Page images

Yet the unfortunate tenant does not dare to open his mouth; and would as soon think of poisoning his wife, as of shooting one of these vermin if it were cantering away

before his eyes, with his favourite duck over his shoulders. Now, with all deference to the honourable Grantley Berkley, we must take leave to designate this as a scandalous and intolerable injustice : the only principle on which we can account for this disgraceful injury inflicted by men of honour—men who would not escape from an hotel by the window, leaving their bill unpaid,- is that suggested by the ancient satirist, DEFENDIT NUMERUS The injustice which no individual Meltonian would dare to inflict, and which he would be the first to resent, is sanctified in his estimation by the company of a hundred blockheads in scarlet, and in no way interferes with their convivial gratulations on an excellent day's sport. But the inexperienced reader will perhaps say, he has the protection of the law, let him bring his action for trespass, or lay his complaint before the bench of magistrates. We can only say, that should he ever commit such a trespass in the court of the great unpaid, especially with a country clergyman or two on the bench, he has greater blunder to commit, and that is, to carry a grievance into an ecclesiastical court.

But again ; it may be supposed, that the farmer's liability to these outrages is the unavoidable accident of his condition, and that it is not permitted and perpetuated by act of parliament. Perhaps the principle, de minimis non curat lex, which the rustic might freely translate—the law takes no care of very small farmers, might seem to the uninitiated to cover the case.

But let us look to the act, anno primo, Georgii IV. Regis, cap. 56. In this act it is provided, that “if any person shall wilfully or maliciously commit any damage, injury, or spoil upon any building, fence, hedge, gate, stile, guide-post, milestone, tree, wood, underwood, orchard, garden, nursery-ground, crops, vegetables, plants, land, or other matter or thing growing or being therein, or to or upon real or personal property of any nature or kind soever, he may be immediately seized by anybody without a warrant, taken before a magistrate, and fined (according to the mischief he has done) to the extent of £5, or in default of payment, may be committed to the jail for three months.' And at the end comes a clause exempting from the operation of this act all mischief done in hunting and by shooters who are qualified.

• This,' says that wittiest of divines, ‘Sydney Smith, “is the most impudent piece of legislation that ever crept into the statute-book, and, coupled with Mr. Justice Best's declaration, constitutes the following affectionate relation between the different orders of society. Says the higher link to the lower, “If you meddle with my game, I will immediately murder you; if you commit the slightest injury upon my real or personal property, I will take you before a magistrate, and fine you five pounds. I am in parliament, and you are not; and I have just brought in an act of parliament for that purpose.

But so important is it to you that my pleasures should not be interrupted, that I have exempted myself and friends from the opera. tion of this act; and we claim the right (without allowing you any such summary remedy) of riding over your fences, hedges, gates, stiles, guide-posts, mile-stones, woods, underwoods, orchards, gardens, nursery-grounds, crops, vegetables, plants, lands, or other matters or things growing or being thereupon, including your children and yourselves, if you do not get out of the way.' Is there upon earth such a mockery of justice as an act of parliament pretending to protect property, sending a poor hedge-breaker to jail, and specially exempting from its operation the accusing and the judging squire, who, at the tail of the hounds, has that morning, perhaps, ruined as much wheat and seeds as would purchase fuel a whole year for a whole village ?'

But to return from these more general aristocratic grievances, to the specific evils of the game-laws. These, with all the vexation, destruction of neighbourly feeling, public expense, multiplied crime, and not infrequent murder, of which they are a prolific source, proceed upon the principle, that wild animals are as essentially the private property of certain individuals, as any other species of possession. To this assumption, the common sense and the universal feeling of society ever has been and, we venture to predict, ever will be most resolutely opposed; while the horrible murders committed in its support alike by the law, the game-keeper, and the poacher, the extended term of transportation and imprisonment, entailing the ruin of individuals and the pauperization of families, and the perfectly disgusting brutality of county and clerical magistrates, have so deepened and strengthened this feeling that, on this account alone, it becomes imperative that the game-laws should be abolished, even were there some appearance of justice and propriety in the arguments adduced for their continuance. In support of this position, we will refer to one or two recent instances out of hundreds, with which the public press is continually teeming. It will perhaps be recollected, that at a meeting of the magistrates of Bedfordshire, in sessions, a proposal for the enlargement of the county jail was vigorously resisted by a worthy baronet, a member of parliament, on the ground that it was only necessitated by the laws

for the protection of game, under which one third of the commitments (we believe, though we are quoting from memory) were made. On this occasion the honourable baronet, cordially supported by a few of the more independent of his brothermagistrates, so effectually denounced the flagrant injustice of saddling the county with the expense of building and maintaining one-third of the jail, for the purpose of protecting the amusements of a handful of landlords, that the question of the said enlargement was postponed.

In an adjoining county we have the following cases reported, which occurred within a week of the time at which we are now writing

At the Aylesbury Petty Sessions, Emanuel Priest was convicted of having set a snare in a hare's run, on the preserve of Sir J.D. King, Bart., at Helston. He was committed to prison for seven days, in default of the payment of one shilling fine and nineteen shillings costs. William Jeffkins was committed to prison for ten days in default of the payment of two shillings and sixpence fine and twenty shillings costs, for having trespassed in pursuit of game on the preserve of the above gentleman.

We have before us the report of a still more offensive and equally recent occurrence; we copy it from the Liverpool Mercury.

