The following is an excerpt from a local paper describing the story of the infamous ‘Broughton Hall Affray’ of 1859 involving Poachers from Cowling and Gamekeepers from the estate of Broughton Hall, Skipton.
Date of text is unknown.
rogue of the English rural scene keeps his toe-hold in immortality by dint of that old song, “The Lincolnshire Poacher:
As me and my comrade
Were setting of a snare,
Twas then we spied the gamekeeper,
For him we did not care,
For we can wrestle and tight, my boys,
And jump o’er anywhere.
Oh! ’tis my delight on a shining night,
season of the year.
That the reality was seldom so swashbuckling is evidenced by the melodramatically termed Great Broughton Hall Poaching Affray of 1859.
At that time, the village of Cowling harboured a notorious band of poachers. “The skin cap and the large pocketed coat were their uniform, one romantic wrote, “the weighted bludgeon their weapon, and, if you will, the short blackened clay pipe the insignia of a numerous and formidable brotherhood”.
The poacher occupied an anomalous position. Although transportation had been abolished by 1859, the game laws still carried severe penalties. Yet, as often as not, poachers and gamekeepers were acquainted with one another, drinking at the same public-houses (the White Bear at Cross Hills, in our present story).
One could be described as well liked by the farmer; for they knew that his gang left no gates open, nor even knocked a wall down they did not big again” Even the landowners attitude was occasionally ambiguous: it was rumoured, in this case, that a neighbouring gentleman had put the word out that he would pay well for 30 couples of sturdy live Broughton hares, to set down on his own estate. Be that as it may, the Cowling poachers met at Carr head, late on a Saturday night, February 19, 1859. Accounts differ as to their number, from 19 to 30 perhaps the lower figure is more authentic. They refused to enlist two men who were timorous, and one who was drunk.
They included such local notabilities” as Ben Snowden, nicknamed “Spenom”; Joseph Snowden or Joe Hollow”; and one ”Old Wasner” A giant among them, broad and well above six feet tall, was Tom Emmott, better known as “Tom o’ t’ Windhill, who had turned down a job handling wild beasts with Wombwell’s Menagerie and who came along that night for no better reason than a tiff with his sweetheart. Encumbered with their , cudgels, nets and sacks-for poaching could be a heavy business they tramped by way of Stonegappe, cross Green and Yellison Farm towards Sir Charles Robert Tempest’s Broughton Hall estate, three miles west of
John Stott, head gamekeeper, and John Kidd, under-keeper were men with their ears to the around, and had wind of the poachers’ coming, They had recruited 11 watchers from the estate workers and adjoining farmers, and waited behind a wall surrounding the Dane Cliffe plantation.
Photo – Benjamin Snowden – ‘Spenom’
At two o’clock on Sunday morning, February 20,’the poachers set their nets round the lower end of the wood. They soon caught two hares. while half their number moved up to the top end. Holding their ambush till its most effective moment, the watchers scrambled suddenly over the wall, cudgels flailing, and knocked them down. The rest of the poachers came blundering up at the first snout and battle was joined.
There is not a lot to be said about the Great Broughton Hall Poaching Affray itself. Imagine 30 to 40 men in the dark, fighting with sticks and snatching up lumps of timber to hit out with. Friend and foe were indistinguishable, and Tom o’ t’ Windhill, prominent by his height, was belaboured by both sides. One of the captured hares was, in the word of a participant, “smashed”.
Nearly everybody tired, after a while, and they drew apart, the poachers retreating. Stott and Kidd, the two keepers, made as if to follow them, when half a dozen Cowling men turned back and heat them to the ground. “I shall never forget,” re-called an eye-witness, “the two pools of blood I saw there that morning”.
Taking stock of the battlefield, the watchers counted as booty the poachers’ sacks, found hidden in a barn, and a captured dog called “Lassie”. They also measured the branches that had been used as weapons: one was seven feet long, and as thick as a man’s arm.
For the poachers, the homeward return across the moors was dreadful. Several fainted on the way; one was left in a barn till a cart could be fetched for him. Tom o’ t’ Windhill had to be carried, unconscious. On Pinhaw they laid him down in the heather, and there is a story probably apocryphal that they thought he was dead and debated whether or not to bury him. The question was resolved by his opening his eyes and saying, “Have we won?” Delirious, be was driven to Colne in a dog-cart; thence smuggled by train to Harpurhey, Manchester.
Afterwards, Cowling buzzed with policemen. Lassie was taken to the home of her suspected owner, where a boy observed, “They’ve getten our dog”, and was promptly knocked down by his relations. Unhappily, her master sported a wound on his head. He pulled off the plaster, started it bleeding again, and emerged from his barn remarking that he had “tummelled off t’hay-mow”! He was arrested notwithstanding, and made to feed Lassie every day, the police watching to see if she recognised him. She never did; she had been trained not to.
Another poacher was taken without his coat on; the police wouldn’t let him go home for one, saying they would provide one. This turned out to be a policeman’s coat, in which he was brought before the gamekeepers, both ill in bed. Not surprisingly, they failed to identify him.
For Tom o’ t’ Windhill and Spenom, both in hiding in Manchester, the Affray’s sequel was a dismal anticlimax. Both were arrested there. Police officer James Whitaker would depose: ‘”On the 5th of March I accidentally met the prisoners in Manchester. … Both the prisoners then said they had come from Cowling and had come out of the way for the police were after them respecting a poaching affray at Broughton. I observed they had no, occasion to come out of the way if they were not there, when they both replied that they were there and enquired if 1 thought they would be safe in Manchester, observing that if they were safe they would try and get work there. … I was during this interview off duty, in my plain clothes. …”
They were not. it transpired, “safe in Manchester”. The next time they saw Police officer Whitaker, he was on duty.
After proceedings before the Skipton magistrates, Torn o’ t’ Windhill, Spenom, and a third poacher called Binns, were committed for trial at the York Assizes. The charge of night poaching was a serious one. They came up at York Castle before Mr Justice Byles on July 16, 1859. Many Cowling friends attended, cheerfully prepared to speak as to alibis and characters; and all three were acquitted, “as through the darkness of the night there was a doubt as to their identification”.
Never again would Cowling poachers tramp out openly by night. The Great Broughton Hall Affray turned such a glare of publicity on them that the gang broke up. Yet, with the passing years, this brutal and rather clumsy episode entered into the lore of the district. Half a century later, Jonas Bradley the famous Stanbury schoolmaster and a nephew of Spenom, filled a notebook of cuttings and local reminiscences (to which the present account is largely indebted). Edwardian jottings like “Ned o’ t’ Fair Place, Head Gamekeeper for John Brigg on Keighley Moor, has the original weapon used by Joe Hollow” hint at the awe with which the Affray was remembered.
In 1901, Alfred Teal, a native of Cowling, wrote a play about it; and when Spenom died on the last day of 1904, novelist Keighley Snowden wrote a hyperfervid sonnet about him:
Loyal and imperturbable, a rock of men!
Modest most excellently—dauntless, playful, kind! &c,….
More fortunately for regional literature, he had already enshrined him as the poacher “Weasel” in his novel, The Web of an Old Weaver”, published in 1896. Tom Emmott, known to the last as Tom o’ t’ Windhill, lived until 1917.
Photo credit from the book – ‘Cowling A Moorland Parish’