The Lincolnshire Poacher
When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire,
Full well I serv'd my master, for more than seven year,
Till I took up to poaching, as you shall quickly hear.
Oh, 'tis my delight on a shining night, in the season of the year.
From the song ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ (Anon)
Among the more macabre items in the collection of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society (SGS) is a set of mantraps, used up to the 19th century to deter and catch poachers.
These vicious devices were larger versions of the gin traps used to catch game and vermin, consisting of a strong spring attached to two spiked jaws. The jaws would normally be held open by a catch, but any pressure on a plate in the centre of the device would release the catch and the jaws would slam against the ankle or knee of the unfortunate victim.
There seems little doubt that some were capable of breaking a person’s leg. Mantraps were made illegal in 1826, although from 1830, landowners could apply for a licence to use them. They were not finally banned outright until 1861, although it is suspected that many continued in use after this date.
But the poacher was not defenceless in his quest for illicit game. One of the photos shows a form of alarm used to warn of any unexpected approach. It carries the name of its maker, C Osborne, and worked through a tripwire which, when triggered, set off a small gunpowder charge. Doubtless it had multiple uses, but was at times employed by poachers to warn of the approach of gamekeepers.
Poaching has a long history in the English countryside and poachers at times enjoyed a semi-heroic status among ordinary people as Robin Hood-like characters, being seen as rebels against oppressive authority.
This was particularly so in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the Enclosure Acts enabled rich landowners to exclude people from lands to which they had traditionally had free access. This movement was accompanied by increasingly draconian penalties for poaching, including transportation or death, even though the enclosures inevitably caused severe hardship among the rural population.
One of the most distinguished early SGS members was Sir Joseph Banks. President of the Royal Society and one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society, he sailed with Captain Cook to Australia, returning home with 30,000 new plant specimens.
Back at home, however, Banks had rather more mundane concerns, namely an outbreak of poaching on his Lincolnshire estate.
A document in the SGS archives reveals that in 1800, three men, John Robinson, William Walker and his son John, were fined between £10 and £20, substantial sums of money at that time, for being in possession of a hare and a number of pheasants poached from Sir Joseph’s land. Their names had been offered up by Banks’ gamekeeper, Josiah Mills, who seems himself to have had surprisingly intimate knowledge of these illicit activities.
South Lincolnshire’s most famous poacher in recent times was Mackenzie Thorpe, of Sutton Bridge, remembered fondly as Kenzie the Wild-Goose Man. From his main base on his boat at Shep White’s marsh, he spent most of his life roaming the adjacent fens.
He used his knowledge of the landscape and its wildlife, not to mention his extraordinary range of bird and animal calls, to poach pheasants and other game. He became a close friend of hunter-turned-naturalist Sir Peter Scott (another SGS member), acting as his guide on the marshes and in return, Scott helped to hone Kenzie’s burgeoning artistic talent. Geese in flight formed his favourite subject and his paintings are now much sought after.
The life and work of Sir Joseph Banks will feature heavily in the Gravity Fields Festival, taking place from September 26-30 in and around Grantham. On Saturday September 29 and Sunday September 30 at Woolsthorpe Manor, the family home of Sir Isaac Newton, the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society will present an exhibition of documents and artefacts about Banks, including the legacy of his voyages and how they impacted on collectors in Lincolnshire. For more information, visit www.gravityfields.co.uk
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