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A Tale of Kenzie Thorpe the Wild Goose Man of Sutton Bridge

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Any one that enquires about wildfowling in The Wash will soon hear of the name Kenzie. MacKenzie Thorpe was a poacher, wildfowler, marsh guide and naturalist, possibly in that order. Many articles have been written about him with a biography, “Kenzie The Wild- Goose Man written by Colin Willock first published in 1962. I have a well-read copy of this on my book shelf, next to it sits a book “Wild Nature’s Ways” by Richard Kearton, with photos by Richard and Cherry Kearton. Inside this book is Mackenzie Thorpe’s name and address, apparently he acquired this book in 1958 when Peter Scott presented a TV program called “Look – The Start of it All – a tribute to Cherry Kearton” a pioneering wildlife film maker and photographer. Kenzie helped Peter Scott acquire birds for his wildfowl collection and helped with filming. Peter Scott encouraged Kenzie to have a go at painting and many of these paintings survive, however, when you see them they are somewhat crude compared to Peter Scott’s artwork. One wildfowler that has a substantial collection of art pointed out to me that some of his paintings appear to be painted over drawings originally sketched onto the canvas by Peter Scott. Whether they are or not it does not matter, they do, however have a distinctive style. I once visited a farmer north of Lincoln in my job as an Agricultural Bank Manager, the farmer pointed to a painting above his fire and said, “Like my painting? I bet you think it is by Peter Scott.” “No”, I replied, “its by Kenzie Thorpe.”

Now it seems perfectly probable to me that a man capable of imitating ducks , geese and animals would be perfectly capable of imitating another artists drawings. Whilst from a totally different background, there were some similarities between Peter Scott and Kenzie, both liked to perform to the public, loved wildfowl and the marsh, painted and Kenzie even made some films that he happily showed to people. Indeed, it was at one of these events at Springfields restaraunt in Spalding that my father recalls having to lure Kenzie away from the bar to give a talk to the assembled Mothers Union. Because much has been written about Kenzie I have a few anecdotes and press stories that give an insight into this man and his great humour.

Kenzie sat on his houseboat
Kenzie sat on his houseboat

Kenzie had a new pair of binoculars which he wanted to show off so he invited a young Holbeach wildfowler to come to his houseboat at Shep White’s to try them out. As the fowler walked up to Kenzie’s houseboat he saw Kenzie sitting on the roof, peering through his prized binoculars swearing and cursing for all he was worth.

As the young fowler got close to the houseboat he enquired what was the matter and Kenzie called to him, “You wouldn’t believe it, that rotten bugger has just nicked the bucket and spade from that kiddie on Hunstanton beach and won’t give it back.”

Kenzie had a capacity for mischief and sometimes resorted to trickery to inflate his reputation as “The Wild Goose Man.” as the following illustrates.

Kenzie and a young Holbeach wildfowler were walking along the sea bank following a morning’s goose flight. Between them they had shot four geese. Whilst they stood on the bank with their bag laid in the grass a group of wildfowlers with empty bags called across from a distance enquiring how Kenzie and his companion had done. As they were some distance off Kenzie advised his companion to do as he did. With that the two fowlers bent down, picked up a goose in each hand and displayed them proudly. They then placed these geese in the grass and repeated the exercise several times, sometimes swapping geese for appearances sake. Thus Kenzie and his companion were able to enhance their reputations as wildfowlers.

In the 1950’s and 60’s wildfowling on the Wash became regulated as wildfowling clubs formed and obtained shooting leases from farmers on the foreshore and from the Crown. The Crown lease was highly important as it enable a large no shooting zone to be set up on the mudflats enabling migrating wildfowl and waders to roost and feed undisturbed by shooting. Prior to these rights being obtained and the wildfowling clubs policing them the Wash had become a free for all shooting area as described by a letter in The Field on 16th November 1961, “…we must stress that there are today many more irresponsible people with guns visiting the Lincolnshire coastal areas. These people respect no laws or codes of conduct, and are willing to shoot any creatures that have the courage to flight.”

As the wildfowling clubs obtained and paid for their leases they had the responsibility of defending their shooting rights by ensuring only members, or those with permits shot and that the land and game birds on the neighbouring farmer’s lands, often their landlords, remained undisturbed. There was a vociferous minority that opposed the wildfowling clubs and their responsible management aims and they organised themselves into The Wash Rights Protection Association who sought to maintain free unfettered access to shooting on the marshes as they saw it as an act of enclosure of public land.

