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Fenland Geese and Gosherds.

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

Mr John Taylor’s Flock of 800 geese on the Horncastle Road by Bargate Drain, Boston 6th Dec 1877
Mr John Taylor’s Flock of 800 geese on the Horncastle Road by Bargate Drain, Boston 6th Dec 1877

“A Fenman’s dowry, threescore geese and a pelt.” This saying is an indication of the economic importance to many fenmen of geese and sheep. The fens provided plentiful rich grazing for sheep and geese. Before reclamation and enclosures much of this was freely available. The fenmen would acquire their flocks by capturing flightless greylags or taking eggs from their nests and interbreeding with domestic fowl on the fens and marshes. As sea walls and dykes were dug and maintained the resource would become less free in that local communities would be charged or expected to supply manpower to maintain, repair and defend the fens from the ravages of storm and deluge. With this requirement came the need to regulate the resources of the Fen for the benefit of the local community as we see in Bennington in 1573 (between Boston and Wainfleet on the Skegness road):

“The inhabitants of Benington were charged with the repairs of Hilldike Bridge in the parish of Skirbeck with that of Cowbridge. ‘No swine were to be put in the Fens unrung, nor any geese which were not pinioned and foot-marked.’ No dog to be taken or left in the Fen after sunset. No man to bring up any ‘crane birds’ out of the East Fen, ‘unless he have witness thereof, under a penalty of 20s.’ No person to gather wool in the Fens who is above twelve years of age, except impotent persons; and no wool to be gathered before sunrise or after sunset. No cattle to be driven out of the Fens excepting between sunrise and sunset. All cattle to be voided out of the East Fen before St. Barnaby’s day yearly. No ‘reed-thatch’, reed-star or bolt’ shall be mown in the Fen before it is of two years growth or upwards. Each sheaf of thatch gathered or bound up in the Fens is to be a yard in compass. No ‘wythes’ to be cut in the Fen except between Michelmas and May-day.”[i]

These rules are all about sustainable use of the Fen and ensuring it is an undisturbed roost for both domestic and wild fowl. Further rules prevented the killing of flightless fowl before midsummer day yearly. This ensured early clutches were undisturbed. Some of the rules are simply practical. To pinion a goose you have to remove its flight feathers. This can be done by clipping the feathers, which will regrow, pulling them (which involves and element of cruelty on a live goose by today’s standards), or similarly cruel to cut off one wing at the elbow. “Foot-marking” a goose involved making nicks in the webbing of the foot of the goose, each gosherd having his own pattern or combination of nicks.

The domestication of the greylag is a practise that goes back centuries and can be found in Northern Germany, Russia, Denmark, the Netherlands and especially Friesland. It may account for the name Grey Lag. The word “laggard” meaning a slow person or object originally referred to prisoners tied by the leg – a Norse derivation. I suspect the name greylag may be a reference to their capture and domestication, although some suggest it may be from them lagging behind other geese in breeding.

“These days are much changed since a man could squat on some out-of-the-way part, and run up a hut, perhaps catch a few wild geese and turn them into tame, then feed his flock at free quarters, living on fish and wild birds dressed by a peat fire.” Wrote Pishey Thompson in 1856. Certainly it was a rare practice in the nineteenth century but accounts of domestication of greylag can be found up to 1945 and were possibly the result of wartime deprivation.

We see geese classed alongside four legged livestock in their importance to the fenman and the fen economy. The nature of common grazing is that livestock, whether web-footed, cloven or hooved will go astray and each parish and area would have its own method of dealing with stray livestock:

“In the manor of Leake, Lincolnshire, this was the custom relating to waifs and strays, and among them to Geese:- They were first taken to the fold or pen, where they must stay during ‘six suns’ i.e. three risings and three settings. Thence they pass to the ‘rout-piece’, a grass-field. Here they remained one month; but sheep had to stop twelve months and one day, and could not be shorn. After the termination of the above periods they were sold. My informant mentioned to me that one of the best mares his father ever had was a ‘rout mare’, i.e. obtained from the ‘route-piece’”.[ii]

The goose is not just bred for meat, but its feather’s were of great value. The pinion, or flight feathers were used by fletchers making the flights on arrows. The down would make feather beds and stuffing for upholstery. The larger feathers would provide quills for writing. Whilst most eggs would be hatched for rearing, the yolk of a goose egg was found to hold pigment and used in artists paint. Times changed as do materials. Goose down is uncommon. Horse hair initially replaced feathers in upholstery; quills were replaced by steel pens; goose became less fashionable than other poultry such as chicken and turkey.

