Night Poaching Exploits of George Debnam

Poacher's Graffiti, York Castle, 1830s

Apologies to descendents of George Debnam, who may stumble on this.   Not sure how I’d feel if this was my ancestor – yet it is one intriguing aspect to genealogy.You never really know what you’re going to find.

I wanted to find out more about the man my ancestor John Fisher was (allegedly) assaulted by, in January 1833. Was he really a poacher? And if he was… Was he just taking the odd one for the pot – or was he poaching large scale, to order?

It seems Debnam was a poacher and a bit more. He was even suspected of being in a notorious house-breaking gang, some of whom had been caught and transported for life. He and “Irish Bill” were only indicted on night poaching charges. Although found not guilty of assaulting my ancestor John Fisher (who seems to have sustained a broken arm in the assault), Debnam went on to assault another watcher with a hedge stake, and threatened more than one with a loaded gun. At these dates, if a poacher didn’t immediately put down his gun, that was a 14 year transportation sentence, right there. So Debnam’s short sentences and reduced sentences and not guilty verdict in our case,  are puzzling.

I went in search of Debnam, and found…this.

FURIOUS ASSAULT BY A POACHER
We have this week to record another of those lamentable occurrences arising out of the Game Laws…which happened on Tuesday last, near Shipton, about six miles from this city. On the afternoon of that day, George Lund, one of the watchers on Lord Downe’s estate, was out in a field…  He came up with two poachers, named Thomas Scruton and George Debnam; the latter presented a loaded gun, which was at full cock, over the gate at Lund, threatening to shoot him, but providentially, his resolution failed him in fulfilling this diabolical threat. Both the poachers, however, rushed upon him, and one of them knocked him down with a hedge stake, which cut him over the head in such a manner, as to render his removal to the County Hospital necessary. Mr Tindal, the head game-keeper, immediately came to this city and procured a warrant, which was placed in the hands of Mr Pardoe, superintendent of police for execution; but they have hitherto evaded detection … Our readers will remember that Lund had, last year, a narrow escape of his life, whilst following the same occupation. A gun was discharged from behind a bush, and shot off his thumb…William Hodgson was tried at the last assizes with intent to murder, but the evidence not being sufficient for conviction, he was acquitted of the charge.

The York Herald, Saturday, February 18, 1837

GEORGE DEBNAM (25) Indicted for misdemeanour, in having on the 14th of February at Skelton,  in the North Riding, feloniously assaulted and wounded George Lund… – Guilty.

The Hull Packet, Friday, March 17, 1837

The Leeds Mercury for the following day, has same report with “sentence deferred”.

GEORGE DEBNAM, convicted on an assault upon George Lund, gamekeeper to Lord Downe, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in the Castle.

The Sheffield Independent, Saturday, March 25, 1837

POACHING IN CASTLE HOWARD WOODS
In our last week’s Herald, we noticed the fact of two noted poachers being committed to York Castle, for poaching in Castle Howard woods, on 24th March . The following facts…have since come to our knowledge. It appears that late on the night in question, the watchers of the Earl of Carlisle had heard several reports of a gun and had laid in wait for the poachers, in the ‘Ox Pasture Wood’. They had not lain long before they came, three of them, close up, when the watchers sprung upon them, and captured two of them, the other person making his escape by taking to his heels. They took the two prisoners to the Castle, one of whom gave his name as John Sherwood, but his real name is George Debnam, and the other, William Trainer, alias “Irish Bill”, two well known characters of York. One of them had a gun in his possession, and from both were taken six pheasants, about 140 snares, and two game nets. The next day Mr Wilson, police officer, Malton, was sent for, and took them into custody…and…committed them to York Castle. They are believed to form part of a gang, four of whom were transported for life , at our last assizes, for the burglary at Old Byland, near Helmsley.

The York Herald, Saturday, April 6th, 1839

A LIST OF THE PRISONERS IN YORK CASTLE –
2 & 3 – JOHN SHERWOOD, whose real name is GEORGE DEBNAM, of York, and WM. TRAINER, alias “Irish Bill”, charged with night poaching on the 24th March last, in Ox Pasture Wood, the property of the Earl of Carlisle, in the township of Bulmer.

