Gamekeepers

A house given a wide berth by many young lads and poachers was the one known as Keeper’s Cottage (Toll Bar Cottage) in Hulverstone. In 1841 a 30 year old game keeper, Henry Caws, lived there, as did the gamekeeper William Bartlett, from Kent who is also mentioned in the 1891 census. In 1911 Alfred Summerfield is the gamekeeper living at the Lodge of Brook Hill House. In the 1930s Ken and Audrey Barnes remember a Mr Becket and after him, a Mr Kiddie, living in the Toll House.

The best remembered keeper was Mr Bob French who lived in Ivy Cottage, Brook from 1949 and worked as gamekeeper for 30 years.

Mr French (as he was known by everyone) was appointed by Lord Sherwood who then owned the Brooke Estate and was himself a keen gunman and had regular shooting parties. He was always immaculately dressed in tweed plus fours, had a gun under his arm and was accompanied by two very obedient gundogs.

Latterly Mr French also became a Special Constable, a role he enjoyed and which helped him in his work. He met many people, gamekeeping can be a solitary occupation,  and gained their respect. Young people, in particular, learned a lot about the countryside from him as Nicolas Hawkes, son of Jacquetta and stepson of J B Priestley, remembers: There was a big Forestry Commission plantation above Brook and deciduous woods too, owned by Lord Sherwood.  Mr French told us not to go into them, for obvious reasons, but I was a SKULL-COLLECTOR, and interested in the array of dead jays, magpies, crows, squirrels, moles and stoats which Mr French hung up in his ‘larder’ on the edge of the woods.  There was also an occasional weasel, which was rare, a sparrow-hawk and one Little Owl.  Mr French was kind to me and advised me to clean skulls by burying them near wood ants and digging them up some time later.

Avice Mariner (French) remembers her father’s work routine: He rose early and went on his rounds to inspect his traps and snares, also in the early summer, to feed the pheasants and partridges. He would return for breakfast then go off again for the whole morning.

His work would be varied; in the winter months it would include cutting out rides, rabbiting with nets and ferrets, and organising the several Shoots which took place between November and February. This entailed marking out where the Guns should stand; finding Beaters and Stops; organising transport for the Guns and food for the Beaters.

At the end of the day, Beaters and Stops had to be paid and pheasants hung ready for collection by the local butcher, Mr Cooper from Brighstone. I remember my father getting very anxious before a Shoot in case there would not be a good supply of pheasants for shooting or the Guns would not be accurate shots, thereby not producing a `good bag` at the end of the day.

I remember very few winter evenings when my father would be home. Usually he would be walking the woods looking for poachers who seemed abundant in those days.  As a young girl, I was allowed to be a Stop. It was always very cold and boring but I did earn money! I wouldn`t do this nowadays as I prefer to see the birds strutting around rather than being killed.

On some Saturdays in the winter I would accompany my father on his rounds. I enjoyed these days and from him I learned to walk quickly as he always had many miles to cover each day. I used to go rabbiting with him using the ferrets. Once I was bitten by Betty, a large female and I worried that it might turn septic, so I didn`t tell anyone.

During the Summer holidays I would go in the harvest fields and help to run after the rabbits which waited until the last before running away from the combine harvester. I remember wearing shorts and wellingtons, the latter because of the sharp stubble. I think I looked a weird sight.


Robin Shepheard lived in Meadow Cottage, Brook and remembers as a young lad being called on to help with the shoots: Mr French organised very good pheasant shoots on the estate.  I started off very early in the morning as a ‘stopper.’ This meant being in position, about 5am, usually up at High Crate, a wood under the Downs running down to Dunsbury Farm road.  The idea was to make just enough noise with your stick to keep the pheasants in the wood but not frighten them, so that they were still there when the beaters started the first drive of the day.

As I got older I became a beater and later I became a gun loader. The Guns I loaded for included Sir Robert Boothby, MP, complete with plus fours and bow tie, and Colonel Moulton Barratt of Westover Manor, Calbourne. 

On the morning shoots the guns were very accurate, but after a good liquid lunch at Lord Sherwood’s house, things went downhill in the afternoon (anything that flew would be shot at).  The beaters had a very good ploughman’s lunch at the Sun Inn.  The first drive after lunch was in the long copse running from Tollgate Cottage right to the Military Road. The guns would all be positioned in the marsh and Alf Woodford’s withy bed at Sudmoor.

 
Rabbits were a feature of life in Brook as they are today. Nicolas Hawkes noted in his diary that in 1954 there were hordes of rabbits because while myxomatosis had not yet reached the Island, no one would buy them as meat because of the scare... Once the distressing disease arrived it wiped out the rabbit population for a couple of years but in one of his eleven speeches in the House of Lords over the Rabbits (Prohibition of Spreading) Bill of 1956, Hugh Seely, Lord Sherwood, said:

Now I have just heard from my keeper that in the last four weeks he has killed over 200 rabbits. So it is clear that the rabbits are coming back. That figure of 200 represents only what my keeper has killed. I am afraid that only about twenty rabbits will have been accounted for by the farmers, for the simple reason that, as a result of the operation of the Agricultural Wages Act, wages are so high—nearly £7 a week— that there is no point in having a rabbiter on an estate. You cannot sell rabbits because no one will buy them. Hansard, 1956. Parliamentary copyright

Nicolas Hawkes remembers: from my very first visit to Brook Hill in spring 1953 I was interested in learning how to shoot rabbits, and at first I was lucky. Mr French was generous with his time, and I killed a few.  But it was beginner’s luck.  After a while I grew unreliable and over-keen on going out with him and Charlie Smith, the under-keeper;  so Mr French grew impatient  with me - understandably. On one occasion we went out to where the burrows were in the midst of brambles.  He took a dog and a ferret in a sack, with a ferocious-looking home-made hacking tool to get through the brambles, to put the ferret down the hole.