We should have no doubt that the goose was a considerable contribution to both the fenland and the national economy. Britain’s oldest fair the Nottingham Goose Fair is an ancient piece of heritage stemming from the days when geese were driven from the fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk to be sold in their thousands. Borough records show the goose fair being held in 1541, but it receives a mention in a charter dated 1284 indicating the vast longevity of this trade as a favoured meat to initially celebrate Michaelmas (September 29th) and in later times Martinmas (November 11th). Leadenhall Market was the main market for meat and poultry to feed London since 1321 so what goes through this market is a fair gauge of the Capital’s consumption. GD Rowley gives this information about the consumption of geese in Christmas 1877 illustrating a decline in rearing at that time:

“In Leadenhall market arrived about 38,000. These were thus divided viz:

French 20,000

Dutch, fed in England 5,000

Irish, fed in England 5,000

Irish, killed in Ireland 5,000

English natives 1,000

Hamburg and Belgium (very large) 2,000

A great many Geese, both English and foreign, were sold direct to cooperative stores and clubs, which never came to market.

It is calculated by the above authority that about 100,000 geese passed through the London trade….these figures show how much the breeding of English native geese has declined.”

It has to be noted that Bob Cratchitt’s meagre goose is replaced by a large turkey by Scrooge possibly indicating in literature how this trend was changing.

However, in White’s directory of 1872 the observations of the author is that whilst there are no hard figures, the rearing of geese was still significant in Lincolnshire at that time. I quote the whole relating to other crops and livestock as it builds a picture of Lincolnshire farming at that date:

“The population of the county according to the last returns numbers 436,324 : the area in statute acres, 1,774,187. The acreage under all kinds of crops, bare fallows and grass, as per returns, 1871, 1,460,950, i.e., under corn crops, 624,185 acres; under green crops, 243,652 acres ; under clover and rotation grasses, 163,851 acres; under permanent pasture or grass, 409,07 4 acres (Heath and mountain not included). The returns of stock for the county in 1871 are as follows: Horses used solely for purposes of agriculture, 47,917; unbroken horses and brood mares, 13,690; total 61,607: cows and heifers in milk or in calf, 45,583 ; cattle above two years old, 68,425 ; under two years, 71,391; total 185,899 : sheep one year old and above, 930,571; under one year, 558,256; total, 1,488,827 : pigs, 111,320. The above items contain the Government returns for 1871, and most probably are near the truth, although differing largely from the computation of our last publication. There are no returns of poultry yet sought for by Government, but the rearing and fattening of poultry is becoming an important feature in modern farm management. The " yards of poultry" are universally large, and of a greatly improved type. Turkeys are not generally kept: requiring more care and special attention, they are not so extensively bred as geese and barn door fowl." The breeding of geese is not general, but a large number are bred by a class of breeders called" gosherds," who farm them out to graziers, and it is by no means uncommon to see from fifty to one hundred geese grazing amongst sheep and cattle ; farmers seldom keep many more than for the service of their own families. Of fowls and ducks much may be said ; no department of farm management has undergone greater improvement than the breeding of domestic poultry, the favourite crosses being from the Cochin China or Bramah Pootra cockerills and Dorking hens. Pure Dorkings of large plump frames are very popular. To keep up or improve the breeds great attention is paid in the selection of cockerills, which are renewed every two years. The large ducks of the Aylesbury and Roucn breeds are now to be found in almost every improving poultry yard. Every convenience these yards will afford is provided for poultry, and on many farms field-houses are erected for them on the grazing lands, and it is remarkable what numbers are thus satisfactorily kept, chiefly upon their own resources, which consist of worms, grubs~ flies, &c. ; hundreds of poultry may thus be kept almost without trouble or cost.”

It is clear that the success of the goose industry relied upon the plentiful supply of grazing and as more and more marsh and fen was reclaimed, enclosed and cultivated the availability of such areas began to dwindle. By the early twentieth century the decline of goose rearing was lamented in agricultural publications as being highly viable due to the very low cost base provided there was plentiful grazing on what would otherwise be “waste” ground.

Lincolnshire gossards with their driving sticks on the road from Kirton to Boston. The sticks are reported to have red rags on the end to assist the steering of the geese.
Lincolnshire gossards with their driving sticks on the road from Kirton to Boston. The sticks are reported to have red rags on the end to assist the steering of the geese.

The rearing of geese was not without cruelty with various alarming practises to increase weight such as nailing the birds to the floor to prevent movement, alongside the live plucking of geese which is reported to happen five times a year at Pinchbeck near Spalding around 1801:

“The Management of tame Geese, as yielding considerable Profit, will warrant our digression in giving the following Account of them :-They are kept in vast multitudes in the Fens of Lincolnshire ; a single person will keep a thousand old Geese, each of which will rear seven; so that at the end of the year he will become misier of eight thousand. The Goose in general breeds only once in a year, but will frequently have two Hatches in a Season , if well kept. The time of sitting is about Thirty days.

