage. At the same time, he noticed several on the edge of the wood, one of whom recognised the gamekeeper and was heard to shout “That’s Carman” threatening to give him a ”damn good beating”, while another added ”We’ll shoot him out of the way”!
These last words were followed immediately with shots being fired in the direction of the gamekeeper, some of which Carman later claimed went “into his ear and eye and others into his hand”; however, this did not prevent him retrieving his gun from Spray and firing at the poachers. Poachers Richard Turner and James Harvey were on the receiving end of this volley with Harvey saying to Turner, ‘’Take hold of my gun, they have shot my eyes out”. What followed was Turner bandaging Harvey’s head with a handkerchief, then both being hit with yet another discharge from Carman. Poacher James Paul then came up and said that he also had been shot in the hand and face. Despite what appeared to be a one-sided confrontation, the Watch, to a man, ran off out of the wood and followed by the superior numbered poachers who had clearly taken the initiative. Watch member, William Southgate, was then knocked down with a stone and beaten by William Olley, that was until fellow poacher, William Elsegood, pleaded with him to stop or ”for God’s sake you’ll kill him”.
The poachers pursued James Carman and the Watch into Seaman’s Farm where, it was said, they hid under a manger in the stable while the poachers spent a full twenty minutes nearby searching for them and uttering threats throughout. The poachers then regrouped and departed for another wood nearby, said to be Newell Wood. There, they discharged their ‘nippers’ three or four more times. They then disputed whether to go back to Blackbridge Wood or cut their losses and go home. In the meantime, Carman and the Watch came out of hiding and on the way back to the Hall for reinforcements met the Hon. G.W. Edwardes, the third son of Lord Kensington, who was going down to Newell Wood where it was reported the poachers were. Poacher, Edward Baker, was the first to spot the now reinforced Watch, its advancing presence causing the poachers to run towards the shelter of a hedge and bank where they argued as to whether they should fight the Watch or retreat fast……
The Hon. Edwardes stood on the bank and apparently said ”What do all you people do here at this time of night” to which Richard Harvey replied ”Your people shot us at first, and if you do not stand back you will stand the chance of sharing the same fate”. It was later suggested that his reply was probably a reference to one of the poaching party, John General, who it is believed was fatally wounded earlier in the night when it was reported:
”one of the keepers being hard pressed, discharged his gun at this solitary poacher who immediately fell, and the short distance at which that person received the shot makes it probable that he must have been seriously, if not fatally wounded”.
Edwardes told them they had better not fire, but was almost immediately struck in the face by a stone thrown by Perry; this caused blood to flow from his mouth and nose. Edwardes fell on one knee and hand and as he was rising was shot by Perry and another poacher in the side and shoulder. In the return of fire from the Watch James Paul cried ‘’They have cut me all to pieces ” as he was severely wounded in the thigh. At this point, the poachers had enough of the exchanges and retreated, led by John Perry. The Honourable Edwardes’ servant ‘Ensor’ helped his master back to Heydon Hall……. On 17 December 1826, two bludgeons, two guns and a hat, ‘much shot through’ was found in the home of William Howes at Crook’s Place, Norwich.
It is not known how and when the poachers were apprehended by the authorities – but caught they were and were committed to trial at the Lent Assizes held in Thetford, Norfolk on 27 March 1827. The Judge presiding was Justice Sir Stephen Gaselee (1762 – 26 March 1839), justice of the Court of Common Pleas. It was said that Gaselee was the original of the irascible judge represented by Charles Dickens in the trial of Bardell v. Pickwick, under the name of Justice Stareleigh.
Those poachers appearing on the Charge Sheet were:
“(1) William. Howes, aged 32, (2) Edward Baker, aged 34, (3) William Elsegood, aged 28, (4) George Goffin, aged 30, (5) Richard Harvey, aged 27, (6) William Skipper, aged 28, (7) James Harvey, aged 20, (8) Thomas Paul, aged 26, (9) James Paul, aged 18, (10) William Olley, aged 34, (11) Thomas Skipper, aged 17, (12) John Catchpole, aged 26, (13) John Perry was severally indicted for shooting at and wounding the Honourable George Warren Edwardes, on the 12 of December last.”
