Calke Gamekeepers 1886. Courtesy NT.

A Violent Affray

In 1857 in the early hours of Monday 12th January, on a cold, clear moonlit night, the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the fields between Calke and Smisby was broken by the shouts, screams and thuds of a fight between about 12 poachers and 7 gamekeepers.

Poaching was an almost normal part of rural life and an important part of a village’s economy and in Victorian times it was a growing crime. Poaching offences absorbed a major share of magistrates time. It was certainly a regular occurrence on the Calke Estate, although, fortunately, it rarely ended in the violence of that morning.

The story begins in the evening, 7 miles away in Whitwick where a group of local men are gathering. Some are newly married such as James Brookes, some with a young family. All are ordinary Whitwick men who have done this many times before. Thomas and James Brookes, John Price, Joseph Mason, Joseph Dakin, John Kilbourn, Wardle, Abraham Illsley and Henry Ford. Kilbourn had a Mastiff dog with him. All were carrying bags, some containing nets. They walked to Thringstone, keeping off the roads wherever possible and gathered around the home of William Hickling. Joseph Mason went into William’s house and found him asleep on the sofa. William was one of the younger of the group, aged only 23 but still not a stranger to poaching. He grabbed what he needed and left his pregnant wife Ann and their 4-year-old son John and joined his friends. They all headed to Worthington where Matthew Wright and a man named Hinchcliff joined them. As they walked down the country lanes towards Smisby they picked up stones and pocketed them for possible use later. They were also carrying bludgeons which would have been carried as a weapon. They stopped off at Staunton and caught a rabbit there.

Meanwhile, back at Calke, the gamekeepers were also gathering for the job of nightwatching. William Pegg was the head gamekeeper. It was a large estate to manage and this particular night William gathered his assistant gamekeepers Thomas Swann, Joseph Dolman, Thomas Swain, John Hudson, Henry Hill and Samuel Allen. They headed over towards Robert Tomlinson’s farm at Pistern Hill near Smisby. They also had muzzled dogs with them. The gamekeeper Peter Brown lived nearby so he joined them later. We will perhaps never know what prompted them to pick that particular place. Had they been tipped off about possible poaching that night? Or was it pure coincidence? Apparently, in fairly recent years a woodland near Pistern Hill was overrun with rabbits, so maybe it was back then too.

The first sign that there were poachers in the area was the spotting of 2 men by a fence, where later was found a rabbit net. From then on they moved quietly and stealthily. They separated for a while to better cover the area. Pegg, Swann and Hudson moved into a field and were confronted with about a dozen men, armed with bludgeons and un-muzzled dogs. One of the poachers provoked them by shouting out “Come on you . . . . . . . . We are ready for you!” The poachers hurled a volley of stones (the ones picked up from the roadside on the way there). The gamekeepers had no choice but to approach them. They were not carrying firearms, only sticks and even when the other keepers had heard the commotion and joined them they were still no match where weapons or numbers were concerned.

It was dark and the ensuing fight was very muddled. William Pegg saw one of his keepers, Henry Hill, engaged in a fight with William Hickling and as he was going to help was struck extremely hard by a person unknown and due to the severity of his injury, he was forced to retreat. Thomas Swann was attacked by Abraham Illsley and then got into a particularly violent fight with Thomas Brookes which lasted 5 – 10 minutes. He was hit repeatedly on the head with a bludgeon which left him with 9 cuts. Peter Brown was attacked by several of the poachers on the legs and side, again with bludgeons. Peter was one of the keepers who had his muzzled dog with him. The dog was also attacked and had its thigh broken and 3 teeth knocked out. Peter found him the next day in an adjacent field. There is no evidence to say whether or not the dog survived, but I suspect in those days it did not make financial sense to spend money on a dog.

John Hudson was first knocked down by Joseph Mason who used a bludgeon. He was very much cut about the head, and his arm and wrist hurt very much. He did manage to strike Mason a blow on the head and he was sure that he had marked him.

The keepers had no choice but to retreat. All had been wounded but it was soon realised that William Pegg, Joseph Dolman and Thomas Swann were in a particularly bad way. Thomas had to be carried to Peter Brown’s cottage which was nearby and Charles Palmer the Estate Steward was called for at 1 am. When he arrived and saw the state of the keepers’ injuries and being particularly worried about Thomas, he immediately sent for Mr Tasker, the surgeon from Melbourne. Mr Tasker came as quickly as he could and dressed the wounds of the keepers and advised that Thomas was not to be moved for a few days.

Meanwhile, the poachers had time to lick their wounds and gather up their nets. Kilbourn counted everyone and when he was sure they were all present they went away southwards, back through Staunton and they went their separate ways home. William Hickling, for some reason, drowning his dog when he got home.

Sir John was informed of the incident the following day, most probably by Charles Palmer. Mindful of the seriousness of the situation Sir John immediately offered a £100 reward for any information leading to the capture of the poachers. (Approximately 2 years wages). Equivalent to almost £5000 today.

About 3 weeks later, on 2nd February, William Hickling was one of the first of the poachers to be apprehended and to quote that familiar phrase, ‘he sang like a canary’. He named all of the other poachers in the party.

Vauncey mentions the incident in a letter to his mother Lady Georgiana. ‘You will be very pleased to hear that the ringleader of the poachers is taken and has confessed as to where all the others are to be found. The three men you heard about are all innocent.’

In the ensuing court case, the defence for some of the other poachers questioned his motive, saying it was motivated only by the reward money, and hope he would get a more lenient sentence.

