19th Century Game Laws; complicated and socially challenging. Jim McNeill, Stoke Ferry

The Game Laws of England in the 1800s derived from the Forest Laws set down at the time of the Norman Invasion (1066). Over the intervening 800 years such laws became fiendishly complex, and politcally and socially challenging. These challenges were felt no more strongly than in West Norfolk where the hunting of game was, on the whole, organised by the two Henry Villebois’, father and son, from their country seat of Marham House(1).
Between 1671-1831, a system of rank and property qualifications resulted in the landed classes having the exclusive right to pursue game. During this period no one could kill even a hare unless they possessed land worth £100 a year, or were the leasee of ninty-nine years of land worth £150 a year, or were the eldest son of an esquire or of higher social status, or were the owner of privilaged places such as a chase(2) or a warren, for example the large warrens of Shouldham and Methwold..
Naturally this meant the creation of a system where country gentlemen were preeminant in field sports. The law also provided them with game laws, which they wrote, and codes which allowed them as local magestraits to lay down the harshest of penalties for anyone illeagally taking game.
The Game Law Act of 1831 abolished the property qualifications element of social privalage and modified the severity of poaching laws. While this Game Law reform satisfied some elements in society there was still extreme bitterness held by tenant farmers and the rural poor who had seen the loss of their common lands and suffered under the effects of land enclosures and toll roads. This was felt nowhere more strongly than in West Norfolk.
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But first, when we speak of English Game Laws, exactly what game did they cover? One might think that they covered all animals and birds that could be hunted for sport, i.e. deer, rabbits, hares, partridges, pheasants, moor fowl, wild ducks, foxes, otters and badgers, but this was not strictly the case. The game laws only covered hares, partridges, pheasants and moor fowl; these were the only animals that were offered protection by legislation for the “preservation of game”. There were no property qualifications for the hunting of any other kind of animal. That said there were statutes which came into force that, under certain circumstances, made the taking of deer and rabbits illeagal.
So, why were only some animals covered by the Game Laws? Well, bagers, foxes and otters, although pursued for sport, were considered ‘vermin’ which preyed upon domestic fowl. As such, under common law, anyone had a right to protect their chickns, geese, ducks, etc by killing ‘vermin’. Though naturally, gentlemen hunters, especially as fox hunting increased in popularity during the 18th and 19th Centuries, took a very different view! Thus, as the hunting fraterity ensured that ‘vermin’ were preserved, there was no reason to pass any other law. Wild duck, on the other hand, which was only hunted at specific times of the year, was a rather different story. Wild duck hunting mainly took place on duck decoy farms. Found all along the coast of England, including the long coast of our county, decoy farms were areas created in order to attract wild ducks to land. As such, they were private property and the duck (now classed as semi-wild) became the direct property of the landowner who could hunt them as he/she wished. Thus, again, there was little need to bring in Game Laws for wild duck. Finally, why weren’t deer and rabbits covered by Game Laws? The answer lies in one word; ‘enclosure’. During the 18th and 19th Centuries land across England was ‘enclosed’ and its ownership came into the posession of a shrinking number of rich landowners who enclosed and ringfenced their lands with hedges. Hence, within enclosures, just as we see today as we walk along our local lanes, wild animals were resticted to specific areas where they could be bred and fed until the landowner permitted them to be hunted and killed. As such the animals, though not truly domesticated, could not considered to be wild or in need of legal protection and hence they became to be outside the scope of ‘game laws’. In law, wild animals were not considered to be anyone’s pesonal property, so, if a ‘poacher’ came onto the landowner’s property and killed a wild animal the landowner did not suffer a financial loss and the ‘poacher’ could only be charged with tresspass. The enclosure acts passed for each parish, changed this dramatically as the poached animal could be considered to be semi-wild and the landowner could prosecute under common law on the grounds of theft. They could also be assured that the local majistraite would also be most sympatheic, and the most draconian sentences were frequently laid down
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As stated earlier, The Game Law Act of 1831 abolished the land-ownership qualification for hunting, yet tenant farmers were still agrieved. They did not feel the Act truly addressed their issues. One reason was that the landed gentry so loved their hunting that the larger estate owners just transferred hunting rights to the same county squires who had organised the local hunts previous to the Act being passed.
At this time The West Norfolk Hunt was organised by Henry Villebois senior (1777-1847). He could afford the expense of running two packs of hounds, for foxes and deer, by using the fabulous wealth he obtained by being a senior share holder in the London-based Truman’s brewery. Villebois ran the hunt from his purposely built, 30 bedroomed mansion in Marham. In total he had an estate of some 1,200 acres and vast local hunting rights over a further 12,000 acres; particularly on the estate lands of the Hare and Berney families of Stow Bardolph and Barton Bendish, respectively (3). In 1831, his son, Henry Villebois junior (1807-86) married Maria Bagge at Stradsett. The Bagge family were the owners of the then recently remodelled Stradsett Hall with its newly enclosed and ringfenced estate. Thus the stage was set for a confrontation between the tenant farmers on these estates and the hunting fraternity.
