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Night Stalkers

“Each shiny night the moon was bright,
To park, preserve, and wood
He went, and kept the game alive,
By killing all he could.
Land-owners, who had rabbits, swore
That he had this demerit –
Give him an inch of warren, he
Would take a yard of ferret.”

DARTMOOR NIGHT STALKERS – Since time immemorial there have always been those shady characters who stalk the landed estates, warrens, rivers and streams of the Moor. Their nefarious intent is that of bagging a rabbit, a pheasant, a salmon or trout from the estates of the landed gentry. There were two main differing reasons for their night time excursions; either to plunder for gain or to purloin a meal for a poverty stricken family. No matter what the reason their sworn enemies were the game keepers, police or water bailiffs whose sole intent was to catch the thieves as they plied their trade. In many cases the culprits were well known to the guardians of the game but the guile and stealth with which they moved somehow always allowed them to allude capture. However, there was no leniency should they ever be arrested as a court appearance was always awaiting them. At one time the magistrates and judges who presided over such cases were wealthy landowners themselves who certainly felt no pity for these villains and this was often reflected in the harsh sentences doled out. These could vary from prison sentences, often accompanied with hard labour of hefty fines which far outweighed the value of the rabbit or salmon they poached. In many cases poachers didn’t have to be caught with the stolen game, the very fact that they were apprehended with the tools of the trade was enough to end them up infront of the ‘bench’.
If you read back through the local court proceedings they will be full of men and in the odd case women being charged with poaching for whatever reason. Very often the same names would appear month after month with the severity of the punishments gradually increasing. In some instances there would be reports of violent attempts to evade capture which often resulted in injuries to either the poachers or the gamekeepers. It would be easy to fill a book of every instance of ‘Night Stalking’ on Dartmoor and certainly not enough room on this page. So what follows is just a single example of such a case which appeared before the Totnes County Court on the 16th of January 1886.

Charles, William and Richard Michelmore, labourers from Rennaford, Combe and James Horton a farmer of Hayford Farm, Buckfastleigh were summoned for using “certain engines,” which basically meant rabbit nets for the purpose of poaching on land belonging to a Mr. E. Fernley Tanner. The particular ‘land’ in question just happened to be Huntingdon Warren which carried a huge population of rabbits (3,000 at the time) located on the banks of the River Avon. At the time, like many of the Dartmoor warrens it was plagued by poaching as they were seen as easy pickings if one could evade the eagle eyed warrener, gamekeeper and his apprentices. Huntingdon Warren was particularly attractive to poachers due to its remoteness with the nearest village being some two miles away and the closest town four miles distant.
On the opening of the case the first witness called to give evidence by the prosecutor, Mr. T. W. Windeatt, was James Stancombe the gamekeeper at the Warren. He stated that on the night of December 23rd 1886 he and Henry Tucker the assistant gamekeeper were patrolling the western side of the warren at around midnight. It was a bright moonlit night and the pair ‘allegedly’ spotted four men congregated around a rabbit burrow. Also clearly visible were a number of nets set around the burrow’s entrances and a dog. There was enough moonlight for Stancombe to  identify Charles Michelmore and James Horton. He could also clearly see that Horton had a bag on his back with what appeared to be something inside it. Stancombe approached the men and demanded to know; “What sort of sport have you?” to which they relied; “We are catching rabbits for Christmas!” The gamekeeper then saw Charles Michelmore pull on a line which led down a hole and he eventually brought out a ferret. After gathering up their nets Michelmore and Horton casually strolled away across the moor. Stancombe and Tucker immediately began to follow them  as they caught up with their other two companions. Immediately Stancombe recognised  William and Richard Michelmore, he also noticed much to his alarm that Charles Michelmore had somehow acquired a single barrelled gun  which was pointing directly at him. “I’ll blow your brains out,” Michelmore yelled which prompted his accomplices to start hurling stones at Stancombe and Tucker.
Stancombe was then cross-examined by a Mr. Creed who appeared for James Horton and was asked how he knew the defendant. He replied that he stood in very close proximity to the men and immediately recognised Charles Michelmore and Horton. He also recalled saying; “I know two of you,” but denied threatening to; “put the Michelmores in the river.” The gamekeeper was then cross examined by Mr. G. Kellock who appeared for the Michelmores who asked how he recognised the defendants. Firstly he recognised the dog they had with them on the night in question as he had seen it at Horton’s farm. Secondly he had known all four men for some time and knew only too well that the Michelmores worked on Horton’s farm. He also confirmed that he had seen Horton pulling up the nets when he approached them.
Henry Tucker then gave his evidence which virtually confirmed everything Stancombe had said but added in his opinion the bag on Horton’s back contained at least three rabbits. Mr. Creed then cross-examined him and once again asked how he knew the defendants to which he replied he knew them all and was on speaking terms to them. Mr. Kellock the took his turn asking how long he had known Horton, 16 years was the reply – this drew the case for the prosecution to a close.