On Saturday last, Thomas Edge, of Hoskar Moss, and three other young farm labourers, appeared before the Rev. Joshua Thomas Horton, clerk, in the public-house justice-room, to answer a charge of trespass preferred against him by Lord Skelmersdale, father-in-law to Lord Stanley, one of her Majesty's principal secretaries of state. It appears that the young men had obtained permission of Thomas Morris, Esq. to have a day's ferreting for rabbits, as a sort of Christmas gift on his lands near Hosker Moss in Latham, and in the course of the day they inadvertently walked into a field adjoining the one of Mr. Morris's, belonging to his lordship, erroneously supposing it at the same time to belong to the former gentleman. They were seen by his lordship’s gamekeeper, who informed them they were trespassing, when they immediately retired, expressing their regret to the keeper, and telling him that the trespass was not committed knowingly. The damage done to the herbage of the field does not amount to more than half a farthing, rated at the very highest. The gamekeeper appeared to support the information, and the reverend magistrate convicted the parties in damages of forty shillings each and costs, and inflicted an additional fine of eight pounds.

It is impossible to believe that the humane and christian public will longer tolerate such scandalous injustice as this, and we trust that the feeling which the daily publication of such cases excites, will lead not only to the abolition of the existing game-laws, but to such an examination of our present system of magisterial judicature as shall purge the commission of the petty despots who at present disgrace the bench (and especially of the clergy), and rescue the most unprotected classes of society from the multiplied but unnoticed wrongs which they daily suffer from the cruel despotism of the squire and the stolid bitterness of the parson.

The ninth parliamentary report on prison discipline lately published, contains some equally impressive evidence on the mischievous tendencies of the Game-laws.

At the House of Correction for Norfolk, the Inspector found 'the youngest offender against the Game Laws' he had seen, a boy of eleven years of age, who was summarily convicted with his brother, aged thirteen, for using a certain engine called a snare, for the purpose of taking game, not having a game certificate.' The experience drawn from witnessing the utter inefficacy of the numerous convictions for offences against the Game-laws, induces Captain Williams, in reporting specially to the Home Secretary, to say, that however severe in physical restraints, or powerful in moral influ. ence, prison discipline may be, it signally fails in producing any salutary impression upon offenders convicted of infractions of the law enacted for the preservation of Game. These men, when undergoing imprisonment, appear possessed with the idea that these laws are more harshly and inflexibly administered than other cases of a more serious character; and that the punishments awarded are unequal, disproportionate, and unjust.'

"I have frequently endeavoured,' says the Chaplain of the House of Correction at Northallerton (for the North Riding of Yorkshire), · but quite in vain, to persuade prisoners convicted of poaching, that they offend God in breaking the laws of their country. They answer—the law is oppressive, and they have as much right to the game as others. The man's neighbours, too, second him in this feeling when discharged; they receive him as usual, saying, “Tom, you have been in prison, it is true, but not for stealing, or felony. A man loses no caste by having committed an offence against the Game-laws, but when discharged, goes into the society of his fellowmen quite as usual.

• The Chaplain of the Beccles House of Correction for the county of Suffolk, says— It is difficult to impress the prisoners with an idea that poaching is a crime; I endeavour, therefore, to impress them with an idea that it is injurious to their temporal welfare, by setting the higher orders against them, as placing obstacles in the way of their getting employment. I have frequently heard them say, 'I shall never follow poaching if I can get employment;' and this has been uttered by men of whom I have had the best opinion, but I could never get one to go farther than in promising

conditionally to give up the pursuit. I have frequently beard them make comparisons between the punishments for game and for felony. They also say it is better to do this than go into the Union.

At Kendal, the Chaplain of the House of Correction for the county of Westmorland, says—There are frequent commitments here for poaching, or rather illegal fishing, chiefly from Kirby Lonsdale ; the Lime being a great fishing river. One reason for taking salmon out of season is, the roe being greatly prized as a bait for trout and char. I cannot, with all my endeavour to do so, persuade them is a crime; they answer, “It is no crime against God, if it be against man.'

In like manner the Chaplain at the Carlisle County Gaol remarks, that it is quite hopeless to impress poachers with the feeling that they are guilty of a crime. They say, “the birds of the air, and the fishes of the water are everybody's property. They go out of gaol under the same impressions, only to return.

And in the journal of the Chaplain to the Knutsford House of Correction for Cheshire, the following passage occurs :-'Admonished, but to little purpose, two poachers on their discharge. The great difficulty with such cases is to persuade them that wild fowl can, or ought to be considered a property.'

Nor is this feeling confined to game-law culprits. It prevails universally throughout the country, and obtains more or less the sympathy of all who have not a direct interest in the perpetuation of the injustice. Most truly does a recent and very sensible writer on this subject observe that

• If a farmer, pestered with hares, were to shoot one in his fields, and carry it home for dinner, though the law might punish that farmer, his character would not suffer, except with game-preserving landlords. But let a farmer shoot a neighbour's sheep which may chance to have strayed into his fields, and carry home the mutton for domestic use, and such farmer will at once be set down as a thief--a sheep-stealer. In the one case, he is looked upon as a sufferer-in the other, as a dishonest, dishonoured, and irretrievablydegraded man.

It would probably be found, on an appeal to the public, that there is no indisposition to recognise a property in game, in a modified sense ; and that a strong aversion would in fact be entertained to having the breed of wild animals exterminated -as they would be were hordes of idle and dissolute characters allowed to roam unchecked over the country. But the preservation of pheasants and partridges may be bought too dear. And such has been the case. Blood has been shed like water; hundreds of men have been transported—thousands have been imprisoned-in upholding the Game-laws; and, independent of all that, there has been more of insolent and vindictive cruelty, and mean, petty oppression exercised in carrying them out, than in carrying out all our other laws put together. The details of some of the cases connected with the

« PreviousContinue »