Today in London rebel history: poachers proclaimed under the Black Act seek revenge, 1725

Continuing the story of poachers on Enfield Chase from July 9th

Edmonton blacksmith William ‘Vulcan’ Gates was proclaimed under the Black Act on July 20th 1725, after game-keeper Henry Best swore evidence that Gates had stolen two deer and fired on the keepers on Enfield Chase on July 9th. The Act’s terms meant a formally ‘proclaimed’ man had to surrender within forty days, and if he didn’t, was considered a felon who could be executed without trial if caught.

Poaching had become more than a way to eat better and make a bit of cash, it was a way of life for many, and had led to a state of perpetual class violence in the area of the Chase. Poachers and keepers shot at each other if they should meet; keepers were sometimes waylaid in the dark and beaten. Gates and his confederates considered Best giving evidence as provocation and were bent on revenge. On July 20th, the same day as he was ‘proclaimed’, Gates showed he had little intention to surrender himself. he and three other horsemen rode into the Chase in search of Best, threatening to shoot him. They failed to find him then, but ten days later, encountered him, and beat him up, breaking one of his legs.

Gates, Aaron Maddocks, (known as an agent for London thieftaker Jonathan Wild), Thomas James, and Enfield labourer and enthusiastic poacher, were certainly three of these men. James was hanged in Kent in early 1726 for horse-stealing. But Vulcan Gates had been picked up and sent to Newgate on another matter, under an alias. Unfortunately he let slip his secret to a prison barber, who dobbed him in for a substantial reward. As a proclaimed man who had failed to surrender, it was necessary only to prove his identity and he was then sentenced to death without a trial. Gates argued that he had never heard of the proclamation as he was out of town, and being illiterate had not read or understood any published version. He denied he had ever gone disguised or hunted armed, and nothing had been proved against him. These not unreasonable legal arguments were swept aside however. In response, Gates decided that if justice wasn’t going to play fair, he was not going to play the traditional role of willing participant in the ritual of hanging, and with other prisoners, barricaded himself in a cell and refused to come out. He was eventually persuaded out by the Sherriff of London and agreed to ride off to be hanged at Tyburn.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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