Night Stalkers

In the case for the defence Mr. Creed pointed out the fact that he had found his hands tied insomuch as in law he could not call the defendants to give evidence along with the fact that their wives could also not be called upon. All in all this meant that eight vital witnesses were excluded from providing testimonies that could prove the men’s innocence.  In spite of these restrictions other witnesses were called the first being a farm labourer called William Dunn. He stated that on the night of the December 23rd he was at the public house in Scorriton with Richard Michelmore. On leaving the inn at 10.30 pm he passed Charles Michelmore and his wife making their way home. Dunn was then cross examined and asked what relation he was to Charles Michelmore to which he replied, “brother-in-law.” The next witness was William Friend a farm labourer of Rennaford who testified that he along with Charles Michelmore and his wife journeyed to Combe Bridge at 10.30 pm on the night of the 23rd. Emma Michelmore daughter-in-law to the Michelmores who lived at Buckfastleigh then took the stand. She said that on the 23rd William Michelmore travelled to Totnes and returned to Buckfastleigh on the six o’clock train. He then went to her house and remained there until a quarter past ten and then made his way back to Combe. Richard Burt, a farm labourer from Holne gave his evidence saying that he had also seen Richard Michelmore at the inn in Scorriton around ten o’clock on the night of the 23rd. John Rice of Scorriton, another farm labourer noted that he had seen Richard Michelmore in Scorriton village at half past ten on the night of the 23rd. Mr. Creed’s last witness was Mr. S. Cumming, a surveyor from Totnes. He gave a character witness saying that he had known William Michelmore a great number of years. He was a highly respectable man and that he had never heard anything against his character.
Mr. Kellock in Horton’s defence began calling his witnesses, the first being Richard Furneaux of Buckfastleigh, Horton’s nephew. He testified that at six o’clock on the night of the 23rd Horton , “came rambling against his door.” He had driven there in a horse and trap and was, “helplessly drunk,” so Furneaux and a man called John Gidley drove Horton home, arriving there at a quarter past seven and on arriving a young boy appeared and took Horton inside. John Gidley then gave his evidence and exactly confirmed what Furneaux had stated. This then concluded the cases for the defence.
Mr. Windeatt then asked to call another witness but Mr. Creed strongly objected on the grounds that the case for the prosecution had been concluded to which the Bench overruled the objection. So P.C. Kemp who was stationed at Holne took the stand stating it was he that served the summons to Horton. On doing so Horton had said; “I was in my house, and not off the premises after six o’clock. I was in Buckfastleigh on the Friday night drunk.” P. C. Kemp added that he delivered the summons on the 6th of January and that the night Horton referred to was the 1st of January but there was no mention of the night of the 23rd. At hearing this Horton strongly declared; “It’s a lie and you know it.”P.C. Kemp continued stating also that he had also served the summons on the three Michelmores who were together at the time when Charles stated that; “I did not leave my father-in-law until past twelve o’clock.”
The Bench then retired to consider their verdicts and after a short recess soon returned. The Chairman stated that the charge of setting ‘rabbit engines’ was far more serious that common rabbiting. He went on to say that as Huntington Warren was in ‘rabbits’ it has the full right of being protected as would a flock of sheep. He also added that; “without doubting the evidence of the witnesses for the defence as to the time at which the defendants were seen by them, there would be ample time for the defendants to get to the Warren, from the places specified in the intervals before midnight.” The verdict being that there was no doubt whatsoever as to the charges and so a heavy fine was imposed – £5 each plus costs or one month in prison with hard labour. The magistrates clerk then noted that there was also the charge against the defendant for the assault on the keepers to consider. Mr. Windeatt said that due to the severity of the fines the prosecutor did not wish to be vindictive and so he would not proceed with the charges. Mr. Kellock then asked if his client, James Horton, could be given time to pay his fine – the request was denied. Finally, Mr. Cumming the surveyor from Totnes paid the £15 fines imposed on the Michelmores. – The Totnes Times, January 16th, 1886.
A few points – the approximate distance from Scorriton to the western side of Huntingdon Warren is 3 miles and from Combe slightly shorter at 2.8 miles and Buckfastleigh about 4 miles. As most of the witness statements said they had seen or placed the Michelmore brothers either at Scorriton or Combe and taking a walking speed of about 3 miles an hour there would have been ample time to place them in the Warren at midnight. In the case of Horton who was supposedly in his house at Hayford farm his journey to the warren would have only been around 2 miles, again ample time.
According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator £5 in 1886 equates to around £654 in 2019 but bear in mind undisclosed costs were also added to the fines. One source suggests that the average British farm labourers wage in 1886 was thirteen shillings and four pence which if the figure is correct the £5 fines equated to around 8 years annual pay in 1886. In the December of 1886 rabbits at Ashburton market were fetching eight old pence each, at Okehampton market ten pence each and at Plymouth six pence each. Regardless of the motives for attempting to poach rabbits this case shows the financial or penal risks involved if someone ever got caught and found themselves infront of the magistrates. As mentioned at the beginning this is but one of hundreds of cases reported of the fines and punishments imposed for poaching on and around Dartmoor.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Graham Brown

    Expensive rabbit, I’d say. Knowing the risks and consequences if found guilty, it seems to me that poaching wasn’t something to embark on lightly. The one claiming to be drunk clearly had enough money for ale.

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