In March, 5 of the poachers appeared in court at Derby. William Hickling, Matthew Wright, Thomas and James Brookes and Joseph Mason. Thomas and James had been traced to Barnsley and on a tip-off policeman Thomas Poole searched the house of Isaac Coves, but found no one. Later, with the help of the local constabulary, the two were arrested in a field. They had no boots or caps. The following day Isaac Cove brought boots and caps, belonging to the pair, and it was concluded that they had escaped through the cellar flap as the house was being searched.

William Pegg (Ag Pegg’s grandfather) was 45 in 1857 and was the head gamekeeper for the Harpur Crewe Estate. He was at Calke in 1851 and was the first of the Pegg Dynasty to be a gamekeeper there. He was obviously good at his job as he worked for the Estate for at least 40 years. He gives evidence for the prosecution and swears that he definitely saw Hickling and Brookes there.

Thomas Swann, recovered from his injuries, is the next to give evidence. At this time Thomas was 31 and only the year before his first wife Elizabeth had died, possibly in childbirth leaving Thomas to care for 4-year-old Rufus and baby Elizabeth. He testified that it was Thomas Brookes who had inflicted serious injuries upon him.

John Hudson, aged 37, identified James and Thomas Brookes, and Joseph Mason as being present on the night and that he had struck Mason giving him a black eye. John also came from a long line of gamekeepers (all called John) and came to Calke in 1846, taking over from his father.

Also called as a witness was Willliam Hickling’s wife Ann who was asked who had come to her house on the evening of the 11th January. She differed in some facts from her husband but in the end, the jury found the 2 Brookes and Mason guilty but acquitted Wright on the evidence of the keepers. (William Hickling had already pleaded guilty.)

The judge addressed all the prisoners, including Hickling, and said one of the worst circumstances was not the crime of poaching itself but the highly dangerous and too frequently fatal affrays arising from its practice. It was only because they didn’t carry firearms that he would give them the lighter sentence of 12 months hard labour. Hickling’s defence applied for leniency for him on account of the useful information he had given. This was dismissed.

Five months later Hickling was back in court giving evidence against two more of his fellow poachers John Kilbourne (alias Redman) and Abraham Insley (alias Henchley) who had only recently been apprehended. Thomas Swann and Joseph Dolman were also called to be witnesses to the fact that these two had been there that night and both had actually been assaulted by Kilbourne. Again the defence tried to say that Hickling had only given these names to get the reward money, but the jury once again found both guilty and the judge gave them the same sentence as their fellow poachers.

John Kilburn and Abraham Insley/Henchley were no strangers to the courts, John appearing before magistrates for other poaching offences and Abraham for stealing a silver watch and a shawl.

I was interested in finding out about young William Hickling; I imagined him young and easily led, perhaps a little naïve. Racked with guilt about the violence of the attack, he gave up the names of the other poachers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

William was born in Belton, Leicestershire and baptised on 30th December 1832 to parents Christopher and Ann. His father, Christopher died in 1839 when William was only 7 years old. He had a brother James aged 5. In 1841 we find Ann and her two sons in Belton. No occupation is given for Ann so I would imagine she is relying on friends, neighbours or even parish relief.

 In 1851 William is in nearby Whitwick working as an Agricultural servant for John Nutt who is a carrier with 25 acres of land. In 1853, aged 20 he marries Ann King, aged only 17, in Loughborough. They settle down in Thringstone. Their first child John is born the same year – no doubt a shotgun wedding. 4 years later while Ann (I think) is pregnant with their second child William is sent to prison for 12 months after turning in all his fellow poachers. I cannot find them in 1861. I can find possibles of Ann and William, living separately, but no sign of their children. However, in 1871, they are living in Featherstone, Yorkshire and William is a coal miner. It would have been impossible for William to go back to the area when he was released from prison. His life would have been made very difficult. However, it seems he was still in the area somewhere as in 1867 he makes the newspapers again, this time with a Thomas Hickling (seems too much of a coincidence not to be a relative) being charged with trespassing on the land of Joseph Johnson of Barrow in search of rabbits. Thomas was dismissed through lack of evidence; William was found guilty but paid the costs instead of going to prison.

It didn’t take long to discover that William, in fact, was not the naïve, guilt-ridden person I thought him to be. In 1871 he is given 12 months imprisonment at Wakefield for stealing 80 pigeons. In July 1879 he, along with 3 others, was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for trespassing on land with the intention of taking game. This time they had firearms and one of the keepers was violently assaulted.

In 1881 William and Ann are still living in Featherstone but it seems they have had 2 more children, Christopher (transcribed as Cressfield?) aged 5 and Charles aged 3.

In 1887, he was charged with poaching along with William Grant. The headline in the newspaper was ‘Notorious Poachers in trouble at Pontefract.’ And in another, ‘the most notorious poacher in the district.’  In fact, William wasn’t in court that day and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was arrested a few days later while night poaching again. The prison record at Wakefield prison for that offence gives his age as 54, eye colour, brown and height 5ft 1 and a quarter inches. Under ‘name’ is written John William Hickling (or John Hickling or John King Hickling, or Rutty or William Hickling).

I can’t help thinking about Ann and his children and how they managed when he was in prison.

His poaching days are over in 1907 when William dies in Pontefract.


The story of the poaching incident has been taken from the newspaper articles from the Derby Mercury, Derby Courier, Sheffield Independent. Copy of the Court Reports from the Calke Archive and  Family history from census returns of the time.

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Karen Kreft

With a passion for social history, ex-teacher Karen has, since 2017, created a database of over 2000 Calke servants.

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