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Words In History: Gamekeeper

Historian George Redmonds reveals that the original meaning of "gamekeeper'' was rather different to that which we now attribute to the word.

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Dictionaries define the gamekeeper as a person employed on a large estate whose job it was to take care of the wild animals and prevent poaching. They concentrate on the nineteenth-century meaning of the word and emphasise the professional gamekeeper's skill in woodcraft. However, the original meaning of the word is rather different.

In a sense there have been game keepers from at least the Middle Ages, when parkers and warreners protected or kept the animals on the lord's estate, but the word itself passed into common usage only after 1671, when the Game Act came into force and made hunting the exclusive privilege of the landed gentry.5 The first OED reference to gamekeeper is from that Act, but the word had apparently been used before then on the king's estates, and Royal gamekeepers had long had the right to prevent people of 'meane qualitie' from taking the king's game. These Royal gamekeepers were themselves privileged members of the upper classes.

The passing of the Act was really a triumph by the country gentry, not only over the king but also over all those with non-landed wealth. From 1671 lords of manors were authorised to employ one or more gamekeepers, and these men had the right to take and seize the guns, nets and other hunting * engines of unqualified persons, however wealthy they might be. In real terms sporting privilege had been transferred from the king to the landed gentry, and so had the preservation of the game. Not surprisingly, in such a tight-knit social group, there was a tendency to appoint gamekeepers from within their own ranks. In 1733, for example, Dame Anne Kaye of Woodsome Hall 'appointed Sir John Lister Kaye of Denby Grange her gamekeeper';6 in 1738 the Rev. Mr Philip Kitchon was 'appointed gamekeeper to Thomas Bright and Mrs Mary Lowther, for the Mannors of Marton, Tolthorpe and Nunthorp'.7 These were hardly gamekeepers as we now understand the word, but persons of considerable social status and this gave them the authority to confiscate weapons and enforce the property qualifications of the Game Acts.

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