Cattle Rustling and the Vicar’s Turkeys

It is not surprising that Steyning, as an agricultural community, suffered its fair share of crimes associated with the countryside.

'A gang of sheep-stealers and robbers of hen-roosts, who for a long time committed deprivations, in and about Steyning, were last week discovered' said a newspaper report of 1797. Two men were charged with 'stealing fowls' and rewards were offered for the apprehension of three others who were accused of 'stealing sheep'.

This, however, was small beer. In 1646 a family by the name of Woodcock – Thomas and his three sons – were accused by James Soale of driving cattle off his land at 'Batts in Steyning'. It was claimed that 'on the 7th day of January he did see the said Edward Woodcock and Francis Woodcock drive the Cattle of the said James Soale out of and from his land'. Moreover they 'did much wound one of the said Cattle' and threatened James Soale 'with Swords, Pistols and other Weapons'.

Throughout the 18th century it was laws to curb poaching, designed by the gentry and adjudicated by the gentry in their interests, which were the focus of attention. So, when – in 1786 – Sir Harry Goring, J. Challen and J.Lloyd (all local gentleman and land owners) sat in judgement at the White Horse in Steyning on Henry Hammond, they found him guilty on three separate counts. First 'For using engines for the destruction of game, not being qualified by law to do so: fined five pounds.' The 'engines' were probably nothing more than a net, a snare and, maybe, a cudgel and the charge was, quite simply, identifying Henry Hammond as being from a class which did not have the same rights as landowners. The second charge was 'For using engines etc. after nine o’clock at night: fined fifteen pounds.' This was a catch-all charge – few poachers would have risked going out earlier in the evening. The third charge was 'For using engines for a like purpose for not having obtained a certificate from the Clerk of the Peace: fined fifteen pounds'. By 1786, there was some certified catching of game, mostly by the landowners themselves, for sale to local towns. Interestingly Hammond was not charged with being in the actual possession of any game – which would have prompted yet another fine. Non-payment of the fines – a likely outcome – would have meant imprisonment.

The attitudes of the land-owning classes persisted into the 19th century. On March 9th 1818 thirty-nine of the town’s great and good attended a meeting of 'The Steyning Society for the Protection of Property and Prosecuting Thieves etc.' at the White Horse. They decided to offer rewards for the detection and conviction of offenders – this being before the founding of the Steyning police force. Ten guineas was offered in the case of the murder of any Member of the Society, 5 guineas for burglary, 5 for arson, another 5 for stopping any Member on the Highway and robbing him, 3 guineas for stealing livestock, 2 for stealing any other property and a further 5 guineas for receiving stolen goods. You will notice that it was only Members of the Society who subscribed and only they who benefited.

There is no mention of murder in their minute books but plenty of references to the theft of agricultural items and other property. The theft of sheep, of wheat and oats, of faggots of wood, of a pitchfork and of poultry all feature prominently. It was in 1828 that the Reverend John Penfold woke one morning to discover that his 'Turkies' had been taken. That the thieves then sold them widely can be seen from the fact that six different people reaped rewards for information leading to the conviction of the miscreants. The rewards ranged from '5/- paid to Mr. Slaughter, £1 to Mr. Penfold’s servant' to '5/5/- for the Brighton [police] Officers'.

Cattle rustling may have been a bit unusual but maybe it was only different in scale from the theft of the vicar’s turkeys.
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