HL Deb 24 June 1862 vol 167 cc975-80

rose to inquire if Her Majesty's Government are prepared to bring in any measure this Session to suppress the Evils of Night Poaching. He should on another occasion go into this question, but meanwhile he would remind their Lordships of the present prevalence of these offences and their great increase during the last year. He held in his hand a report of the number of poachers known to reside in the county of Leicester. The number was 927, of whom 144 had been convicted of felony, 54 had been charged with felony, and 525 had been previously convicted of poaching. By other returns from various counties it appeared that in the four months of the year from October 1st, 1860, to February 1st, 1861, there were twenty-nine murderous attacks upon keepers, 198 persons being concerned in those attacks; and in the three months from the 1st of October, 1861, to January, 1862, there were no fewer than 188 murderous attacks on keepers, 456 persons being engaged in them. Possibly these figures might not be quite correct; but at any rate, if they were even approximately correct, they showed a great increase in the prevalence of these crimes. It was against the privileges of this House to bring any arms into the House, but he had taken the liberty of putting in the robing-room two implements taken from poachers a short time since which would show how effective they were for the taking of game as well as for the destruction of life.


said, he was not able to give the noble Lord any other answer than that he had given a few nights ago, that it was not the intention of the Government to bring in a measure this Session for the suppression of night poaching, or for giving greater power to the police than they at present possessed with regard to poaching. He thought it was undesirable that the police should be made use of in the preservation of game, and it would be quite impossible that they should be so employed as to prevent attacks of this kind. With regard to the statistics which had been quoted by the noble Lord, it did not appear that persons engaged in poaching were habitually guilty of other crimes; for from a Return published by the other House he found that out of the whole number of persons convicted of felony in England and Wales only one per cent had been previously convicted of offences against the game laws. This did not appear to coincide with the figures quoted by the noble Lord.


said, he had listened with great regret to the answer of the noble Earl, and he assured the Government that this was not a question simply regarding the support or maintenance of the game laws, but that it was intimately connected with the peace of the rural districts and the amount of crime there. He could speak from his own experience on this point, having been obliged this year to prosecute to conviction three persons for murderous attacks upon his keepers. The weapons used were stones and pitchforks, and gangs of fourteen or fifteen persons were engaged in these attacks. One of the keepers was left for dead on the ground, and one of the poachers actually returned and stabbed him with a pitchfork as he was lying, in order to make his death more certain. The keeper, however, recovered from these dreadful injuries; but, he believed, the man who stabbed him was not ultimately convicted. The noble Earl said it was very undesirable that the police in counties should be mixed up with the preservation of game. Now, he did not wish that the police should be called upon to assist in the preservation of game, but he spoke with a knowledge of the facts when he said that in his own neighbourhood there were six or seven well-known and well-organized gangs of men, who had plenty of honest employment if they wished as colliers and labourers—they were not driven to poaching by necessity—but who preferred to collect in gangs of from six up to twenty men, armed with pitchforks and other weapons, and engage in night poaching. These men were well known to the police, who, if you mentioned one of their names, could tell you all his companions. They were often seen by the police with nets and with weapons, going out to engage in poaching. No possible doubt could exist as to their intentions, and the arms with which they were supplied showed that they were prepared to do something more than merely take game, and that they were also ready to take away life, if necessary, in the pursuit of game. In the morning they were again met by the police, laden with the produce of their night's toil. In one case which he had heard of, the poachers even had a donkey cart, filled with rabbits, and they robbed an old woman's orchard of apples, with which they covered the rabbits in order to conceal them. The police saw these men going out night after night and returning morning after morning; yet, as the law now stood, or as the law was now interpreted, the police had no power to stop these men, and there were no means of preventing the forcible taking of game except by the use of corresponding force on the part of the keepers. It was lamentable that if a person wished to do that which the law authorized him to do—keep game upon his estate—he could do so by no other means than by maintaining in his employ a large armed force at the risk of nightly encounters and loss of life. Now, if the simple course recommended by his noble Friend were adopted—if the rural police were empowered to do what the metropolitan police now did — stop persons on the high road who were in possession of goods, of whatever description, which were believed to have been unlawfully obtained, and compel the persons so stopped to account satisfactorily for the possession of these goods, he ventured to say that, with the knowledge which the police had of all the persons connected with this trade — persons who carried it on as a regular trade, and who were in no distress whatever—nine-tenths of the poaching by armed gangs would be put a stop to. What was of more importance, also, was that the risk of constant encounters between armed bodies and those who were defending the property of their employers would be avoided. The noble Earl (Earl Granville) had alluded to the small number of poachers who had been convicted of other offences. He was not aware whence the noble Earl derived his information; but he was quite certain that throughout the country the general belief was, that persons who once took to poaching as a habit would not stop at poaching; and if they could not find game, the next thing they did was to steal poultry, and next break into houses. He believed that a vast number of petty robberies were committed by persons who in the first instance had connected themselves with these gangs; and he was satisfied that the measure which was in force in the metropolitan districts would, if extended to the rural districts, have a beneficial result upon the peace of the country—this being, as he said, of much greater importance than the preservation of any amount of game. Not one in a hundred of the poachers throughout the country was driven to it by distress; but the men taken up for poaching were mostly idle and drunken persons, who wore not fit objects for the public commiseration that was often bestowed upon them. The prevalence of gangs of this description had been attributed to over-preservation. He (the Earl of Derby) differed so far from that statement, that he felt satisfied that it was where preservation was only half carried out that poaching chiefly prevailed; and therefore persons who largely preserved, and had a large force of keepers, ran the risk of exposing their men to serious injury and loss of life, whereas persons who preserved only moderately gave encouragement to poachers to come upon their grounds. He felt sure that before long Her Majesty's Government would be called upon to provide a remedy for evils which had now become intolerable. The noble Earl would not deny that Her Majesty's Government had received the strongest representations from those most interested in the peace of the country—the heads of the constabulary and the rural police—not only as to the extent of the evil, but as to its connection with other crimes and irregularities in districts where poaching prevailed.


