The participants of the Berkeley Poaching Affray of 1816 came mainly from the rural areas that surround Thornbury, such as Morton, Littleton etc. Only one or two were from Thornbury itself. Thornbury Roots has chosen to deal with some aspects of the famous poaching case because it had enormous repercussions throughout the area, at that time and long after. The people involved were family and friends of Thornbury people and feelings ran so high that there was acrimony between the people of the Berkeley area (who had connections to the gamekeepers on the Berkeley estates) and those of the Thornbury area for generations afterwards.
Poaching was a major issue for hundreds of years, not a romantic adventure on a dark night but often a hungry and desperate labourer trying to feed his family.
Lord Suffield in a speech of 1825 summed up the situation;
“The recipe to make a poacher will be found to contain a very few and simple ingredients which may be met with in every game county in England. Search out (and you need not go far) a poor man with a large family, or a poor man single man, having his natural sense of right and wrong … give him little more than a natural disinclination to go to work, let him exist in the midst of lands where the game is preserved, keep him cool in the winter, by allowing him insufficient wages to purchase fuel; let him feel hungry upon the small pittance of parish relief; and if he be not a poacher it will only be by the blessing of God“.
Dr Marjorie Bloy’s website “a Web of English history” also paints a bleak picture of England at this time. Wheat prices had fallen to 65 shillings 6 pence after the Wars against France when foreign grain came flooding into the country. From 1815 onwards a series of Corn Laws tried to prevent the importation of wheat until the price reached 80 shillings. The protectionism failed and wheat never returned to its old price but the price of bread (the staple food of the English) remained high. The increasing number of enclosures of land greatly reduced the opportunity for supplementing the diets of the rural poor with rabbits, hares etc.
Tensions were high in the countryside generally due to the desperation of a large number of people and the fear of landowners who had so recently seen revolution abroad and were now seeing unrest in their own country. To protect the already impressive rights of the landowners, the Night Poaching Act came into force in 1816. This introduced the sentence of transportation for seven years for poachers caught with a net or stick with intent to take game. We understand from “Gentlemen and Poachers: the English Game Laws 1671 -1831” by P.B. Munion that in the eleven years following the introduction of the Act 1700 people in England and Wales were convicted and sentenced to be transported. The Act was amended in 1828 but only in the sense that it was strengthened and amongst other things the sentence of transportation was increased to fourteen years.
Feelings were equally strong in the Thornbury area. The Berkeley family owned very large areas of land throughout the country. Even now they still own 6,000 acres in Gloucestershire alone. Colonel Berkeley who was the head of the family at that time had a bad reputation, locally and nationally for making hunting his priority over farming and over the rights of his many tenants. Lord Ducie, with a very substantial estate around Tortworth was apparently more generally liked and respected.
This could be why when John Allen led his group of poachers from the Thornbury area they headed for the property of Colonel Berkeley rather than towards Tortworth. This was interesting as this mass poaching expedition was intended as a protest against a recent death of a local man. Thomas Till, a farmer’s son from Crossways and father of two small children, had been killed whilst poaching at Priestwood near Tortworth in November 1815. His killing caused much anger throughout the neighbourhood. Thomas Till was well known in the area and was related to a good many respectable local tradesmen and yeoman, some of whom chose mass poaching as a means of “reprisal”.
The poachers in this case were not the hungry tenants barely able to survive that had caught the sympathies of Lord Suffield referred to above. They were apparently involved because of their anger about what happened in this particular case, that is by the death of someone they saw as “their own”.
John Allen features largely in Edwin Ford’s book ‘The Great Berkeley Poaching Affray 1816’ which is a very detailed and well written account of what happened on that night, the background and the repercussions.
John was a respectable yeoman who lived in what is now Lower Morton. He was born on 20th February 1787 and he was the second son of James Allen and Mary who had married on 9th May 1771. We are grateful to the Parish Mouse website for the information that John married Ann Dorney in Kingswood near Wotton under Edge in Gloucestershire on January 12th 1809. We understand that Ann was seven years older than John and was from a wealthy family.
By the time of the poaching affray John and Ann had four children; Amelia (born June 1809), James (born December 1810), Mark (born April 1812) and John (baptised January 1815). Ann was expecting a fifth child who was baptised Ann on 2nd October 1816, after the trial and its sad outcome.
As well as being a farmer John was also a part time collector of taxes. Edwin Ford’s book paints a vivid picture of John as very strong physically, self assured but impulsive and too prepared to talk about what he was intending to do. The book reports conversations that took place in which John made his intention of going poaching very plain. He was even unwise enough to make threats against the game keepers. Apparently whilst in an inn in Cambridge, Gloucestershire, John met Thomas Clarke, Colonel Berkeley’s game-keeper and said “I could pick you like a bird.”
One of the other poachers, William Greenaway lived a short way down the road from John Allen’s house and as he was a casual labourer he worked for the Allen family. John Allen asked William Greenaway to approach various acquaintances in Littleton upon Severn to see if they would join him in a poaching expedition. William did so and so began his involvement in the subsequent events. John spoke to other friends and relations in the area to recruit them in his scheme and so his intentions must have been pretty plain and widely known. Not the less so because he actually wrote to Miss Flora Langley Fust of the estate at Hill saying that he would “visit” her woods on the night of the 18th January and her gamekeepers should keep well away.