They will also produce Eggs sufficient for three Broods if the Eggs are taken away in Succession. During the breeding Season these Birds are lodged in the same houses with their Owners, and even in their Bed -chambers ; three rows of wicker pens are placed , one above another in every Apartment; each Bird has its separate lodge divided from the other, which it keeps possession of during the time of sitting .

A person called a Gozzard attends the flock , and twice a day drives the whole to Water ; then brings them back to their Habitations, helping those that live in the upper Stories to their Nests, without ever misplacing a single Bird . The Geese are plucked five times in the year , the first plucking is at Lady Day for feathers and quills, and the same is renewed, for feathers only , four times more between that and Michaelmas : the old Geese submit quietly to the Operation, but the young ones are very noisy and unruly Goslings of six weeks old are not spared, their Tails being plucked to habituate them, as it is said, to the Ceremony. About ten pluckers are employed, each with a coarse apron up to his Chin. Should the Weather prove cold, numbers of the Geese perish from this barbarous Custom.

In the Annals of Agriculture it is said , the time of Plucking is about the beginning of April; when the fine feathers of their breasts and backs should be gently and carefully plucked. Care must be taken not to pull or intercept their Down or Pin feathers. The Quills should be pulled five out of a Wing : they will bear pulling in thirteen or fourteen Weeks again, or twice in a year, the Feathers three times a year of the old Geese and Ganders, seven Weeks from each pulling. The young Geese may be pulled at thirteen or fourteen Weeks old , but not quilled , being hatched in March ; but when late in hatching, the brood Geese should not be plucked so soon as April, but the Month after. When well fed with Barley and Oats they thrive and do better, and their feathers grow faster and are better in Quality, than where it is omitted. They must constantly have plenty of Grass and Water .

Mr. Young, in his Agricultural Report of Lincolnshire, says, “ In many parts of this Fenny District, vast advantage is made by the frequent plucking of the Geese. At Pinchbeck , it is the practice to pluck them five times in the year, viz. at Lady.Day , Midsummer, Lammas, Michaelmas, and Martinmas. The feathers of a dead Goose are worth threepence a-head per annum . Some wing them only every Quarter, taking ten feathers from each Goose, which sell for five shillings a thousand. Plucked Geese pay in feathers one shilling a head in Wildmore Fen ."

Vast numbers of Geese are driven annually to London from distant Counties to supply the markets ; among them all the superannuated Geese and Ganders ( called Cagmags, ) which, by a long course of plucking, prove uncommonly tough and dry. In 1783, one Drove of above nine thousand passed through Chelmsford ; Droves of two or three thousand are common. The Feathers are a considerable article of Commerce ; those from Somersetshire are deemed the best, and those from Ireland the worst.

The common price of Geese in Wiltshire, without the Feathers, is regulated by that of Mutton, both being the same by the pound : the usual weight of a fine Goose is from twelve to sixteen pounds ; but it is scarcely credible how far this may be increased by cramming them with Beanmeal, and other fattening diet ; and the Victims destined for this surfeit are by some nailed to the floor, by the webs of the feet, which causes no pain, and is meant to prevent the least probability of Action ; to which, we are told , the French add the refinement of putting out their Eyes. To what weight they arrive in France is not said , but it has been asserted in England , they have been fed up to weigh twenty-eight, and even thirty pounds. Poulterers who are clever, fatten their Fowls, as well as Geese, by mixing Gin with their food , by which they are said to become sleepy, and fatten a pace; and probably acquire enlarged Livers, as Swine are said to do which are fed at the Distilleries !”

The rearing and live plucking, let alone other practises sound horrendous to us today yet as the nineteenth century drew to a close the practise of live plucking had declined and was starting to be opposed as this court case of October 1897 illustrates:

“The plucking of live geese formed the basis of a case which engaged the attention of the Torrington magistrates on Monday, and in which two farmers, the one hailing from Holbeach and the other from Bircham (Norfolk) were defendants. The case occupied the attention of the court for five hours. At first blush it would appear that the plucking of live geese must unavoidably be attended with great cruelty, and that the birds must suffer excruciating pain, independent of their exposure by nakedness afterwards. Evidence was brought to show that this was not so, provided that care is used, and that the birds are plucked at the proper season. This contention was supported by Dr. Stiles, of Spalding. It seems that, except in the two parts of the country whence the defendants came, the practice has ceased. The magistrates dismissed the case, but we may well imagine that there are still many people who are not by any means convinced as to the painlessness of the operation.”[iii]

The above case was brought by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Lincolnshire framer was John Robert Whitwell of Holbeach Drove.

