Rather as Einstein and Newton both expected to find a single simple solution at the heart of the problems of the universe, so there are those who would look to find a simple explanation for the flowering of the English landscape in the second half of the 18th century; and loud among competing voices are the grim shooting men of Norfolk, who claim that it was a response to the exponential increase in poaching through this period.
To stop up such voices would be misjudgment, better surely to redirect them from the cut-work of prejudice to fresher fields, wherein the springs of their enthusiasm may be more fruitfully irriguous.
Mr B of Melton Mowbray and though mighty in his own way, no relation of that marvellous gardener, Capability Brown, is one such, and here, for his benefit, is the best I can do by way of stating the case.
The Game Laws were designed to restrict the right of killing or catching game to landowners and game-keepers, such as Henry Smith at Wycombe Abbey. The basic qualifications for this license had been brought in in the 17th century and were £100 p.a. from a freehold estate, £150 p.a. from 99-year leases, being the son of an esquire etc.
All the evidence shows that the trouble with the 17th century game laws in the 18th century was not that guns were getting too sophisticated, but that too many people were carrying and using them. The law was not applied, and the numbers of game (that is, partridge) were suffering in consequence.
Though poaching long predated the century, the rate at which Game Acts were passed in the 18th has a well-nigh hysterical accelerando. Those of 1707 and 1723 increased the penalties for poaching to hanging if the poacher was armed and had blackened his face. The Act of 1755, forbad all buying and selling of hares, partridge and pheasant. During the reign of George III (1760-1820) a further thirty-two new Game Laws were passed. But rather than reading these acts as an indication of the degree to which estates were becoming private, and better stocked with game, they could be read as a response to the increase in the number of people carrying guns, whether by right or not, and in the efficacy of the guns, and hence their incursions into privileges hitherto regarded as limited to the well-off. It is this interpretation that shows how vexed an issue poaching might have become.
While the £100 p.a. rule worked, birds could be raised in the park, released and shot outside it, gentlemen’s rules would apply (viz. one would expect a certain restraint in shooting birds not on one’s own land), but as the demand on shooting increased with increasing wealth and increasing numbers of guns, a new rule had to be brought in to make it illegal to shoot on someone else’s land. This was understandably resented by the landless as an assault on liberty, and, when the anti-poaching laws failed to have the required effect on their own (as the frequency of their reintroduction attests), the confinement of birds and of shooting to one’s own land naturally followed – and thence came the whole rigmarole of keepering as policing, and class war.
There is support for this idea – the incursion of the riff-raff was the substance of John Byng’s tirade of 1789, ‘When Isaak Walton was an angler, he walk’d out near London, and caught his fish … now, go where you will, every one is a sporter, alias poacher; every market place is overrun by grey hounds and pointers; and all people say that the game is not preserv’d! If an estate, on which I shou’d reside, were left to me, I shou’d, at first, endeavour to preserve the game, and fish; but if I found that impossible, that they were deem’d ferae naturae, and that every person was abroad after them; why then … I would make a general destruction; poison every fish; destroy every nest; and unfairly demolish every hare…’
Byng’s sporting world, namely a free-for-all for gentlemen, was threatened by the uncouth. P.B.Munsche found a steady increase in the tension between land-owners and poachers from 1750, but there is no evidence that this tension led immediately to the reorganisation of estates. While shooting was available anywhere, Byng did most at his uncle’s seat, Southill, where presumably he had carte blanche, and no doubt it was the done thing for non-poachers to seek permission, as the great man, Capability Brown himself, did unsuccessfully at Wallington.
By the mid-19th century on the other hand, driven shooting in the modern style, with parties of guns and high-flying birds, was playing a leading part in country house life, and would affect both architecture and landscape. The keeper became king – anyone who has tried to do any planting, felling or fencing on a shooting estate in this century or the last will attest to the impossibility of making any change that does not have his approval. Naturally the great increase in the numbers of birds required, would have attracted the attention of poaching gangs, which would only have turned to pheasants when these were bred in large numbers and in confined areas. This would in turn have encouraged a greater centralisation of bird-rearing within the security of the parkland, and the easiest place to shoot high numbers of birds will have been near the release pens. It is in the context of this development that we may place the keeper shot by poachers in the belt at Southill in 1805, and the shoot in the Laurels, just outside the pleasure ground, but within the Great Park, at Ampthill in 1818, was probably replicated throughout the kingdom, until in 1837 Laurence Rawstorne could illustrate ‘Penwertham and the commencement of a battue’, which showed a shooting party on the lawns of the great house, as the frontispiece to his book Gamonia: or, the Art of Preserving Game.