On the day intended for the poaching expedition John Allen spent the day in Bristol on business. It seems that on his way home John told the carrier James Prewett about his plans. That night about a dozen men came round to join the group at John Allen’s house where they loaded their guns and blackened their faces. Eight of them had guns. The others had clubs. William Brodribb, a local lawyer who was at the house with two friends, was called upon to take an oath of secrecy from the 16 men who intended to poach (Brodribb’s two friends were not actively involved in any of the events). Although William played no further part in the night’s events he was later transported to Australia for his role in taking the oath. Click here to read more about William Brodribb.
The poaching group met up with 19 gamekeepers in Catgrove Wood who were expecting them. It should be mentioned at this stage that not all of these men were professional gamekeepers, many worked on the estate in other capacities, such a hedging or ditching. They were armed only with sticks and some of the newspaper reports state that even the sticks were not used until after William Ingram was killed. None of them carried a gun. This was on the explicit orders of Colonel Berkeley whose intention apparently was to avoid bloodshed.
Several shots were fired and William Ingram fell to the ground with a chest wound that killed him. About seven of the other gamekeepers were wounded, of these Charles Davis lost an eye and Charles Pinnell received 15 shots in his leg and was crippled for life.
The poachers fled and returned to their homes, except for John Allen who made his way to William Brodribb’s house. There, in an apparent attempt to establish an alibi, he smoked and drank with Brodribb and his friends for a little while before he made his way home.
Next day the remainder of the gamekeepers were able to follow the poachers’ tracks left in the frost. They found that the footprints led to John Allen’s house where the impressions of many other footprints crossed back and forth across the yard.
On the 19th January on the evidence of one of the keepers, Colonel Berkeley and some of his men arrived at Allen’s house. Allen at first refused to surrender and then did so. He and William Greenaway were both struck to the ground by blows from Colonel Berkeley.
John Allen was taken to Hill Court where he was examined before the magistrates who did not accept his alibi that he was drinking and smoking with William Brodribb all that evening. They committed him to Gloucester Gaol to await trial.
The trial of eleven of the poachers began on 9th April. Four of them had escaped. By this time William Greenaway, the man who the other poachers believed had actually fired the fatal shot, had turned King’s evidence. He was now not one of the accused but the principal witness, pinpointing John Allen as the leader of the poaching expedition and John Penny as the one who had shot William Ingram. The trial lasted two days and the jury found all the accused guilty and liable to be hanged but recommended all but two of them to mercy. Colonel Berkeley seconded the recommendations to mercy for the nine convicted men. The two exceptions were John Penny and John Allen.
Bristol Record office has copies of the touching letters that John Allen wrote to his family and friends at this time. The letters protest his innocence, presumably of the murder, but not remorse for instigating the affray that caused so much unhappiness and three deaths, including his own.
On 13th April at 1pm John Allen and John Penny were hanged at Gloucester Gaol. Normally it was the practice to bury the remains in the Gloucester Gaol but in this case, Ambrose Adams and William Witmore pleaded for the return of the bodies and brought them back to Thornbury. The next day, Easter Sunday, they were buried in St Mary’s Churchyard in Thornbury.
John’s memorial reads ;
“In memory of John Allen of Morton in this parish died April 13th 1816 aged 28 years. Lord in the cutting off of my days I shall go to the gates of the grave. I am deprived of the residue of my years.”
John’s widow Ann Allen appears to have continued to live in the Morton area. The 1840 Tithe Apportionment shows that she owned a house and paddock in Morton. The 1841 census shows Ann living in St John Street. Ann was described in the census as ‘Independent’. Ann’s daughter, Amelia aged 27, Eliza Reeves aged 7 and William Allen aged 3 were living with her. Next door lived another daughter, Ann and Ann’s husband Edwin Knapp.
The 1871 census shows that Ann Allen was still “a proprietor of house and land” in Morton. Ann died on April 1st 1874 aged 93 years. She was buried with her husband and other members of the Allen family.
Of their five children
We know nothing about James born in 1810 or James who was baptised in 1815.
Mark Allen was born in 1812. We have been unable to trace him in the 1841 census but by 1851 he was a tailor. He lived in London with his wife Amelia and his daughter, also called Amelia. The couple ran a lodging house and had five lodgers and a servant in the household. He continued to live in the same area (St Botolph’s parish in Aldersgate) and work as a tailor.
John and Ann’s two daughters married two brothers;
Amelia Allen born in June 1809 married Daniel Pitcher Knapp in 1843. Daniel was the brother of the Edwin Knapp who had married Amelia’s sister, Ann, in 1839. Daniel died in 1856 and Amelia became a lodging house keeper in Bristol. She died there in 1885 and was buried with her parents. Read about Daniel Pitcher Knapp.
Ann Allen was baptised 1816. In 1839 she married Edwin Knapp. The 1851 census shows her living in the High Street with Edwin who was a boot and shoe maker and their young family. The 1861 census shows them living in Bristol. It appears that Ann died before 1869 as Edwin remarried in December quarter 1869. Read about Edwin Knapp