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Saturday, July 06, 1839

NIGHT POACHING – John Sherwood (28) and Wm Tramer [sic] (27), pleaded guilty of night poaching near Castle Howard, on the 24th of March last; and were sentenced to be imprisoned one year each to hard labour.

The Bradford Observer, Thursday, July 18, 1839

John Sherwood who had been sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment for poaching, was called up, and his Lordship, in consequence of the strong recommendations of his neighbours in his favour, reduced his sentence to imprisonment at hard labour for six months.

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Saturday, July 27, 1839

Other Traces of George:

IGI: George Debnam married Elizabeth Bell, 18th September, 1832 at   Saint Margaret’s, York.

3 month conviction for assault recorded in the Criminal Registers. tried 4.3. 1837. Under “Degree of instruction” (ie: how well educated), he is only one on page that says “Well”.

1841 Census: Palmer Lane, St Saviour’s, York, occupation illegible – could be “porter2,, “painter” or “pauper”. Age 36. Wife, Eliza 34, and children Frederick 9, and Robert, 6.  Where born is “N” (ie: not in Yorkshire).

1851 Census: 15 Lowther St, St Crux, Elizabeth Debnam is a widow, 39 (only aged 5 years in a decade!) and gives her trade as ‘glover’. Sons Frederick and Robert are still with her, and two visitors, Dennis O’Mearra from Dublin, and George Epps from Maidstone, Kent.

There is a George Debnam of York in the death index for summer quarter, 1853. I am not sure if this is him. Possibly not, as Elizabeth claims to be a widow in 1851. However, he may have been transported, or disappeared, or been elsewhere under the name of Sherwood, or  another alias, so we can’t be entirely sure.

Oddly, there was a man called John Sherwood, born in 1806, in Bulmer, the very parish where Debnam poached on the Castle Howard estate. But this does appear to be an entirely separate person. Whether Debnam knew him and chose his name as a pseudonym, or it was just a huge coincidence, we can’t know.

Fisticuffs, 1833 Style.

My favourite ancestor, John Fisher, has just done it again, and given me another glimpse into his life, and personality. And what a personality.

I thought I had found everything there was to find, on John. After all, few 19thC farm labourers left much of a paper trail. I counted myself lucky to find his words at the December, 1833 inquest.

It turns out, searches of British Newspapers Online, are maybe less exact than I’d thought. Last night, I stumbled on another newspaper item from 1833, concerning John. I have done these same searches many times, but never found this til now.  I should say that in every census, and in parish records, John is simply down as ‘Labourer’ or ‘Agricultural Labourer’. Now I not only have more detail, I know at least one of his employers (and some of their records from this date exist), I found out his nickname, and best of all… Yet more of his own actual words.

Committed to the Castle (ie: prisoners on remand in York Castle) – Richard Goodricke and Thomas Pearson, of Fulford, charged with unlawfully entering Moreby-wood, in the parish of Stillingfleet, armed with guns for the purpose of destroying game; and charged also with violently assaulting John Fisher and George Wrightson, gamekeepers to Henry Preston, Esq., of Moreby Hall.”

The York Herald, Saturday, January 12, 1833

There were two major landowners round here; Henry Preston, and Paul Beilby-Thompson. The victims of the Stillingfleet tragedy in 1833 had their funeral paid for by the latter. Preston was mired in a rather vituperative dispute about paying tithes at this time, and at loggerheads with David Markham, the Stillingfleet vicar. Knowing John Fisher was a church singer, great grandson of a former parish clerk with close ties to the church, I guessed John was more likely to be employed on the Thompson estate, than the Prestons’.

Preston was famous locally for having a stove installed in his pew in the church. If the vicar got boring or his sermon went on too long – he’d poke the fire vigorously. In the1830s, Preston had enough of being robbed of a tenth of his considerable income by the church (landowners still paid tithes then), and started bombarding relevant authorities with a petition to have his tithes reduced. David Markham became the enemy.

Moreby Wood was close to the river, and coincidentally, it was from Henry Preston that the Turners had stolen roofing lead, a couple of years earlier. John Turner was to die that Boxing Day night on the river in 1833. His brothers had been found Not Guilty of stealing the lead, despite it being found in their boat and there being witnesses. Preston was a JP and one of the most powerful men in Yorkshire. Yet it seemed hard for anyone to be convicted of anything on his land – maybe because the law had to be seen to be impartial, so Preston, who often headed the county’s Grand Jury, had to step away from involvement in cases where he was victim.

