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‘Unwomanly practices’: Poaching Crime, Gender and the Female Offender in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2016

History Department, University of Suffolk, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1QJ,


Studies of poaching in the nineteenth century have tended to understate the involvement of women in this archetypal rural crime. This article will suggest that female offending was both more significant and more widespread than previously assumed, but it will also highlight how in a variety of complex ways dominant conceptions of gender shaped perceptions of female poachers and often influenced their treatment before the courts. It will argue that alongside more widely effectual assumptions about appropriate male and female spheres and behaviours, the response of the authorities to female poachers was also shaped by powerful and increasingly culturally embedded notions about the sexually exclusive nature of hunting.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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12. Between 1860 and 1898, 903 females were prosecuted in England and Wales for offences under the Game Laws. Comparisons with summary prosecutions for larceny are revealing. In the period 1870 to 1879 alone 42,799 women were prosecuted for larceny (under the value of five shillings). Females consistently represented over a third of those prosecuted for larceny offences between 1860 and 1892. BPP 1863 LXV.437 [C.3181], Judicial Statistics 1863 (England and Wales); BPP 1900 CIII.1 [C.123], Judicial Statistics 1898 (England and Wales).

13. Osborne and Winstanley, ‘Rural and Urban Poaching’, 187–212.

14. BPP 1863 LXV.437 [C.3181], Judicial Statistics 1863 (England and Wales); BPP 1893–94 CIII.1 [C.7168], Judicial Statistics 1892 (England and Wales).

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18. Under the 1831 Game Act 1 & 2 Will IV Cap. 32 (Sections 25–28) it was an offence to sell game or offer game for sale without a licence and to purchase game from unlicensed persons. Until the passage of the 1862 Poaching Prevention Act 25 & 26 Vic Cap. 114 it was still possible nonetheless for unlicensed persons found in possession of game to escape prosecution where it could not be demonstrated that the game (or rabbits) in question had been illegally killed. The 1862 Act provided however that a constable could search and summons for prosecution those found in possession of game (including rabbits) in public places where there was reasonable suspicion that it had been unlawfully obtained. The possession of game or salmon out of specified seasons was an offence regardless under the 1831 Game Act and 1861 Salmon Act 24 & 25 Vic Cap. 109 (Sections 14 and 15).

19. BPP 1872 X.1 (C.337) Report from the Select Committee on Game Laws; Minutes of Evidence, Capt. W. Congreve, V. Goold, W. Fox and Capt. P. Bicknell, p. 34.

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34. See King, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England, p. 283 and Palk, Gender, Crime and Judicial Discretion, p. 66 for discussions of how differences in male and female roles, even within similar categories of crime, and variances in modi operandi may have implications for sentencing.

35. BPP 1873 XIII (C.285) Report from the Select Committee on Game Laws; Minutes of Evidence, Joseph Arch, p. 327. Arch claimed, for example, to know of night poachers who had retired from the practice because of age and infirmity, or more specifically because they had lost ‘speed in running’, an essential attribute for any poacher who wished to remain at liberty.

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42. Cheshire Observer, 30th March 1861.

43. Freeman's Journal, 30th April 1842.

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50. North Wales Chronicle, 24th September 1887.

51. Osborne, ‘Seasonality of Nineteenth-Century Poaching’, 36–7.

52. BPP 1846 IX (C.463-I) Report from the Select Committee on the Game Laws, Part 1, Session 1845; Minutes of Evidence, George Brooke, pp. 482–4

53. Watson, Poachers and Poaching, p. 31.

54. BPP 1846 IX (C.463-I) Report from the Select Committee on the Game Laws, Part 1, Session 1845; Minutes of Evidence, Frederick Gowing, p. 638. Gowing, a professional poacher, was much less certain than the Committee members about the link between weeding and the theft of game bird eggs although he conceded that women employed in the fields often passed the eggs onto their husbands and thence to him.

55. D'Cruze and Jackson, Women, Crime and Justice in England, pp. 17, 22.

56. Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 21st April 1885.

57. Freemans Journal, 30th April 1842.

58. Western Mail, 6th June 1877. Coopey had been observed by a gamekeeper visiting a wire set in a hedgerow on earlier occasions. The offence which led to her prosecution involved the setting of a metal trap which was found to bear the identifying mark of the local landowner, Major Probyn, and which had been previously stolen from a wood close to where Coopey had formerly lived.

