Enfield Chase, a large tract of open land to the north of London, was for many centuries a battleground, between landowners and the inhabitants of surrounding villages. Landowners sought to enclose the Chase, fence parts off, and deprive the mainly poor residents of the parishes of Edmonton, Hadley, Enfield and South Mimms of any common rights they had – to collect fuel, graze animals, and in some cases hunt small game for food.
While enclosure could sometimes directly led to notable outbreaks of violent resistance – for instance there were anti-enclosure riots in 1589, 1603, 1649, 1659 – there was a constant low level struggle, between these moments. Landowners’ attempts to rent parts of the Chase out would be met with destruction of fences; excluding locals from fields would result in groups breaking back in to graze their horses and cows. A barrage of small regular actions took their toll on the succession of owners and tenants. Not only were the inhabitants of the four parishes mentioned above eternally petitioning and destroying enclosures, but an “abundance of loose, idle and disorderly persons who live in other parishes” were also alleged to ‘infest’ the Chase: “going in dark nights, with axes, saws, bills, carts and horses, and in going rob honest people of their sheep, lambs and poultry, and make… great strip, havock, and wast of your majesty’s best timber and underwood.” Theft of wood from enclosed land was seen as enforcing a traditional right locally, and led to numberless prosecutions, though little changed even when culprits were severely punished. Squatters built cottages on the edges of the forest, driven from other areas by enclosure and poverty; while wealthy settlers from London ‘laid waste’ to the common rights of locals.
Another factor in the war between landless and landed was poaching. Stealing deer from the Chase’s hunting grounds – reserved for the rich – was endemic. Hungry and desperate men didn’t need much to drive them to lift game. Many of the keepers hired to protect the deer were also poaching on the side. Attempts by the Chase’s Rangers – who leased the Chase in a grant from the king – over several decades in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to curb poaching led to poachers tooling up.
In the 1720s this war reached fever pitch. Punishment was meted out heavily to men suspected of being poachers or wood-stealers – mainly convicted on the grounds of guns or wood found in their homes, by local justices who included the Ranger himself, by then one General Pepper, an ex-army man, who had stepped up repression in an attempt to put a stop to thieving once and for all. He had the support of local militia, but locally was hated. He was shot at several times from the darkness, his servants were attacked, and he felt himself under siege. He was also regretting ever buying the lease of this troublesome space.
Those accused of poaching were a mix of locals with a grudge against Pepper, crims from London (some linked to ‘thieftaker’ Jonathan Wild) with interests in the clandestine venison trade, and hardened deer-stealers fired by danger, family tradition, some class feeling, or hunger. Enfield Chase was an area that had always been to some extent a stronghold of footpads, rebels, and highwaymen; now if became associated with the ‘Blacks’, poachers who blacked up or went disguised to slip past keepers. Disguises became necessary as the laws against poaching grew harsher and rewards were increased for grassing poachers up. A surge in organized ‘Blacking’ in a number of areas in the early 1720s led to the passing of the 1723 Black Act, which introduced several new capital offences, and was gradually embellished to become probably the most repressive statute ever in Britain.
But the poachers were clubbing together, supporting each other in their enterprises.
In 1721 among several cases brought by general Pepper, three deer-stealers were jailed for a year, then put in the pillory in Enfield, but Pepper then refused to release them, and they were pilloried again in March 1723. A riot was expected, and horse grenadiers had to guard them to prevent them being freed by angry locals. One of these men was William Gates (sometimes called Yates), an Edmonton blacksmith known as ‘Vulcan’, a poacher from his youth. His imprisonment didn’t dampen his spirit though,; he was soon back at it. On 9th July 1725, gates and another man killed two deer on the Chase, exchanging shots with some keepers. Gates and his associates were said to be constantly in the Chase, and had become “so insolent” the keepers could not appear without “hazard to their lives”.
A keeper, Henry Best, swore evidence against Gates, earning his enmity…
To be continued on July 20th…
Lifted from EP Thompson, Whigs & Hunters: the origin of the Black Act
For more on enclosure and resistance on Enfield Chase, see
JM Patrick, William Covell & the Struggles at Enfield in 1659
a pamphlet republished by past tense
Available from our website
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online