In other words: being a gamekeeper for Preston would be a dangerous job in the 1830s.  The Preston estate, like the Thompsons’, had a Head gamekeeper, under keeper, and several reliable local labourers would be employed as watchers. These would be men who were loyal, handy with a gun, could lay (and spot) traps, track, were observant, etc. They’d come and go from the gun rooms and servants’ halls, so they had to be trustworthy.  It says a lot for John and Richard that they were employed as Preston’s watchers.

Gamekeepers were occasionally murdered in the course of their work.  In 1835, Thomas Robinson, the keeper at nearby Kexby, on land also owned by Beilby-Thompson, was found lying face-up on a rabbit warren, with his throat cut from ear to ear. Robinson had his double barrelled shotgun with him when he set out at 4.a.m.  The magistrate who handled the case initially was none other than Henry Preston Esq., himself. Robinson’s gun was found half a mile away, as it was customary for gamekeepers to lay down their guns if pursuing poachers. Brits generally, not just farmers, poachers and keepers, in the 1830s, were armed.  We forget that, sometimes. It had been a time of unrest.

Thomas Summers, the head keeper at Moreby, lived in the same stand of cottages in Stillingfleet as John; they were called “Who’d Have Thought It”. This suggests to me that maybe Preston, not Beilby-Thompson as I had assumed, built that now lost stand of cottages.

How do I know the assault victim is ‘my’ John Fisher? In 1833, there were three John Fishers in Stillingfleet. My grt X 4 grandfather, John Fisher Sr, born 1764 so a bit elderly to be gamekeeper, at nearly 70 years of age (also, he lived in Kelfield); John Fisher born 1793, who was brother to my Great X 3 grandma, Mary Fisher; and John’s son, another John, who was only 15. This is how I am certain these are the words of my ‘favourite’ ancestor, the middle John Fisher. The case took 3 months to come to trial. Sessions were quarterly, so this is about the maximum wait on remand the poachers could have had. Fulford is now a suburb of York, on the outskirts.

Moreby Hall was one of the houses the Church Singers visited that night, 11 months after this incident, and the last place they sung before getting into that ill-fated little boat and rowing back upriver. On the same boat,  Turner, whose brothers and nephew had tried to steal Preston’s roofing lead; and Fisher and Toes, who watched Prestons’ woods occasionally. It must have made for an interesting atmosphere. Richard Toes was to be one of the three survivors of the disaster, along with John and George Eccles.  Toes was the man who survived because he was tangled up in the rope, with John. Seems the night on the Ouse wasn’t their first brush with death, out Moreby way.

“THURSDAY MARCH 14th

NIGHT-POACHING AT STILLINGFLEET

RICHARD GOODRICKE, (aged 30), of Fulford; Thomas Pearson (46) of the same place; and George Debnam of Walmgate, York,  were charged with entering an enclosed ground, (the property of Henry Preston., Esq., of Moreby), in the night-time, armed with guns, with intent to destroy game.

MR. DUNDAS and MR.BLANSHARD were counsel for the prosecution: MR COTTINGHAM appeared for Goodricke and Debnam, and MR.MILNER for Pearson.

[One counsel raises an objection about the wording of the indictment. Judge over-rules him, and the case begins].

John Fisher (examined by Mr. BLANSHARD).

