Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

The Reverend Stevens and the 1858 Thieves Wood poaching affray

By Rosemary Muge

Poaching was common in Nottinghamshire during the nineteenth century. Day poaching was endemic and accounted for by far the most of prosecutions, but it was night poaching that bothered the landowners and the authorities the most. Gang night poaching, by groups of men numbering anything from 6 to 30 - occasionally even more - was responsible for catching game in far greater quantities; moreover, it frequently resulted in fights between poachers and gamekeepers. These affrays reflected badly on the forces of law and order because they often resulted in gamekeepers and watchers getting seriously hurt, occasionally killed; and because it was obvious to the public that the poachers could not be controlled or deterred. (1) Most affrays resulted in few, if any, poachers being caught. The night poaching affray of August 1858, at Thieves Wood near Mansfield, did result in poachers being prosecuted. It also led to a clergyman being brought to trial at the 1861 Nottingham Assizes. William Brooke Stevens was the incumbent of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Sutton-in-Ashfield. That he was well thought of by his parishioners is evident from the size of the memorial over his grave in the church graveyard. In addition, inside the church, there is a stone pulpit is inscribed with the words: ‘This pulpit is erected by friends and parishioners in memory of William Brooke Stevens, incumbent of this parish, who died Oct 22 1866 aged 54’.

From left to right: St Mary Magdalene Church, Sutton in Ashfield; grave of the Rev. WB Stevens; pulpit in the church; inscription on the pulpit

The affray in question took place in Thieves Wood, which lies about 4 miles from the church, on the A60 south of Mansfield; these days it is a popular site for walkers. In 1858 it was part of the Berry Hill estate, and Sir Edward Walker’s gamekeepers and night watchers were on the lookout for poachers every night. The affray was first reported on 14th August. It involved five keepers and watchers with at least one gun, and twenty or more poachers. When the two parties came upon each other the poachers fought by throwing stones at the keepers. According to the report, ‘Getting excited, they called upon each other, in the most foul and abusive language, to fall upon them [the keepers] and murder them out of the way’. (2) The newspaper recorded that head gamekeeper Hurst threatened to shoot and the poachers ‘slunk away’; however, ‘many are known and will soon be apprehended’. Rounding up suspects after the event was a common way of catching poachers. Many of the local poachers were known to the gamekeepers, and keepers or watchers would inform the police that they had recognised certain men. On this evidence the police would go to their houses, usually at night, and apprehend them. By the 26th August it was reported that police had been to houses in Sutton-in-Ashfield at 3am and taken ten men into custody; they were then walked under guard to the lock-up at Mansfield. Some of them had been taken quietly, but as the search went on people became aware what was happening, and a sizable crowd had gathered by the time the last of the wanted men was apprehended. (3) By 2nd September 11 men had appeared before Colonel Coke at the Mansfield Petty Sessions. Gamekeeper Holmes had been badly injured in the face in the affray, and this instance of serious violence meant that all the men were to be tried at the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions in October. They were: James Radford, George Wilkinson, Joseph Searston, Joseph Willoughby, Joseph Oxley, Samuel Dennis, William Shore, Alfred Morley, Charles Shaw and William Marsh. They all came from Sutton-in-Ashfield. (4) A Quarter Sessions trial was by jury, with the sentencing was done by the presiding judge. All were found guilty and received sentences of 12 or 18 months. After the trial it was reported that more than 200 people were at the railway station at Sutton-in-Ashfield waiting to hear news of the verdicts and sentences. When they heard that most of the men had got 18 months, ‘the screams of the women and the indignation of the men were terrible to hear’. Wives and families were waiting there and such long sentences were not expected. (5) After this there was no further news about the event until the report, in the Nottinghamshire Guardian of 7th March 1861, from the Nottingham Assizes.

