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.

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