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Feather's Miscellany: The Gamekeeper And The Poacher

John Waddington-Feather tells the delicious tale of an old poacher who knew how to best a bullying gamekeeper.

Hipworth was about five miles south of Keighworth, on the edge of the moors going over the Pennines to Lancashire. There was only a matter of a few miles between Hipworth on one side of the Pennines and the next village in Lancashire on the other, yet there was a world of difference between them. The Lancastrians spoke a lightly different dialect. On the Lancashire side were cotton mills and on the Yorkshire side they wove wool. But one thing they shared was the same sense of humour. They were comical folk on both sides of the border and they were hard-headed.

Yet the villagers of Hipworth remained a race apart even on the Yorkshire side, more hard-headed, more parochial than any of the neighbouring villages. A succession of parsons had tried to make them couth, not without some success. One notable parson had managed to stop cock-fighting and dog-fighting within his parish bounds, dramatically as it turned out at the end. A powerful man he’d gone onto the moors where they held their fights on the Sabbath and had driven them back to church with his walking stick. He once took a donkey into the pulpit and told the congregation that the ass was all they were fit for to preach to them.

However, his final effort at stopping their cruel sport was when he threatened them with God’s wrath and prayed ardently against them in church. The following Sunday when the absentees were up to their usual tricks on the moors a violent thunderstorm broke and burst the bog above the hollow where the cock-fighting was taking place. Tons of mud poured down and engulfed them and three were drowned. After that, there was no more cock and dog fights; even the parson was shaken. He never prayed like that again.

But while Keighworth was growing into a town with its own mayor and council, Hipworth remained a village in the sticks and was eventually swallowed up by the Borough of Keighworth, which in turn was swallowed up by the Metropolitan City of Bradford many years later.
However, although boundary changes may have been drawn up by bureaucrats in London, they couldn’t change people in the provinces. Keighworthians remained Keighworthians and Hipworthians remained Hipworthians to the end of their days. Indeed, they only became more parochial.
There was a pub near the moors on the outskirts of Hipworth called “The Poacher’s Pocket”. It was frequented almost exclusively by locals and if anyone else blundered in, they soon blundered out such a frosty welcome was given them by the landlord and regulars alike. For generations the pub had been the local of farmers, gamekeepers – and poachers. The moors were rich in game, mainly grouse and hare, and as the country became more affluent, so more money was spent on grouse-shooting by wealthy syndicates from London and abroad.

The Hipworth farmers quickly realised there was much money to be made raising game birds and invested heavily. Of course, they had to employ more gamekeepers, who in turn had to watch out for more poachers. London game syndicates paid thousands to shoot over the moors during the grouse-shooting season. Local poachers paid nothing, but made rich pickings from their trade selling birds with no questions asked to upmarket restaurants in Leeds and Bradford.

There had always been a vendetta between the poachers and the gamekeepers. In the old days of squirearchy, when the landowners were also magistrates, poachers were flogged and sent down; sometimes deported to Australia, where they generally made good as sheep farmers when they’d served their sentence. Few came back to Hipworth. They knew which side their bread was buttered.
Although sentences became more lenient in later times, the feud between the gamekeepers and the poachers was just as intense. At the time of this story there was one gamekeeper particularly detested by the poachers. Ernest Fowler was loud-mouthed and arrogant. He prided himself at having brought the most poachers before the court and he also prided himself at having the best gun-dogs, which could smell a poacher a mile off. In fact, he’d booked every poacher for miles around except one – old Amos Bancroft, a small, wizened old man with a face like a walnut.

He was in “The Poacher’s Pocket” one night when Ernest Fowler popped into the snug with a new gun-dog. The gamekeepers considered themselves superior so drank in the lounge bar, leaving the snug to the poachers; but Fowler being the man he was sometimes went into the snug to rile those drinking there. It was a warm, summer night and the company had adjourned outside to tables by the duck-pond. It wasn’t long before Ernest Fowler began to brag.

He’d trained his new dog to perfection and it sat obediently by his side throughout the night. After his fourth pint, Fowler threw down the gauntlet. He bet any man there a fiver that he couldn’t make his dog obey him. Old Amos said nothing, only sipping his beer and squinting sourly over his mug at Fowler, as a young poacher took up the bet.

“You’re on!” said the youngster, placing his fiver alongside Fowler’s. He asked the landlord for a bone from the kitchen. The landlord obliged, bringing in a large, juicy bone with some meat still clinging to it. The poacher went up to the dog and held the bone under its nose before throwing it on to the grass. “Fetch it!” he ordered, but the dog sat stock still after a quick glance at its master.

“What did I tell you,” said Fowler triumphantly, picking up the poacher’s fiver. The poachers glared back at him sullenly but said nothing. “I thought you lot knew how to handle dogs,” he went on; then he said, “I’ll raise the stakes. A tenner for any one of you who makes my dog obey him.”

Another poacher took the bait and placed his money on the table before taking a dead rabbit from his bag and hurling it towards the dog. “Pick it up!” he ordered. But the dog didn’t budge an inch.

“Any more rabbits?” sneered the gamekeeper. “I’ll give you another go. Try again – free.”

The poacher didn’t take up his offer nor did anyone else. “So you’ve all given up?” goaded Fowler.

“I’ve bested you again.” Pocketing the notes, he looked around gloating. “I’ll tell you what, if any of you makes my dog do what you tell him, I’ll buy drinks all round.”

At this old Amos stood up and took two, greasy ten-pound notes from his pocket and put them on the table. “Ah bet thee twenty quid Ah can make thy dog do as it’s telld,” he croaked.

The gamekeeper laughed and put down two tenners. “Go on then,” he laughed. “Let’s see what an old codger like you can do?”

Amos slowly walked over to the dog and grabbed it by the scruff of its neck before it knew what was happening. He carried it snarling and growling to the duck-pond and threw it in. “Come out!” he ordered, and the dog swam to the side and got out, hurrying to its master and shaking itself all over him.

Amos hobbled back to the table and picked up his winnings. Then he turned to the gamekeeper and with wink said, “Drinks on thee all round, Fowler, eh?”

John Waddington-Feather ©

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