Peasants poached for survival, but landowners and the law brought them more misery.
Words: Steve Mills
Illustration: Marcus Lanyon
In November 1815 a young farmer from Thornbury, Tom Till, was killed. He was found, a loaded shotgun in his hand, next to a discharged ‘spring gun’ booby trap – enraging the local community.
Thus started the Berkeley affair, a set of incidents in 1815 and 1816 that cost four men their lives and disrupted community relations for decades. It related to the Game Laws and hunting rights, and was part of what have been called the ‘poaching wars’.
Only landowners with property worth at least £100 in annual income were allowed to hunt game, limiting it to the very wealthy (and the monarchy). This arbitrary law caused much discontent in the countryside; during times of poor harvests, people could starve to death, while rabbits hopped happily by.
As a result, many people would have seen poaching from the landed gentry as a protest crime, against wealth and the supposed rights of the large landowners. Also, this was at the time of new enclosure acts, with common land appropriated by those who could afford lawyers.
So of course people poached, for the pot but also for the fun of it, and to get back at the gentry. In turn, landowners engaged armies of gamekeepers and set traps, including the deadly hidden spring guns that got the unfortunate Till. He was found on land belonging to Lord Ducie, though it was a neighbouring landowner – Colonel William Berkeley of Berkeley Castle – who had apparently taken the lead when it came to setting traps for poachers in the locality.
Taking to the land
Following Till’s death, his friends met around the farmhouse of one John Allen, a local farmer renowned for his athletic prowess, and vowed vengeance on Berkeley and his lackeys. On the evening of 18 January 1816 the group comprised farmers, local tradesmen, day labourers and an attorney, William Brodribb (who got the group to swear on the bible “not to peach”). They blackened their faces in an attempt at disguise, an act that itself could have led to hanging under the Black Act (1723), which also covered numerous other ‘crimes’, some directly linked to protest.
The group then progressed through Berkeley’s land, shooting at pheasants in an attempt to draw the Colonel’s gamekeepers into a fight. A gang of Berkeley’s hirelings confronted them and, after some posturing, it was agreed to hold fire. Both groups had cudgels though, and used gun butts to bash heads and break arms. Unsurprisingly, a gun did go off. There are numerous reports as to what exactly happened, but some gamekeepers were shot – and one was fatally injured.
The poachers retreated, and the gamekeepers carried their dying colleague back to base. Berkeley was said to be incensed, and raised more forces. He also sent for help to London, and a man named Vickery, one of the new Bow Street Runners (the first standing police force) was dispatched to help find the culprits. Berkeley and his gang surrounded homes and dragged men – many of them innocent – off to prison.
Allegedly, footprints leading to Allen’s farmhouse were preserved in the frost, and Berkeley and his thugs duly arrived. The deranged Colonel was waving a loaded pistol; unsurprisingly, Allen declined to go outside until this was put away. When Berkeley holstered his piece and Allen did step out, he was knocked down by the Colonel with a cudgel and dragged, with other local males, off to gaol.
Meanwhile Vickery was in Bristol, chasing down one of the gang, John Penny, to a large house by Park Street where he was hiding with his wife, a domestic servant. Vickery secured his prisoner, who created a hullabaloo while being dragged down Park Street. A crowd gathered and moves were made to free Penny, who shouted that he “was only taken for poaching” – something many would not have viewed as a crime.
Penny was subsequently charged with firing the fatal round, and Allen alleged to be the ringleader. Nine others shared the dock, including Brodribb. The dramatic case – with the defence pointing out the manner of Till’s death, the anger this had caused, and the law’s arbitrariness – was reported in newspapers nationwide.
The bitter end
But all 11 defendants were found guilty. The foreman of the jury supposedly choked back tears as the verdict was announced, and many people called for clemency. Even Berkeley asked for mercy for the nine – though not Penny or Allen, who were marked for execution and hanged on 18 April 1816.
Greenaway, one of the gang who turned King’s Evidence, had to leave his village; Berkeley found him another job farther away. Brodribb meanwhile secured better conditions than his fellows, who were transported to the colonies for life. He was eventually released and continued to act as an attorney in New South Wales.
Some of the gang disappeared, and there is strong evidence at least two sailed from Bristol to America, where they settled. Two hundred years on, the Berkeley family still owns the estate of the land around the castle.
- Steve Mills, Poaching in the South West, Bristol Radical History Publications (available in Hydra Books)
- Harry Hopkins, The Long Affray; The poaching wars in Britain (Faber and Faber, London, 2008)
- Edwin J Ford, The Great Berkeley Poaching Affray of 1816 (Gloucestershire, 2005)
- E.P Thompson, Whigs and Hunters, (Penguin, London, 1990 and Breviary Stuff)
Steve Mills is a member of the Bristol Radical History Group Collective, writing here in a personal capacity.