Witnesses called and cross-examined included James Carman (gamekeeper), William Southgate (watch), Philip Brewster (watch), George West, Honourable G. W. Edwardes (Estate), William Spray (keeper), William Ireland (Farmer), (13) John Perry, (accused), (14) Richard Turner (gentleman’s servant and accomplice), and Mary Brown (Red Lion).
The prisoners said nothing in their defence with some having to rely on submitted ‘good references’. The Jury retired for barely twenty minutes to consider its verdict, and when it returned the verdict was ‘Guilty’, but with the equally unanimous recommendation for Mercy. The Judge responded by saying that this “should be communicated where it would meet with due attention……nevertheless, he must perform the painful duty his office imposed on them”. His Lordship then proceeded to pass the formal sentence of death upon the accused, but which subsequently was commuted to either transportation or prison. The fate of the 16 members of the ‘Cossey Gang’, of whom 14 actually stood trial at the Norfolk Assizes on 27 March 1827, was as follows:
Sentence to Death but Transported for life:
The following were sentenced to death but with Royal Mercy were commuted to transportation on the ship “ASIA V”. This ship, of 523 tons, was launched in 1824 at Bombay. She carried 200 male convicts to Hobart and had two deaths en-route. She departed Portsmouth on the 17th of August 1827 and arrived at Hobart on the 7th of December 1827. Her Master was Captain Henry Ager and Surgeon: George Fairfowl.
(1) William Howes: Aged 32, native place Little Brandon, Norfolk and was a Groom and Coachman. He left behind a wife and children in Norwich. On his arrival ai Hobart, he was assigned to a Mr Seagrim and later served as a Constable. During his time, he committed five minor Colonial offences, being admonished or Ticket of Leave suspended 1 month. On 17 March 1836 Howes was sentenced to one-months Hard Labour on a road gang for being drunk and ‘striking his wife’! He received a conditional pardon on 24 May 1839.
(2) Edward Baker: Aged 34, native place Catton, Norfolk, farm labourer and brickmaker – worked for a Mr Blake. He left behind a wife and children in Norwich. On arrival in Hobart, Baker was assigned to a W. Gunn Esq., Supt of Prisoners Barracks at Bourbon Sorrell in the Drummond Parish. He was later admonished for insolence and drowned in the South Esk River on Thursday, 13 August 1835.
(3) William Elsegood: Aged 28, On arrival in N.S.W. was assigned to Sir John Jamison of Evans.
(4) George Goffin: Aged 30, native place Norfolk, ploughman and brickmaker. He left a wife in Norwich. On arrival in Hobart, he was assigned to Mr Phillip Pitt of Beaufort Parish. He committed no Colonial offences and was given a conditional pardon on 20 September 1837, with a Pardon extended to the Australian colonies on 12 August 1845.
(5) Richard Harvey: Aged 27, native place Costessey, Norfolk. He was baptised on 30 September 1798, son of Richard HARVEY and Sarah (Lovett), and left behind a wife, Susannah (Parnell) of Costessey and children Thirza and William at Costessey. On arrival at Hobart Harvey was assigned to Lieut. Hawkins and Mr Isiah Ratcliffe but later committed many Colonial offences, being sentenced to a variety of punishments, such as Tread-Wheel, Chain Gang, Working in irons, Imprisonment with hard labour, Solitary Confinement and Bread & water. Eventually he was given a ‘Ticket of Leave’ on 2 August 1836, conditional pardon on 10 May 1836 which was extended to Australian colonies 8 December 1846.
(6) William Skipper Aged 27, Native place Stoke, Norfolk. He left behind a wife Sarah and six children ‘on the parish’ at Costessey – William, Mary, Hannah, Isabella, Anthony and Anastasia. Skipper was sent to the Hulk ‘Leviathan’ on 27 April 1827, then transferred to the ‘Hardy’ on 28 May 1830. He was not transported but discharged with a Free Pardon on 30 June on the appeal of Lord STAFFORD to the Home Secretary. In the 1881 Census he was still living at 17 The Croft, Costessey as a widower.
(7) James Harvey: Aged 20, son of Richard Harvey and Sarah (nee Lovett) and baptised on 6 July 1808 at Costessey. Harvey was already under sentence of 7 years transportation for poaching in a plantation of Lord STAFFORD on the Costessey Hall estate, along with John Adcock and Thomas Paul on 25 Nov.1826. On arrival in New South Wales Harvey was assigned to Mr. Spark of Botany Bay.