I am an occasional watcher of game to Henry Preston., Esq., of Moreby Hall. I was out on the 3rd of January last, about half past one in the morning, along with  Richard Toes.  We went to the fields until we got into a field called the Willow Nooks. We then heard a strange dog making a weft, and the noise of two or three men walking on the road. A dog came into the field, went back again,  and returned into the field after a hare. He was a dark-coloured dog, with a white rim around his neck.  I heard a man say: “D__n you; I did not want you to bring that dog; I knew we would have some trouble with him.” The dog did not catch the hare.  When he returned to the road, they either struck or bunched* him, and he yelled.  I saw the men, who were three in number, pass along the road. Toes went to call Wrightson, the keeper, up, and I took myself to Mr. Gill’s stack-yard, about 200 yards from the Long Rush. I did not see the men go into the wood, but he and the dog gave two wefts. I then heard men walking in the wood, amongst the leaves.  It was very frosty. I then heard some wood pigeons or stockdoves rise.  I went to meet Toes and Wrightson, and heard 4 or 5 shots in the Long Rush. I ran to Wrightson and Toes, and Toes was sent back for more assistance. Long Rush has game in it. Wrightson and I went easily on the road, until we met three men. I asked ‘Where have you been, and what have you got?’ One of them said boldly, a hare.’ Debnam was the man who held the hare by her legs. This was 4 or 500 yards from the Long Rush. They had two dogs with them; one of whom was the dog I had seen in the field. I clicked Debnam by the collar, and one of them said, D__n thee, let that dog loose, both dogs seized me by the heels and I kicked them off.  I hit one of them over the ear with a short stick.  I kept hold of Debnam and threw him on his back on the hedge. He got hold of my comfortable [scarf?] and tried to twitch it. I heard Wrightson call out: ‘Fish, fish, Oh! fish!’ I knew by that that he was done. I looked; and saw him on the ground; the men had left him, and he was trying to get up like a drunken man, but could not. I immediately received a blow over my shoulder from Goodricke, with the barrel of a gun. I cried out:  ‘We’ll let you go!’ , and Wrightson said in a feeble way, ‘Aye, we’ll let them go!’  I did not see that they had guns when they came up; I did not know the third man, he had a light-coloured coat on;  it was a moonlight morning; Escrick clock struck two just before the men entered Long Rush.

Cross-examined by Mr. COTTINGHAM – The wood is about three hundred yards long, and 60 or 70 wide.

George Wrightson (by Mr. DUNDAS) I am under-keeper to Mr.Preston. Toes called me up on the third of January last, and I took a stick and a double-barrelled gun with me. We met Fisher, and I sent Toes back; Fisher and I went on the road, until we came to near Willow Nook Close, where we met three men: one of them had a hare, and there were two dogs with them; I said: ‘Halloo! what are you about?’  One of them said: ‘Nothing. We have no guns. ‘ I said: ‘You must have something.’  Fisher said: ‘You have got a hare.’ and made a grab at the man who had it; I did not know the man; I knew the other two by sight, Goodricke and Pearson; Goodricke had a broad-brimmed hat on, a drab top-coat, woollen corded breeches and leggings.  Pearson had a light-coloured coat, fustian trousers, and half-boots on. One of the men said: ‘D–n thee, let that dog loose!’  The dogs were at that time in bands, they were loosed, and one of them was set on Fisher. I laid down my gun, and seized a man, I was knocked down, but got up again. Goodricke struck me over the forehead with a stick. I then got the gun and told them to stand back, or take what followed; as I was laying the gun down again, Goodricke threw a hare into my face, which caused me to stagger. Pearson then had my gun up, ready to strike.  Goodricke struck me again with a stick and said ‘D__n thee for a fool, use that gun’. Pearson had hold of the muzzle; he struck me over the head, and broke the gun. I cried out ‘Spare my life’ and he kept repeating his blows, till I was covered with blood. Fisher led me home, where I arrived about a quarter  to three. It was a fine moonlight morning.

CROSS-EXAMINED by Mr. MILNER – The first time I saw Pearson, was when he was letting the dogs loose on Fisher….”

[The next witness is Naburn farmer, and watcher for gentleman, Mr. Palmes, Newark Hargrave, who says he was in his garden at 2 a.m.,  when he saw four men with 2 dogs and 2 guns.  He identifies Goodricke and Debnam and describes the black and white dog. He saw them heading for Stillingfleet and suspcious, he followed them. Losing sight of them, he went to Moreby, to wake up Summers, the head gamekeeper. …]

“…He and I went to the gun-room, where we met with Fisher with his arm let down, and Wrightson, who was bleeding. Summers got two horses out of the stable, and he and I set off for Fulford…”

[In Fulford, they hide opposite Goodricke’s house and watch til 6am, when Goodricke showed, with another man, from the direction of Moreby. Goodricke went into his house an a minute or two later, Debnam appeared, who they captured, after a fight. They took him to a public house, where he was held whilst Hargrave watched Goodricke’s house, seeig only Goodricke leaving at 9am.

Goodricke and Debnam’s brief, Cottingham, then tried to suggest Hargrave did not know the names of the three men, and couldn’t swear to them. Hargrave says he could swear to the name of all three. But a Mr Baron Gurney interjects and tells the judge that Hargrave only actually ID’d Goodricke and “another man”.

