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Rural Policing of Yesteryear

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Lincolnshire has long been blighted with rural crime. Going back as far as 1793 Arthur Young commented on sheep thefts near Crowland: “The number stolen is incredible; they are taken off by whole flocks.”

If we go back in time poaching was possibly one of the most frequent rural crimes. Indeed it is heralded in almost heroic tones in the famous song, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”

“Oh 'tis my delight on a shining night In the season of the year

When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire 'Twas well I served my master for nigh on seven years Till I took up to poaching as you shall quickly hear

As me and my companions was setting out a snare 'Twas then we spied the gamekeeper, for him we didn't care For we can wrestle and fight, my boys, and jump from anywhere

As me and my companions were setting four or five And taking them all up again, we caught a hare alive We caught a hare alive, my boys, and through the woods did steer

threw him over my shoulder, boys, and then we trudged home We took him to a neighbour's house and sold him for a crown We sold him for a crown, my boys, but I divven't tell you where

Success to every gentleman that lives in Lincolnshire Success to every poacher that wants to sell a hare Bad luck to every gamekeeper that will not sell his deer”

With perhaps the most famous poacher of the twentieth century being Kenzie Thorpe of Sutton Bridge. But he was not alone by any means. In 1951 Jack Whitmore of Gedney Drove End was found by the police and gamekeepers trying to evade them stood shoulder high in water – for his pains he was fined £2 for game trespass, £1 for killing a pheasant and £5 for not having a game licence, a total of £8. In 1948 William Foster, and RAF Officer was fined a total of £8 12s. for shooting a pheasant on the Marsh, game trespass and not having a licence.

It is the changing nature of things that Police get involved in that in 1871 local Holbeach police gave evidence that Mr Tinsley of Holbeach Marsh had ploughed up a footpath, resulting in a fine of 5 schillings.

It is possibly a sign of how prevalant poaching was (although it still is) that in the 1970's when my father was out working late in his van he would frequently be pulled over by police checking his van saying they were on "Poacher patrol" although, no doubt, they were looking for other crimes too. It was on one early evening job whilst repairing a TV aerial he got a birds eye view of a police exercise near Deeping High Bank. Apparently Special Forces (a term not used alot in the 70's) were practising by "kidnapping" a police officer and he had a rooftop view of army helicopters, armed police and soldiers as the drama of the exercise unfurled and the next morning he told me about it. A few weeks later he got to speak to the "kidnapped" police officer and he admitted to Dad that the whole exercise was done without his prior knowledge and he found himself in the middle of the countryside staring at a balaclava wearing gunman before being tied up! Although we hadn't heard of them until the Iranian Embassy seige with the benefit of hindsight it sounds like the SAS.

Some crimes are sadly all too familiar today, but perhaps the penalty was more fitting, in 1894 William Gore was sentenced to 18 months hard labour for arson after setting light to a stack near Holbeach. In common with today arson has always been a problem and was often hard to detect. In 1833 after three stacks of wheat were burnt a £100 reward was offered for evidence leading to a conviction, but I can find no record of this being successful despite this substantial reward.

Other crimes are less common nowadays, but will still have a familiar ring to the Lincolnshire policeman: In 1881 Henry Smith a farmer of Spalding Marsh, was summoned for being drunk in charge of a horse, a not uncommon crime we see repeated in the Victorian age. In 1882 Chas. Baker, a farm labourer of Holbeach Marsh, was fined for being drunk whilst in charge of a wagon and three horses. Other crimes involving horses that incurred fines were “riding furiously” and “riding a horse through the centre of Holbeach without reins”. Other crimes involved allowing livestock to venture onto the highway and small fines were given by the magistrate. As mechanisation came so to did the crimes change, in 1921 an engine driver at Holbeach Marsh was fined 19s. for not having a screen for his threshing machine as he towed it along Marsh Road, Holbeach.

One reoccurring crime in the early twentieth century was the illegal sale of beer from farm houses. This had its roots in the old tradition of “beer houses” which were informal pubs selling bottles of beer to locals and farm workers in the front parlour. As the sale of beer and public houses became more regulated there was provision in the law for old “beer houses” to remain in being, but no new ones could be created. This meant that as the keeper of the beer house died the ability to sell beer died with it. Possibly one of the last beer houses in Spalding was The Barge that closed in the 1950’s, the site is now marked by Barge Court near the River Welland, Holbeach Road, Spalding. Some police turned a blind eye to informal beer houses, possibly a wise move in the interests of preserving order rather than the law. However, abuse of this, or the misfortune of having a new tea total Methodist officer could see crack downs. In Novemeber 1932 John Edward Bowett, farm foreman at Red House Farm, Gedney Dawsmere was prosecuted having been found in possession of 1000 bottles of beer confiscated at his premises and being sold without a licence. In wartime Britain there was a crackdown with raids on two Farm foreman’s houses on the same night creating the headline in the Free Press, “Police Raid Farm Foremen’s Houses. Beer Seized at Holbeach Marsh and Dawsmere a total of £65 in Fines.” The Dawsmere farm foreman’s explanation can invoke some sympathy: “ I have got the beer in and they are only working people on the farm. I collect the money once a week on a Saturday when I pay them. They are working here and came straight from Dunkirk. They are very hard working indeed, working with their shirts off. I gave them a bottle of beer, cigarettes and some biscuits each. They came in the evening and asked for another case of beer to pay for and I obliged them. It is four miles to the nearest public house. I have done my very best for the men and lent them horses and carts and provided tools.” The defending solicitor, Mr Hammond of Roythornes, laid it on thick to the magistrate that both foremen were providing a service to army personnel working ion the farm with no motif of profit and the fines and confiscation of beer, whilst upholding the law, were kept to the level they were to reflect this. Illegal drinking and gambling, or over consumption of alcohol, appear to have prevailed as much as drugs do today. Each era has its crimes.

Wartime brought its own challenges for the rural policeman has he ensured blackout compliance . Rationing brought poachers out in force with the geese of the marsh proving a particular pull. However, access to the marshes was banned in wartime and it is clear that such prosecutions only happened after a due warning was given. Two Holbeach men fell foul of not reporting salvaged goods found on the Marsh to the receiver of Wrecks having found 31lb of chocolate and a quantity of cigarettes which they drew attention to themselves when they sold the items. They were fined £2 each with 10s. costs.

Attending court in a rural county was a major inconvenience and this was recognised by the Chief Constable for Lincolnshire in 1861 in a rule that he created that remained in force until the late 1940’s:

“If a Constable was performing night duty and was due to attend Court the following day and the distance from the Station to the Court was greater than 7 miles he would not be required to remain on night duty after 2am, nor after his return from Court to perform on the night more than 3 hours duty. If the distance from the Constable’s station to the Court was 10 miles or more , then his night duty on the night previous to the court ended at 12 o’clock and after returning from court no further duty was required other than looking around the village in which he was stationed.”

This sounds reasonable until you remember that when this rule was made the policeman did not use a bike or car!

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