need not say that he agreed in every word which had fallen from his noble Friend; and it was with the wish that this conviction should be forced upon their Lordships' attention by evidence that he now asked the question of which he had given notice, whether his noble Friend had any objection to the production of the Correspondence on the subject of Night Poaching that had taken place between the Secretary to the Home Department and the chief constables of counties in England? He understood that the chief constables had made a communication which was of great value; and he did not despair that the Government would sooner or later improve the law with respect to the preservation of game, by giving to the police in the county the same powers that they possessed in the metropolitan districts. His noble Friend opposite had said he did not think it desirable that the game laws should be carried out by the police hand-in-hand with the keepers, and in that he (the Earl of Malmesbury) perfectly agreed. But the police ought to have the same power that they had now with regard to fisheries under the Salmon Fisheries Act which passed last year. That Act was now carried out by the agency of the police. There was no difference in principle between the preservation of fish and the preservation of game—both matters came under the same category; and therefore he did not think it was a good argument to say that the police should not interfere in the way proposed by his noble Friend behind him (Lord Berners), when they had been ordered to do so in the preservation of English fisheries.


desired to draw their Lordships' attention to the fact that there were 270 new cases of poaching in the books of the Cheshire constabulary. Surely this was a case which required an immediate remedy. The law was broken, not by individuals for individual purposes, but by organized gangs, who subsisted by poaching, and this led to murderous conflicts. A remarkable document had been presented to the Government in the shape of a memorial, signed by twenty-eight chief constables of counties; and it was hard to over estimate the amount of collateral crime and misery which resulted from the infraction of the game laws. Of the crime the report could speak; but of the misery, alas! no report existed; but there was no noble Lord, no landowner, who did not know the amount of wretchedness which arose from this single cause. Not only were the poachers themselves a miserable body of men, but they often involved their unfortunate wives and children in the results of their crimes. The daily infraction of law was admitted, and surely the Legislature was bound either to repeal the law or to take such means as would render that law effective. One course was to give power to compel people who had game in their possession to show that they came honestly by it; and another was to compel persons who dealt in game to keep books, like dealers in marine stores. These regulations would make the trade of poaching more risky and less profitable, and in that proportion diminish crime.


was understood to say that there was no objection to produce the Correspondence asked for by the noble Earl. The figures he had quoted were taken from a Return that had been made to the House of Commons. The Government had no intention of opposing the introduction of the Bill referred to by the noble Lord (Lord Berners).


, accordingly moved an Address for— Copy of a Memorial addressed to the Secretary of State in December 1861, by the Chief Constables of Twenty-eight Counties in England and Wales, on the Subject of the Game Laws: And also, Copy of the Report of the Chief Constable of Huntingdonshire to the last Court of Quarter Sessions held for that County on the Subject of the Game Laws.

Motion agreed to.