My novel, The Mrs MacKinnons, involves a poacher and mantraps, in a small way, so I looked into what the law was on these subjects at the beginning of the 19th century.
The rural poor in England could, at one time, legally graze cows or sheep on common land, or take the occasional rabbit. Some resorted to poaching game on private land to feed themselves or to sell the game for profit. During the Regency period and earlier, man-traps were one of the inhumane methods used to trap poachers on private land.
There were many laws introduced over the centuries aiming to prevent the poor taking game from private land. For example, an act passed in 1671, in the reign of Charles II, decreed that the following people were not allowed to have guns, bows, hunting dogs or ferrets, nets etc:
“..all and every person and persons, not haveing Lands and Tenements or some other Estate of Inheritance in his owne or his Wifes right of the cleare yearely value of one hundred pounds per ann. or for terme of life, or haveing Lease or Leases of ninety nine yeares or for any longer terme, of the cleare yearely value of one hundred and fifty pounds, other then the Sonne and Heire apparent of an Esquire, or other person of higher degree”
So the right to even possess guns or hunting dogs depended on owning property of a certain value, or being a member of the upper classes. Penalties varied, but the Black Act of 1723 introduced 50 new capital crimes, many of them related to poaching.
The threat of hanging, or transportation, was not sufficient to deter many poachers. In some ways these draconian penalties even backfired; when the penalty for murder was no worse than that for poaching, there was a great incentive to use violence to evade capture and arrest.
Spring guns and man-traps
In the last quarter of the 18th century, many landowners took to protecting their property using man-traps and spring guns, both being cheaper to implement than employing additional game keepers.
A spring gun is just a gun with a wire or string used to ‘spring’ the trigger and fire the weapon. A poacher tripping over the wire would fire the gun. Spring guns could be loaded with a charge of powder only, in an attempt to frighten the poacher, but many were also loaded with a ball as well.
Man-traps could be as damaging as spring guns. The specimen in the photo above shows one in the ‘ready’ position. These could be left in full view to deter poachers, or concealed to trap them. The hooks on the central plate are to hold in place the grass and twigs that would be used to conceal it.
Anyone stepping on the central plate would release the springs and the toothed jaws would snap shut with considerable force. The photo below shows one of these traps in the ‘sprung’ position – the whole thing is around 6 feet long. It’s hard to imagine someone caught in one of those being able to walk again.
Inhumane as the use of these traps seems to us, there was one mitigating aspect to the law. A landowner had to put up notices stating that his property was protected by these traps. Anyone injured by them when there was no warning was entitled to compensation.
The use of these traps in England was outlawed in 1827, but landowners still wanted to stop poaching so the ‘humane’ trap was invented. This caught the leg without injuring it (although I would imagine the leg being bruised, at least). A key was required to release the jaws.
As you might imagine, it was not unknown for the owner of a property, or one of his employees, to spring one of these traps unawares. Poetic justice, one might think, as far as the landowners were concerned, not so for their employees. These days, such traps are only used to trap animals.
Update: I recently came across this excellent article on the Pen and Pension website, by William Savage. It points out that the harsh penalties for poaching were not really aimed at the small-scale poacher taking game to feed his family, but for poaching gangs taking game on a large scale to sell in the cities. Worth a read.