The 1850s were not a time of marked improvement for the agricultural labourer. The Norfolk Chronicle of 1854 claims that poaching seems to be declining in this neighbourhood", but the appearance was not the reality and it remained as strong as ever, George Edwards gave an insight into the diet, when he wrote, "when the Crimean War broke out in 1854, food rose to famine prices. The price of bread went up to is. per 4 lb loaf, sugar to 8d. per lb, tea to 6d. per oz, cheese rose from 7d. per lb to is. 6d. per lb. The only article of food that did not rise to such a proportionately high figure was meat, but that was an article of food which rarely entered a poor man's house, except a little piece of pork occasionally which would weigh about 1½ lbs and this would have to last a family of nine for a week! Very often this small amount could not be obtained - in fact it can be truly said that in those days meat never entered my father's house more than once or twice a year 1 " George Baldry describes the traditional meal of salt sop, which " was a few pieces of bread crumbled into a basin with small pieces of butter, lard or dripping with hot water poured over, the water dipped up out of the river, making our sop like good broth with bubbles of fat floating on top. A few bits of weeds and an insect didn't matter to us," as long as the pangs of hunger were kept at bay. He also talks of the pride of the working people, and describes how some " old ladies who rather than be out of the latest fashion burnt a crust of bread, put it in a cup, filled it with hot water, added a dust of sugar and fancied they were drinking tea."
It can hardly be surprising, then, that poaching remained as common as before. In 1851 the parishes of Letton, Shipdham, Cranworth and their neighbourhood were infested with gangs of poachers, " whose proceedings were of a most outrageous character; with parties of ten or twelve young men going about night after night armed with loaded guns in pursuit of game. From all we can learn their conduct does not appear to have been caused by disaffection on account of the general reduction of the rates of wages, from want of employment, from necessity or revenge, but from a determination to procure game at all hazards. They have of late almost cleared the estate of Brampton Gurdon Esq. of game. Late on Saturday, 30th November, a body of at least eleven men surrounded the dwelling house of Mr. Whitear (Mr. Gurdon's gamekeeper) and having examined all the outbuildings where they imagined he might possibly be concealed, they ransacked the whole of his premises, without finding him. With bitter imprecations they dared him to come forth , swearing that if he did they would shoot him, and then before leaving they fired off their guns at his house, and the shootings of the assailants were responded to by the dogs on the neighbouring farms for miles around until the whole district was disturbed and excited. It may appear strange, but it is however, a fact that in committing their depredations the parties seemed to think it scarcely worthwhile to make any attempt at concealment; probably relying on their numbers and strength; the persons and even their names are known to most of the occupiers of contiguous estates in these parishes. After a series of these brutal outrages, aimed not only against the property of the employers, but the persons of those who were consistently performing their duty as servants, the circumstances of the case were made known to the proper authorities, in the hope that these iniquitous proceedings might be suppressed.
"On Monday, 1st December 1851, Superintendent Parker, with about a dozen rural policemen, left Swaffham and proceeded to Letton Park, which is nearly three miles in circuit; and with the consent of the Norwich Watch Committee, constable Noller being a strong, powerful man, went over to aid the county police. The police were secreted for a week, watching at night, and while thus engaged they often heard the poachers firing at a distance out of the park. On the bright, moonlight night of Saturday, 6th December, the police, who were armed ready for an encounter with the ruffians and the keepers waited in ambush. Shortly after twelve o'clock the police heard three guns fired off successively in a cover; upon which George Whitear junior went to his father's cottage near Newell's wood and told him and the eight or nine police constables waiting there, that poachers were about and they all went out. The party of the watch and police consisting of fourteen or fifteen men, crossed the road into the wood, and went to the far end of it. When there the party proceeded in a line, towards the cover. When about one-hundred yards from the cover, they rushed forward, and when within ten to twelve yards of it, Whitear saw some men opposite to them. The poachers seeing them, cried 'stand back' upon which Parker turned round and said, 'come on my boys here they are. Before Parker could turn round or the police and watch stop, the poachers had fired two or three guns at them. Parker being the foremost of the police received the charge of one of the guns full in his face and fell severely wounded. Constable Greenacre received two of the five shots in the shoulder and face, but was not so seriously hurt, and a tree intercepted the charge of the third gun.
"George Whitear crossed to the poachers, and the rest followed him, although the poachers were armed with large clubs and made a stout resistance. Whitear chased two of the poachers (later identified as Brown and Howard) who he had seen running away for some two-hundred yards before they escaped. Meanwhile James Greenacre, police officer, went to help Parker and Parker had cried 'I am shot, go in Greenacre,' and he ran after Lincoln who he had seen fire the first gun, and after a chase of twenty or thirty yards knocked him down. Upon which Richard George. policeman, 'fell on Lincoln and turned him on his back and put the handcuffs on him, taking the gun from his side.' Meanwhile, John Rivett, another constable, had run directly towards Hunter who had a gun pointed at him, and knocking it aside with his left hand, took him into custody. Robert Haylett, another constable, was at this time busy chasing two of the four poachers he had seen, but as they were about fifty yards away he shot at them (and believed he could have hit one and perhaps severely wounded or killed him but he remained concealed somewhere). As Haylett returned to the spot where the affray was taking place, he saw Parker knock down Buckle, who had his face blacked, and he quickly helped Parker secure him.
