Savernake Forest poachers: a true tale from the past of a crooked informant & how a miscarriage of justice was overturned
Last week marlborough.news reported on police successes in arresting poachers in Wiltshire...poaching is a crime with a long and intriguing history in the county - and in our area:
Southgrove Wood (now known as Southgrove Copse) lies just south of Burbage. In 1787 it was part of the Earl of Ailesbury's estate and like other areas of the estate was subject to frequent forays by gangs of poachers - often armed.
Letters written by John Ward, the Earl's steward, legal documents and local newspapers reveal a story of a violent affray at Southgrove Wood - and of perjury, a miscarriage of justice and an astonishing campaign by the Earl and others to put that miscarriage to rights - 'in a very extraordinary manner'.
The story is told in a paper by Colleen McDuling and Tony Pratt in the recently published 2018 edition of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine. The paper is based largely on documents held at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives.
Southgrove Wood - and especially its game - was looked after by keeper Robert Blundy, who lived there with his family in a remote cottage. At 10 o'clock on the night of Saturday, 6 January 1787, Blundy and his family were held at gunpoint inside their home, while between ten and twenty men were 'scouring the Wood and shooting the Game.'
Later that month, the Earl's head keeper reported he needed five or six keepers to protect the pheasants at Bloxham, Little Bedwyn. Then, at the end of the month, two of the Earl's keepers were 'almost murdered' by poachers at Horsal Hill Coppice not far north of Tottenham House.
At John Ward's insistence, Lord Ailesbury advertised a £50 reward (about £3,000 in today's money) for information leading to convictions. An informant, William Ward (no relation), provided names. Following dawn raids to arrest the men, John Ward organised the prosecution of two men for the Southgrove incident: John Tarrant and Robert Viner.
With no police force and no prosecuting authority, Ward and the chosen attorney (equivalent to today's barrister), Sergeant-at-Law Soulden Lawrence, brought the Horsal and Southgrove cases forward at Salisbury Assizes.
The case against Tarrant and Viner was heard by Justice Buller on 14 March. Tarrant and Viner were found guilty and got three years in gaol - and as Tarrant was the leader of the gang, he was also fined £20. In addition they had to find sureties for their good behaviour for seven years following their release.
However, just two weeks later doubts were raised about the case. A local Justice of the Peace, Charles Dundas, told Lord Ailesbury about "several persons who are willing to declare upon oath that they were the persons guilty of that very daring offence committed in your Lordship's copse of Southgrove."
Edward Lawrence, the leader of the gang, told Dundas "...he would rather be confined or pay any fine than to allow innocent persons to suffer for this offence." Ailesbury's legal adviser was none too impressed: "It is laughable to hear such a set of rascals confessing their own guilt...talking about their fine feelings and depression of spirits." But, a little reluctantly, he did allow it could be true.
Dundas - obviously a man of action - collected evidence proving the conviction unsound - and especially proving Tarrant was at home in Froxfield on the night of the Southgrove affray.
Martha Hobbs swore that Tarrant "...was at home from seven in the Evening until Eleven when he (being mostly undressed) let her out of his House to go home on her own." No wonder she had not come forward earlier!
She heard him lock his door and on her way home heard Froxfield's alms house clock strike eleven.
Dundas also found that Mrs Blundy's identification of Tarrant had been quite blatantly prompted. After months of letters to and fro between Ailesbury, Dundas and various lawyers, the Home Secretary - on behalf of the King - gave Tarrant and Viner a free pardon and immediate release from jail.
Perhaps the strangest part of the whole story is that we do not know what happened next. There is no evidence that William Ward was charged with his perjury or had to return the £50 reward or that Lawrence and his mates were prosecuted.
The detail of the cases published in the Magazine is fascinating and gives a clear and unusual insight into life, crime and the law in the Savernake area in the late eighteenth century.
And in an era when capital punishment was the required sentence for many crimes, some quite paltry and including some poaching offences, it is reassuring to find a JP and a wealthy landowner setting this particular injustice to rights.
Founded in 1853, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society (WANHS) publishes an annual journal - known as the Magazine. The current issue - No. 111 - also contains a special section on six recent discoveries illustrating 'Wiltshire's responses to the First World War' and a 'Documentary history of Easton [Royal] Priory & Hospital'.
The Magazine is free to WANHS members. Next summer this issue will be available for non-members to buy - from the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes which is run by the WANHS. You can become a member of the Society via their website: http://www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/membership/
This issue - and a complete set of the Magazine's previous issues - can be read at the Museum.
FOOTNOTE: Local historians may object that the gate house at Froxfield shown above dates from after 1787. This one was built early in the nineteenth century. It is now being renovated.