59. The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 22nd July 1870.

60. Morning Post, 24th December 1845.

61. D'Cruze and Jackson, Women, Crime and Justice in England, p. 24.

62. Western Mail, 6th June 1877. Mary Coopey's husband made a direct appeal to the magistrates on the occasion of her trial in June 1877 ‘urging that he knew nothing of the affair’; Freeman's Journal, 30th April 1842; Hannah Rushton's husband was said at the time of her offence, by way of mitigation, to have been bedridden for the past thirty weeks due to an industrial accident.

63. Freeman's Journal, 30th April 1842. For a modern perspective see, Daly, K., ‘Rethinking Judicial Paternalism: Gender, Work-Family Relations and Sentencing’, Gender and Society, 3: 1 (1989), 936 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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67. The relatively few detailed accounts of female poachers obtainable through the newspapers that can be analysed in conjunction with the census do not lend themselves well to a comprehensive survey of social and occupational characteristics. However, an examination of thirty identified individuals suggests that female offenders shared many characteristics with their male counterparts. They were drawn from primarily working-class and/or agricultural occupations, encompassing domestic servants, housekeepers, dressmakers, higglers, farm servants and farmer's wives, with the latter being particularly represented among those accused of unlawfully killing game. A good number of offenders were also simply described in newspaper accounts as labourer's wives, married women, widows or as the wives and daughters of poachers. Those prosecuted were of varying ages, with one as young as ten, although most were aged between twenty and forty years. Some of those prosecuted were single, but the majority were married or widowed and of these many had children at the time of their offence.

68. Vaguely prurient is understating the attention often paid in newspaper reports to the issue of where and how female offenders sometimes concealed game intimately on their person or beneath their garments. See Hampshire Advertiser, 13th February 1841 and Ipswich Journal, 23rd September 1887. North Wales Chronicle, 24th September 1887 and the same case in J. Humphries, ed., ‘The Uses of Petticoats’ in, Poachers Tales (Newton Abbot, 1991), p. 46.

69. Procurator Campbell argued that the law allowed the maximum twenty pound penalty to be reduced by half, but no less, and that in default of payment a term of up to six months imprisonment was permitted. In this case the period of imprisonment had been fixed at the lowest allowable, one month, which was significantly less than the three months typically applied in other cases of this kind of which he had experience. Glasgow Herald, 24th November and 12th December 1859.

70. Glasgow Herald, 2nd December, 6th December and 12th December 1859.

71. Glasgow Herald, 12th December 1859 and Census 1861; twenty-eight year old Mary McGibbon was described as housekeeper and farm servant to Hugh Gibb, a farmer of twenty acres at Kilmalcolm. As part of his attempt to contest McGibbon's sympathetic portrayal in the press, Procurator Campbell also claimed that she was mother to two infants, William and Elizabeth Gibb, both resident in Hugh Gibb's household in which Mary McGibbon was the only other adult. The insinuation was clear.

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73. Glasgow Herald, 12th December 1859.

74. York Herald, 2nd October 1882; Liverpool Mercury, 7th October 1882; Pall Mall Gazette, 2nd October 1882.

75. Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 21st April 1885.

76. Griffin, Blood Sport; Munsche, Gentlemen and Poachers; Mackenzie, Empire of Nature; Mackenzie, ‘The Imperial Pioneer and Hunter and the British Masculine Stereotype’, pp. 179–81. Both Griffin and Mackenzie note the relatively exceptional trajectory of modern fox hunting, which although subject to a substantial contraction in female participation in the eighteenth century witnessed women return to the field in sustained and significant numbers in the late nineteenth century, particularly from the 1870s. Fly fishing for salmon, which emerged as a significant elite sport during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, with an ethos and system of etiquette as elaborate as game shooting, was also characterised by the participation of women. See also H. Osborne, ‘The Development of Salmon Angling in the Nineteenth-Century’ in R. Hoyle, ed., Our Hunting Fathers (Lancaster, 2007).

77. Munsche, Gentlemen and Poachers, pp. 37–9, 200 footnote 64.

78. Mackenzie, Empire of Nature, p. 21; Mackenzie, ‘The Imperial Pioneer and Hunter and the British Masculine Stereotype’, pp. 179–81.

79. Sayer, Women of the Fields, p. 178.

80. Hopkins, Long Affray.

81. Dundee Courier and Argus, 6th December 1898.

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83. Palk, Gender, Crime and Judicial Discretion, p. 156.