“Let John Bull calculate the number of men, with their wives and families, sacrificed at every Quarter Session, to the idols of the landlord: to his hares, his pheasants and his partridges”.
Anon, for good reasons.
The Game Laws were not just a simple piece of class based legislation forbidding the rural poor from taking pheasant, partridge, hares and rabbits from the lands of the aristocracy. It was a moral issue as well, and not the issue of poor people going hungry when food was available on the land.
The Morning Post in July 1816 reported on the thoughts of some members of Parliament. The aristocracy had become richer since the original Game laws were introduced and they were now more relaxed about people taking from their land. Game would be given away as part of the obligations of a long standing aristocracy; it was noted that the newer owners of land were less interested in either giving away game or even owning it. This put the poor in moral danger; they could take food from the land of the rich with impunity and make a living out of the property of others. The strong belief seemed to be that the poor only worked if they had to; starvation was motivation; those who plundered the aristocratic estates would not want to work again; they would end up being transported and depriving the country of their labour, or worse still, hanged. If they were in prison then their relatives would have to be supported by charity. People had to be punished to protect property and morality, not to help the hare.
The poor could not eat the game, but the game could eat the poor. Peasants and partridges would eat his grain; rabbits would consume his grass and hares would attack his parsnips and he could do nothing about it. The New Monthly magazine reported that some landowners would not even allow small boys to chase off rooks, in case there was a precious game bird among them. A hard working farmer whose rental was more that 40/- (£2) a year could vote for a representative in the most esteemed of parliaments, while he had to have £100 to even consider killing a partridge, even if the land was his own.
The law was passed in July 1816 with the same robust punishments that were used to protect property. Few people were actually transported to Australia for the maximum of 7 years, but the code was bloody enough. There was a crime wave after 1815, but not much of that was poaching- indeed Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore quoted research that suggested only 3% of transportees were poachers. The Game Laws, while protecting property like the rest of the law, was also protecting a principle.
Some newspaper examples include William Peachy of Saffron Walden was given six months hard labour and imprisonment; he had been spotted on the land of Lord Bristol between the hours of 8pm and 7am. Although nobody saw any poaching, the mere fact that he was on the land with a gun was enough to convict him. The witnesses were in grave danger themselves- rather like smuggling, poaching was not seen as a crime in the community, and those who colluded in catching poachers would have to be paid to do so.The person watching him also felt the need to show great discretion, for as the only witness, he could not be sure that the two men would not kill him to avoid the new punishment
Peachy’s partner in property crime- John Rayner was also found guilty. He has previously done a week in prison for owning an unlicensed hunting dog- a Lurcher. Moses Johnson of Flint was given the same punishment. Ownership of a dog in a location where you were not known was suspicion enough for some gamekeepers, ant that suspicion was good enough for Justices of the Peace
Punishments varied, but you could expect a £5-£20 fine for being caught with nets and snares but no game, or hiding game at home, and three months minimum in prison if found in the act of killing. Many poachers ended up in prison for not being able to pay the fine. Your chances of being transported depended on whether you were thought to be in an organised gang, or were caught with a gun at night trespassing on private property. On one occasion, baskets of dead rabbits were traced back to the person who had put them on the stagecoach and the miscreant fined £5 per corpse.
Game was no increasingly transported to urban areas as foodstuff. The laws were a vain last attempt to stop game being treated like another commodity. A proto-capitalist market was developing, and the authorities seemed determined to stop it. There was a demand for game but little supply, so it seems that much of the poaching that took place was done by poachers and corrupt games keepers who would send these to market.
It was a little similar to the modern drugs trade .Opponents of the Game Law pointed out that the main cause of poachers was the demand of people for the food, especially the new rich who held no land but wanted to consume game, and that the London Poulterers were the biggest connivers in breaking the law. Often, it was the aristocrats themselves who bought game while in London, knowing them to be de facto stolen goods. However, the 1816 game laws were silent about those who stimulated demand by buying it.
The fact that the authorities were aware of this, and the judiciary was more than ready to make an example of those people moving the contraband, shows that they were aware of the developing market. Some magistrates argued that the Game Laws increased the price of game, which in turn encouraged more poaching; the law was the fatal combination of ineffectual and counterproductive. It seems that some people were arguing for a free, capitalist market in products, with licenses issued to those renting the land to those owning the land. Most people, especially those in power, thought that draconian punishment was the answer. In an era when the free market and the class of the landless rich were slowly and painfully being formed, this was a backward looking law.
There is more about the treatment of the poor in my book, below.
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