At the Nisi Prius Court, the Reverend William Brooke Stevens was accused of slander. (6) William Lee, the plaintiff, was one of the keepers on the Berry Hill Estate. The prosecution claimed that the Reverend Stevens had said in a public speech in 1858, that ‘the rash and reckless swearing of William Lee had secured the conviction, at Nottingham Quarter Sessions, of men for 12-18 months for assaulting game-keepers, and that these men, or at least half of these men, were innocent.’ The supposed slander was in reference to the affray at Thieves Wood in August 1858. The defence said that one of the men imprisoned had since died and left a widow and three children, and the rest of the wives and children had been ‘on the parish’. Reverend Stevens said that it was difficult for the poor to get justice. As part of the defence case, eight men appeared in court as witnesses. Joseph Searston, Samuel Dennis, Henry Haughton, James Ratcliffe, and William Shore, all said that they had been convicted but were innocent. (7) John Turner, who had not been convicted, said that he had been one of the poachers at the event; to laughter in the courtroom he said that he had given up poaching - until next season. John Dove said, ‘I was one of the poaching party... I have not been apprehended and six besides myself were never tried’; he also said that he had given up poaching, to more laughter in the court. (8) Summing up, the judge said that the question was, ‘Had the plaintiff given rash and reckless evidence? Did he cook his inculpate a number of men whom he could not honestly and truly have known by eyesight?’ The verdict was that the witness had indeed done this, and that Reverend Stevens was not guilty of slander. During the period of over two years between the affray and the slander case, the whole affair must have been a topic of hot gossip in the neighbourhood. It seems likely that Stevens’s stand in this issue and his public statement that the gamekeeper witness was lying, must have made him quite a public hero. This may explain why he is the only incumbent of the parish honoured after his death with a large and ornate gravestone, and a pulpit funded by public subscription and built in his honour.

Notes 1. The Game Laws Returns to Parliament show that in the years 1857-62, Nottinghamshire had as much poaching (per head of population) as some of the southern and eastern agricultural counties which were thought of as the great poaching areas. 2. Nottinghamshire Guardian (NG), 14 August 1858. Since the poachers were not reported as carrying guns, they must have been poaching for ground game (rabbits and hares) using nets. Only if they were poaching winged game, would it have been necessary for a good number of them to have carried guns. Most night poaching in Nottinghamshire was for ground game. Poachers usually used stones as their weapons in affrays; some of these could be very large, were often collected in advance and carried in the bags or pockets that by the end of the expedition would be filled with game. Large stones thrown at close range could be lethal. 3. NG, 26 August 1858. 4. NG, 2 September 1858. Some of these names can be recognised from other reports of poaching affrays or lists of convictions in the Criminal Registers. James Radford was convicted of poaching at Mansfield Petty Sessions in December 1851; George Wilkinson convicted of night poaching in 1836; Samuel Dennis was convicted at Nottingham Assizes in 1855, after being involved in an affray at Newstead Abbey; and William Shore was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment at Nottingham Assizes in 1862. 5. NG, 28 October 1858. Judges could hand out sentences of up to seven years imprisonment, with hard labour, for violent night poaching. Transportation for 10, 15 or 20 years had previously been available, and before 1857 some of the worst offences of violent night poaching had resulted in transportation. However, this had ceased by 1858. Although longer sentences could be given, in practice judges were reluctant to do so. Some poachers convicted in violent night poaching affrays got sentences as light as three or six months. 6. A Nisi Prius Court tried civil offences. It is not clear whether or not this court had a jury or if the judge was the sole arbiter. Nisi Prius Courts could have juries. The report sounds rather as if there was no jury. 7. Not all these names are the same as those earlier reported to have been captured. However, James Ratcliffe was probably the same person as James Radford. 8. The laughter in court demonstrates that public attitudes to poaching were not the same as to other crimes. Poaching is often referred to as a ‘social crime’, meaning crime that many of the population thought was not morally wrong in the same way that robbery, for example, was. Day poaching was certainly a social crime; however, night poaching in gangs was not regarded so tolerantly by many people. But everyone in court would realise that these men saying they had given up poaching, did not really mean it.