But tenant farmers were in a difficult economic position. Firstly, they were not allowed to control the population of say pheasants and hares on the land they rented. Prior to 1831, under common law the game on his rented land belonged to him but the game laws excluded him from even touching such creatures! And, while the new Act gave him the rights to take game, his landlord could take away that right by selling those very gaming permissions to a third party, such as Henry Villebois. Thus the tenant had to endure: the effects of the ‘preservation of game’ which ate his crops; hunting across his lands; and the damage done not only by poachers but the gamekeepers and the ‘night-watchers’ who patrolled across his fields twenty-four hours a day. At the same time, should a tenant speak up or try to get payment for damage done to their crops, hedgerows, etc. they risked the ire of their gentleman landlord and the non-renewal of their tenancy. Their situation was made even more difficult if they had borrowed money from their landlord to bring about improvements on their land. Therefore, on the whole, although continually voicing their grievances between themselves the tenants did not feel that they could challenge their masters outright, rather they bit their tongues and touched their forelocks.
This situation changed when opposition to the Corn Laws of 1815-46 (4) became allied with a wider, popular campaign against the Game Laws. A concerted appeal was made to tenant farmers to speak out and air their deep-felt grievances. The argument was that the Corn Laws were only there to protect the interests of large landowners whilst tenant farmers were frustrated in their efforts to be more efficient and produce more grain by the very fact that the large landowners, through their Game Laws, promoted game which destroyed the very grains they grew. As the opponents to the Corn Laws stated, “Why is the people’s food devoured by game?”
By constant campaigning, the Anti-Corn Law League compiled data on the loss of grain due to the Game Laws. Through a series of public meetings they prepared and encouraged tenant farmers to speak their minds at a proposed parliamentary inquiry. At this, the sporting gentry of the country were up in arms. They feared the very idea of reform and refused to entertain any change which interfered with their traditional control of the parish by the county magistracy. And no one was more agitated and more furious than the High Sherriff of Norfolk and local magistrate, Mr Henry Villebois senior of Marham.
By sheer popular pressure, a select commission of inquiry was established in 1846 and Mr Villebois senior was called to give evidence. Villebois was asked about a Mr. Lock who had furnished information to the enquiry. Lock was a tenant farmer on the estates of the Berney family of Barton Bendish. Some years previously, Mr. Lock’s son had been taken to court at Downham Market by one of Villebois’ numerous gamekeepers on a charge he denied, that of shooting a pheasant on his father’s rented land. At the trial Villebois was one of the magistrates and, although he said he stood down while the case was heard, he stayed sitting on the bench. He no doubt felt safe that the remaining magistrates of William Bagge MP, with reserved game lands; Sir Thomas Hare, with reserved lands; Mr Bradfield, of Stoke Ferry, also with reserved lands; Rev. Gale Townley; Rev. Loftus; and Rev. Howman would reach a decision which he would find satisfactory. The son, who was defended by his father, was consequently found guilty of theft. When asked if he remembered Mr. Lock defending his son, Villebois answered, “To be sure he did, and I thought defended him rather too much, and was what we should call bumptious.” It was this last remark , applied to a generation of tenants starting to speak out and not ‘knowing their place’, that was then circulated in newspapers around the country. It was used as an example of the pomposity and arragance of the English sqirearchy. Mr. Lock also complained to the committee that three years earlier he had £4.11s.3d. of damage “done on six acres of mangle wurzel and 11½ acres of wheat” by the West Norfolk Hunt for which he had no compensation.
In the end, any enthusiasm the commission may have had for changing the Game Laws petered out as the Corn Laws themselves were abolished that same year. Hence the Game Laws of 1831 are still, to a large extent relevant today.
The other party which fiercely opposed 19th Century Game Laws was the disposed rural poor. Space permitting, I will write of them, poaching, and a little more on the Villebois family in the November edition of our excellent Village Pump.
(1) In 1846 Villebois senior stated to the Game Laws Commission that he first came to Norfolk in 1803 and he “had been purchasing [land] there ever since…the game took me to that country, and I have stuck there ever since”.
(2) A Chase: a type of common land used for hunting to which there are no specifically designated officers and laws but instead it has reserved hunting rights for one or more persons. It comes from the French word ‘chasse’ which means ‘hunt’.
(3) In fact Henry Villebois senior spent the summer months in his London mansion on Grosvenor Place, near Buckingham Palace. He only spent the winters in Norfolk where he his entire time consisted of hunting with his fox and deer hounds. As well as meeting at the kennels at Marham House, his hounds and gentlemen, both local and from across the county, met frequently at the windmill and ‘the field’ at Stoke Ferry; the Cock and the Swan inns at Methwold; Barton Bendish; Fincham; ‘The Hill’ at Whittington; Castle Acre, Pickenham; Friar’s Thorne and Town Barn, Swaffham; Feltwell, Gooderstone, Narford Hall, Houghton, etc.
(4) The Corn Laws were tariffs on imported food and grain (“corn”) enforced across the UK. The Corn Laws blocked the import of cheap grain, initially by stopping importation below a set price, and then by imposing high import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. These laws were opposed by the Anti-Corn Law League which was formed in 1839.

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