Yet the act of driving geese to market could also be cruel for the geese had their feet tarred and were then walked through ground stone to harden their feet. However, I have seen leather pads that were attached to geese feet for droving, similarly little boots were used on pigs.[iv]

Geese were driven at the speed of about 1 mile and hour for about 8 hours a day. They would stop off on common ground, often refered to as “Goose Green” which would usually be on the verges of the road. It is though that Brampton Hut on the A1 south of Peterborough may have its origins as a hut for goose herds to shelter. The geese would often need supplementary feeding as they were being driven with either corn or oats. Towards the end of the drive they would often be grazed and conditioned with oats to improve their weight and value. The railway, refrigeration and hauliers did away with the goose drives by the late nineteenth century, although prior to this time it would not be unusual approaching Christmas to see a coach so laden with dead fowl hanging from it that the passengers could not see out of the windows.

An advert for Fogartys feather pillows a Boston business that started in 1826 trading on the availability of quality goose feathers in the region. Sadly ceased in 2018 when the Boston factory closed.
An advert for Fogartys feather pillows a Boston business that started in 1826 trading on the availability of quality goose feathers in the region. Sadly ceased in 2018 when the Boston factory closed.

Mr. J.R. Whitwell of Holbeach Drove was possibly one of the last of the old style goose farmers of the Fens in that he made a living out of little resources thanks to the low rearing costs of geese and good value attained, in 1901 we see the following cutting referring to his trade:


During the last few weeks the residents of Holbeach Drove have been getting accustomed to the incessant noise made from 600 geese, which were being fattened for the Christmas Market by Mr. J.R. Whitwell of Holbeach Drove.

On Wednesday last, killing commenced, and within four days the geese have been prepared for market. The work is skilled and highly organized, it being an instructive as well as interesting sight to see sixteen women and nine men handling birds in all the stages of preparation.

The sight of 600 geese, beautifully clean and ready for he oven, neatly arranged in rows, shelf upon shelf certainly gives one a very Christmasy feeling.

The birds are for the London and Yorkshire markets, and are making about 1s. 6d. per lb.”

Geese at Holbeach Drove thought to be Mr. J.R. Whitwell’s early 1900
Geese at Holbeach Drove thought to be Mr. J.R. Whitwell’s early 1900

Geese at Holbeach Drove thought to be Mr. J.R. Whitwell’s early 1900
Geese at Holbeach Drove thought to be Mr. J.R. Whitwell’s early 1900

The “cottage industry” processing of poultry did continue in the Lincolnshire fens well into the 1970’s, but mostly chickens and turkeys. Geese were not uncommon at a farmyard and more than once I recall my father telling me he had to wait to be paid for a new television whilst an old farmer boy fed his geese. For geese are excellent guards and it was not unusual for people to keep their tin of cash hidden away with the geese! Another time a house may be entered in season and you find it floor to ceiling full of feathers as they pluck the chickens and turkeys. Perhaps most memorable when I was very young in the 1970’s was having my father arrive home with a van full of dead chickens that he had bought off a small cottage farmer that was fearing the approach of foul pest and sought to sell them quickly. My parents were so sick of plucking and gutting them that the last half-plucked bird ended up with my grandmother to finish off down the bottom of Twenty Drove whilst the rest went into our freezer.

The advent of the large chest freezer becoming affordable in the 1970’s did create a niche for small Fenland farmers who would rear poultry and pigs on a small scale to be butchered and sold locally. There were still a good few local butchers with abattoirs at that time. My father and grand-father would take the opportunity to buy an “over-fat” market, one that was too big for the general butchers as the consumer preferred less fat but plenty good eating. Hence I would come home from school to see a freshly butchered pig laid out on the kitchen floor ready for freezing. If we were really lucky it had been butchered by Brownings of Deeping St. Nicholas and we would also have the benefit of their sausages, a recipe that still survives to this day and can be bought at Bennetts Butchers in Winsover Road, Spalding. The head would often be processed into brawn, sometimes called “collared head” or “head cheese” of which a local policeman, Brian Slack who lived over the road from us was particularly skilled at making. Regulation and necessary food safety have become expensive enemies of such trading and the cost has made small abattoirs unviable. Perhaps the internet and boxes of meat has opened up another market, but these tend to be high quality at a price ironically unattainable to many of those on lower wages working in the food industry. Thus the rural idyll of buying local, or from an identifiable source has become a luxury for some and unaffordable to many.

This leads onto a paradox of the growth of cities and towns, that as they grow with their populations they need this to be enabled by affordable, and cheap food supply. This can be achieved by using more land, increasing yields with science, mechanisation and agronomy, and by paying people less for the work they do producing food. The countryside serves the town and that required and still requires labour in various forms whether direct employment on a farm, or in processing and distribution, or indirect employment in the many services that enable the farmer to function. Thus the farmer, in his various forms large and small is at the apex of a pyramid of jobs, employment and services, with supply of labour being key.

We may buy our meat and our Christmas bird frozen from a supermarket. But are we and the producers of that meat better off than the producers of the past? Where will your turkey, goose or joint of meat come from this Christmas?

“misier” is an old English word meaning ancestor, but in this context “originator” or “grandfather”

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