Next witness is Thomas Summers, head gamekeeper to Mr. Preston. Summers describes the watch he and Hargrave kept on Goodricke’s house. They hid in a blacksmith’s shed, opposite. He positively identifies Goodricke but says he only thinks Pearson was the other.  Summers was about to go to the magistrates for a warrant when he saw the others arrest Debnam as he was armed. Summers examined the gun and said it had been fired that morning. He says although he didn’t name Pearson at the time and Pearson wasn’t arrested til the 7th January (4 days later) when he was taken into Wrightson’s chamber so Wrightson could ID him (this suggest how injured Wrightson was, that he was still in bed 4 days on).

The next witness is Joseph Smith, footman to Mr Palmes, who was driving Mr Palmes’ barouche back home, at by Naburn Lock on the night in question, saw 4 men with 2 dogs (again, the mysterious 4th man who was never brought to court). Smith said: ‘ I knew one of them; it was Richard Goodricke, whom I had known some considerable time.’

The three accused do not take the stand as “No-one was seen in the woods”, their counsels say. They also say there is no evidence against any of the men.

Next witness to take the stand is policeman, Richard Thompson, who says he saw Pearson (who was Goodricke’s neighbour and there was a communicating door inside their houses)  stagger home drunk on the evening of the 2nd January. Pearson claimed to the police his gun was owned by ‘Captain Wemyss’ and he was getting it repaired for him.

Next witness, is William Hallett. Here the story takes a turn for the crazy. He says at 6am on the morning of 3rd January, he and Goodricke’s brother Simeon, went to Goodricke’s house. Simeon had a dog and looked remarkably like Richard.  As Simeon and Hallett sat in the house, there was a ‘rush’ at the door, and Richard Goodricke shotued for someone to wake up Pearson next door, so they could leg it.  They took a shovel (weapon?) and were last seen running down the street being pursued along with Debnam. Simeon was, at the time of trial, himself in Beverley House of Correction…

Following witness is a farm servant, Richard Scaife, who swears Hargrave told him he couldn’t swear to any of the men who’d been at Preston’s. A mysterious ‘John Brown of Fulford’ says Hargrave told him he couldn’t be sure if Goodricke was there or not. Debnam’s witness is his sister in law, Susan Machen, who claims she was in his house on the night of 2nd January as his wife was about to give birth, and Debnam came in at 9 pm on the 2nd, and didn’t leave the house again to 5am on that morning.  ‘He went out at half past five with a gun’. Yet, oddly, the next witness, Susan’s husband Henry Machen, says Debnam went to bed ‘at ten’. And left the house the following morning at eleven…

Mr. DUNDAS sums up saying the evidence against Pearson is too weak. And Goodricke looked too much like his brother for anyone to be sure whether it was him or not (conveniently forgetting to mention that witnesses mentioned 4 men on the road from Fulford to Moreby, so there was scope for Simeon and Richard to be there).  He says Debnam’s alibi is backed up by Mrs Machen’s account (conveniently missing out that Mr Machen’s account contradicted both!)

The Jury retired and took all of 25 minutes to return with a verdict of NOT GUILTY.

I will let you come to your own conclusions, gentle reader, but would it be bad if I pointed out that in April 1834, Richard Goodricke, and his witness, William Hallett, were found Guilty of night-poaching on the lands of neighbouring toff, Bielby-Thompson… (also the local MP) and the apparently well known “gang of poachers”, including Hallett, were given six months hard labour at Beverley House of Correction.  Goodricke, as ringleader…. got a year. In 1841, both Simeon and Richard Goodricke were caught night poaching on the grounds of Lord Wenlock (Escrick) and this time pleaded Guilty.

*’bunched’ = bunch of fives?

For the knitters. I’m guessing John’s ‘comfortable’ was what later got called ‘comforter’, ie: scarf. The Shorter OED has “comforter” as “A long woollen scarf worn around the throat. 1833” John uses the word ‘comfortable’ in 1833. OED does not have ‘comfortable’ as an alternative, but that has to be what it is!

Image: ‘The Dog-Breaker’, from George Walker’s ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’. Available on disk from: http://www.yorkshireancestors.com/