(10) William Olley: Aged 34, native place Drayton, Norfolk, farmer, ploughman, malster and brewer. He left behind a wife and children ‘on the parish in Norwich. On arrival in Hobart he was assigned to Mr. Andrew Tolney in the Ormaig Parish and was once reprimanded for being absent from Church Muster. He received a Ticket of Leave in 1836 and a conditional pardon on 20 June 1840.
Sentenced to Death but commuted to a Gaol term:
(8) Thomas Paul: Aged 26, native place Costessey, Norfolk and son of Thomas and Mary (nee Bailey). He was baptised on 22 February 1802. His death sentence was commuted to 2 years in Swaffham Gaol, Norfolk.
(9) James Paul: Aged 18, native place Costessey, Norfolk and son of Thomas and Mary (nee Bailey). He was baptised on 9 July 1806 and married Harriet Skipper on 26 October 1830. His death sentence was commuted to 4 months in Swaffham Gaol, Norfolk.
(11) Thomas Skipper Aged 17, native place Costessey, Norfolk and son of Thomas and Mary (nee Lakay) of Costessey. Baptised 4 Feb. 1810. His death sentence was commuted to a period in Swaffham Gaol, Norfolk.
Sentence to Death but commuted to 7 years transportation:
(12) John Catchpole: Aged 26 was sent to the Hulk ‘Leviathan‘ on 27 April 1827 with others. Nothing more was heard of him.
Sentence to Death but not in Custody:
(13) John Perry: At the time of the trial Perry was not in custody although in the evidence it was seen that he was the ringleader. Nothing further has been discovered about him. However, on 18 September 1826 a child Ellen E. Perry, daughter of John Perry and Martha, was baptised at Costessey Church.
Believed Killed during the Heydon Affray:
(14) John General: Newspaper reports of the time indicated that General may well have been fatally wounded and hence not charged. He was carried from the scene by his companions.
(15) Matthew Howlett: He was with the gang at the Red Lion in Drayton but was not mentioned in the report of the affray. It would also seem that he was not charged.
Turned King’s Evidence:
(16) Richard Turner: It was reported that Turner had been a gentleman’s servant for twelve months before who turned King’s Evidence; he escaped punishment. On 17 May 1828 a Richard Turner married Anne Simmons at Costessey, (witnesses John Pank and Anne Powell). A question was posed as to whether, or not, Turner had been planted in the gang!
Other Costessey Poachers transported to Australia:
John ADCOCK: Aged 28, native place Costessey, Norfolk and son of Richard and Elizabeth (nee Cutler). He was baptised on 12 Nov.1797 and married Sarah Gurney of Costessey on 4 Oct. 1825. Children were Maria Elizabeth and Sarah Ann. Adcock was a farm labourer and ploughman. He was sentenced to 7 years transportation on 10 January 1827 for poaching in a plantation of Lord Stafford on the Costessey Hall estate, along with James Harvey (10) and Thomas Paul (11) on 25 November 1826. Sarah ADCOCK was on parish relief all through 1827. Adcock was transported to Van Dieman’s Land on the convict transport “Asia V ” on 17th August 1827. On arrival he was assigned to a Mr Anthony Geiss of Wellington Parish. On 11 March 1830 Adcock absented himself from his master’s service and was reprimanded. Around 1832/33 he was given a ‘Ticket of Leave’ and on 23 January 1834 a Free Certificate was issued. It is to Lord Stafford’s credit that he had appealed to the Home Secretary to have Adcock’s sentence remitted; however, the appeal was unsuccessful.
Bibliography and Sources of Reference:
The above tale based on the reports that appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette on Sat. 31st March 1827 about the trial of the Heydon poachers at the Lent Assizes held in Thetford, Norfolk on the 26 March 1827: Also:
The Village Labourer 1760-1832. L.L. and Barbara Hammond – First publ. 1911 Longmans, London.
The History of Costessey by T.B. Norgate published privately by Author, August 1972.
The Diary of a Country Parson. 1758-1802. James Woodforde. ed by James Beresford, OUP 1978.
The Long Affray. The Poaching Wars 1790-1914. Harry Hopkins, Macmillan, London 1985.
Peasants & Poachers. A study in rural disorder in Norfolk, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge Suffolk.
Tasmanian Archives Convict Records -Hobart, Tasmania.
Poachers in the 18th Century
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