Mr A D Bates, secretary and vice chair of The Wash Rights Protection Association was a driving force behind opposing the regulation of wildfowling stating: “ The Wash Rights Protection Association stands four square for the inalienable centuries-old freedom rights of our green marshes, flats and foreshores.” He also claimed, falsely as it turned out, that landowners had no claim to green marsh and the Crown could not lease shooting rights to a club or syndicate or their trustees.

Further argument and false claims ensued with the most serious allegation being that wildfowling club members regularly formed picket lines to prevent the public getting onto the marshes. These heated allegations were refuted by Lt. Cmdr. John Anderton the national secretary of The Wildfowlers Association of Great Britain and Ireland (later to become The British Association of Shooting and Conservation), and his words of November 1964 both illustrate the dire state wildfowling had gotten into and the need for regulation and protection:

“For some to suggest that our affiliated organisations surrounding the Wash intend to debar the general public from access to the lower stretch of the marsh is as mischievous as it is inaccurate. The fact remains, however, that it is a certainty the intention to prevent access to the Marsh Cowboy fraternity whose irresponsible behaviour in recent years has meant local organisations doing what they have done. Persistent shooting out of range, at protected species, at bottles and tin cans – even shooting out of season – would had it been allowed to continue and worsen, have meant three things.

The fowl would have been driven into finding new habitat away from the Wash; genuine sportsmen would have discontinued visiting the Wash; and landowners would have done everything in their powers to put a complete stop to all shooting.

In other words all would have lost.

With this new scheme , there is a chance that the fowl will not only remain but increase in numbers. The sportsmen, and I mean sportsmen, will be allowed to follow the ancient sport of wildfowling in the proper and recognised manner, whilst the adjoining farmers will at long last have no anxieties regarding the poaching of game seawards.”

It was against this background that Kenzie himself fell foul of the new regulation to keep the mud flats as an unshot reserve resulting in headlines in national papers reading “Shot goose may cost ex-poacher his job” and , “The Downfall of an Old Poacher”. He told the Daily Mail reporter, “ I was taking wildlife photos. I had my gun and could not resist the temptation when a flock of geese came over, I bagged one. I’m sure my past exploits counted against me.”

The then tabloid press was a bit more sensationalist:

“It was the cry of the wild goose that led poacher turned gamekeeper Mackenzie Thorpe back into his old ways. For when he heard it, MacKenzie, once Britain’s most famous poacher, was unable to resist just one more shot. He put aside his cine camera and picked up a 12 bore. It was just like the old days as the goose fell from the dawn sky. The days when even the Queen’s game wardens at Sandringham were warned to be on the look out for ‘Crackshot Kenzie’ as he was known.

But this time he was spotted by a birdwatcher. And last night Kenzie was once again on the wrong side of the countryman’s law.”[i]

From what I have been told about this incident Kenzie held his hands up that he shot the goose. He was more annoyed that a birdwatcher had told tales on him. He was suspended from Holbeach Wildfowlers Association, but from what I have been told, after a season was reinstated. Apparently he enjoyed the attention the incident gave him.

Kenzie enjoyed making films and showing them to various social groups and I understand some of his clips were broadcast in the 1970’s and he was subject of the BBC “Look Stranger” program in 1971, and a BBC East program was made about him around the same time showing him calling hares, talking about poaching and wildfowling. He was ever the storyteller and showman and was clearly happy being the centre of attention such as demonstrating his calls at the game fair pictured below in 1971.

[i] Daily Mirror 9th February 1966

Kenzie at the 1971 Game Fair
Kenzie at the 1971 Game Fair

In February 1971 Kenzie hit the headlines titled “Too many geese shot Kenzie’s plea for a bird sanctuary” In the article he criticized too many shooters on the marsh that had not learned their “marsh manners” and advocated a four mile stretch of saltmarsh to be free of shooting. This did not go down very well with many younger wildfowlers who felt Kenzie was “not one to talk when he had shot thousands in his time.” In the BBC Look East program that he made that year he made it clear he now shot one goose at the beginning of the season and that he planned to do that until he was seventy as long as he was fit and able.

Kenzie died died in 1976 at the age of 68. The editor of the Spalding Guardian summed up his life well:

“He loved his image of poacher turned conservationist, swapping gun for binoculars and paint brush, and lived the part completely. In short, he was a character. One of the type of whom there are too few to brighten our lives. No one can deny that Kenzie did not make his mark in life. His contribution to marsh lore of the middle twentieth century will be long remembered.”[i]

[i] Spalding Guardian 1979

Letter from Kenzie on his headed paper
Letter from Kenzie on his headed paper

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