"As William Watling and Coleman were returning from their club they saw William Stagg, with his face blacked running in the field near the corner of the cover. Suspecting that something was up Watling followed and overtook him, and took hold of him. Stagg claimed he was shot, and would give Watling 5s. if he would let him go; but although Watling had no intention of letting him go, Stagg managed to escape as Coleman was busy opening a gate.
"After the affray, Superintendent Parker was conveyed to his home at Swaffham, where surgeon Mr. Whitting attended him and removed twenty-five shots of No.5 size from his face and neck. Three of the poachers, Lincoln, Hunter and Buckle were taken on the spot: and although two of them reached their homes, they were soon taken there, from their beds. All of them were in disguises and had their faces blackened, so that if seen they might not again be recognized. On the same night the five prisoners were taken before the Rev. P. Gurdon and after a short examination they were remanded and sent to Norwich Castle. On Tuesday, 9th December, two of them were apprehended and brought before the Rev. P. Gurdon and after a short examination they were remanded and sent to Norwich Castle. The names of those in custody are Richard Lincoln (19), William Hunter (20), William Stagg (27), John Lake (21), Robert Buckle (19), William Harwood (19) and John Hunter (21), all of Letton, Shipdham or adjoining parishes; and there are two others still at large, whose names are known." The paper continued: " It is fortunate that the poachers can be clearly identified as they were taken with guns in their hands. On the Sunday morning after the affray a large number of clubs were found in the park, some of them as thick as a man's arm. Such a fight has caused the greatest excitement in the surrounding villages. The capture of these fellows, all of whom are well-known offenders is regarded by the population generally of this locality with great satisfaction, as they have for several months been compelled to feel that no description of moveable property was safe while they were permitted to be at large; and it is believed that the sheep and poultry stealing and other depredations so frequent of late, may be placed to the account of some members of this gang which it is hoped will now be thoroughly broken up."
An inquiry was held at Dereham, which was conducted behind closed doors, and terminated in the commital of the prisoners for trial at the Assizes, on a charge of shooting with intent to murder. At the Lent Assizes of 1852, William and John Hunter, Lincoln, Stagg, Lake, Buckle and Harwood were charged with having shot at Samuel Parker, a Superintendent of the rural police, with intent to murder him. There was a second count charging them with having shot at him to prevent their apprehension and a third count charging them with having shot at him with intent to do him grievous bodily harm. John Lake was soon discharged, due to insufficient evidence being found against him. In his own defence, Lincoln claimed he was persuaded to go by Stagg and the others, otherwise he would not have been there. The defence showed signs of-disgust "that six young men, who, if the right love and feeling which the rich ought to show to the poor had been displayed towards them in their youth, would have grown up to be a comfort to their friends instead of being brought there for trial, and remarked that if a gentleman would preserve game they must take the proper means to preserve it, they had no right to employ the police for that purpose, (and further), deplored that these young men should be allowed to grow up like so many weeds in the neighbourhood of the mansions of the rich; the care which ought to have been bestowed on them having been lavished on the game of their preserves." The judge agreed that the landlord had no right to employ police, who "were in that sense like soldiers. They were to obey the orders of their Superintendent, and acting under his orders they were justified in what they did. It appeared that they were there for a week and this thing should be guarded against because it was likely to lead to ill will. "Yet despite the plea of the defence, and the general anti-police feeling, the sentences were harsh; Lincoln, William Hunter and Harwood were to be transported for ten years; while Buckle, Stagg and John Hunter were to be imprisoned for two years, with hard labour.
Conditions of the agricultural labourer improved gradually after the 1850s and by 1867 the wage rate in Norfolk averaged 13s. But the hours were such that many must have asked whether they worked to live, or lived to work. An East Suffolk farmer in the 1870s told Frederick Clifford, "harvest hours are from 5 till 7 (12 hours actual work); summer ordinary hours 6 till 6 (10 hours actual work); winter hours, 7 or 7.30 till 4.30 or 5 (8 hours, and often not more than 7 hours actual work). We lose time sadly in winter, and farmers who pay, as 1 do, wet and dry, get very poor value for their money. "Farmers also tended to under-pay their labourers by use of the truck-system (payment in goods), harvest beer being especially common, and although beer at three-halfpence a pint was not an extravagant beverage "the home and family needed every penny and every halfpenny for bare necessaries." Marian Springall wrote: "Harvest wages were supposed to pay rent and the shoemakers bill, but employers did not seem to consider the cost of shop goods. The labourers complained that they had to rely upon 'pen and in' (credit) for such necessities as soap, candles, tea, sugar, butter and cheese."
In the 1840s labourers had looked to temperance organizations for guidance to eke out their meagre incomes, but the arguments between the temperance and the teetotaller advocates had disillusioned them. Little wonder then that they turned to self-help in the 1850s, and in some ways poaching formed a part of this.
© Transcribed by E.C.Apling, March, 2001.
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