Poldark: Poaching in 18th Century Cornwall
Watch out! Spoilers ahead.
There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.
For the uninitiated, Poldark is an immensely successful British television show based in 18th century England. Season one introduces the titular character, Ross Poldark, who has returned home from fighting in the American revolutionary war.
Ross, hardened by his experience, is now a different man. His homecoming proves to be nearly as arduous as the war he left. Upon his return to Cornwall, he discovers that his father has died, his family mine has failed, and his betrothed is set to marry his cousin. He also has a nifty new scar.
But Captain Poldark still has his noble name and is in good standing among the gentry. As he works to rebuild his life, he befriends members of the underclass. Miners, street urchins, merchants, you name it — Ross is their champion.
Among these new intimates is Jim Carter, a young man with either an absent or incapacitated father and thus a duty to feed his mother and sisters. Lately, though, Jim has another big responsibility: a pregnant girl he’s yet to wed.
Ross’ Inner Turmoil
Throughout Poldark season one, one of Ross’ most redeeming and frustrating qualities is his earnest desire to lift up the poor and underserved. His savior complex continually drives him to rescue the people of Cornwall from their circumstances, regardless of who else it affects. (IE — his wife and children).
Part of it is that he has a giving heart and empathy that runs deep, but another facet is his hatred for the gentry. He’s consistently appalled by their utter disdain for the poor and their tendency to prize animals, machinery, and other luxuries above them.
There’s likely a bit of guilt thrown in as well. Ross comes from good stock himself, having been born into the gentry, and thus has privileges. Almost as if to repent for his noble birth, he leverages his status to help the unfortunate.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
As season one progresses, Ross reopens one of his old family mines, Wheal Leisure, since there’s a possibility that copper may be found. Men soon line up, grateful for the work. Among them is Jim Carter.
Ross becomes wise to his predicament with Jinny, the young woman he impregnated out of wedlock. Jim can’t provide for her and comes to the maddening conclusion that marrying her will ruin her chances (nevermind that she’s already tainted by an illegitimate pregnancy). To make ends meet in the meantime, he poaches pheasants from the nearby lands in the dead of night. Not too smart, this Jim.
To solve the problem, Captain Poldark graciously gives the couple one of his cottages, rent-free. All they need to do is keep it in good condition and look after it for him. The two marry, and all seems well.
Well, almost. Jim’s mother and sister aren’t going anywhere. His miner’s salary, though generous as far as industry standards of the time went, was not enough to provide for a wife, an unborn child, and the rest of his family.
Pushing The Envelope
So, Jim continues to tempt fate. Jinny hates it and is rightly worried that someone will catch him. The laws around poaching were extremely strict at the time. He realizes this and promises her he’ll stop after one last night. Meanwhile, Ross is aware of what Jim’s been up to, and has yet another solution for him — better-paying employment.
Sadly, he’s too late. That night, Jim is caught red-handed and thrown in jail. Ross goes to court to argue his case, saying Jim had a lung condition that would never allow him to survive a stint in lockup. Instead of acquittal, he’s sentenced to two years in Bodmin Jail – likely a death sentence.
A few episodes later, it proves to be. Prison conditions are downright horrible. A person can easily become sick and die without any medical care offered. Seeing the state of him, Poldark breaks Jim out with the help of his friend, a physician named Dr. Enys. They attempt to save his life, going so far as to amputate his arm. It doesn’t work, and he dies.
So – would that have really happened?
Yep. Up until the early 1700s, for the most part, landowners handled the issue of poaching. The offender could receive anything from a day in the stocks to a fine and a severe lecture. Maybe even a few days in jail.
Depending on where you were in England, you could expect to hunt a couple rabbits or deer in the woods or the forest, but if those lands were bought and fenced off as private property, you were SOL. So, if a down-on-his-luck father took a few pheasants for his family, he was reproached – but not banished, transported, or hanged.
It was the poaching gangs who ended up ruining it for everybody.
At the turn of the 18th century, England experienced an economic downturn thanks to the South Sea Bubble’s collapse. The resultant social tensions created the perfect breeding ground for what was to come: Hampshire and Windsor Forest saw the rise of two poaching gangs.
In October of 1721, the Hampshire group struck first. Sixteen poachers gathered in Farnham with the intention to raid the park of the Bishop of Winchester. In order to go undetected, the men blackened their faces and later came to be known as the “Blacks“. They stole a few deer and killed a handful more. Four of the poachers eventually got caught. Two of them endured the stocks and received a year and a day in prison.
The Ante Upped
The Blacks weren’t happy about the convictions that fell on two of their number. Rather than back down, they carried out an even more audacious raid on the Bishop’s property. This time, they took a whopping eleven deer and killed many more. The aristocracy upped the ante by releasing a royal proclamation offering 100 pounds (that’s well over 2,000 pounds in 2019) for information on the suspects.
In response, members of the underclass performed a series of raids that were less for gain and more about sticking it to the man. At this point, a notorious hanging judge was sent to preside over these matters when they came to court, and so The Blacks went underground.
Over in Windsor Forest, a second gang copied the first. From 1722 to 1723, they led a host of raids, one of which involved the murder of a gamekeeper’s son. The government took swift action and introduced the Black Act as a means for punishing these criminals. Under the Black Act, a total of 50 criminal acts were punishable by death.
Guilty Until Proven Guilty
This included being disguised in any way and simultaneously happening to be in a forest, chase, down, or Royal Park. If you were an accessory after the fact or fell under the very stringent “any other person or persons” portion, you could be hanged. If someone like Ross Poldark showed up to court and irritated a judge, it’s easy to see how the defendant could still end up in jail or transported to a penal colony.
It also didn’t help that jail conditions were completely disgusting. Many prisons were unregulated. They were attended by jailers who were paid little or nothing for their work and thus susceptible to bribes. Prison could be a tower, part of a castle, or beneath a pub, and many were dank, dark places of filth.
It didn’t matter if you were a hardened criminal or simply a debtor either — you might all end up in the same place. With conditions so poor and oversight so nonexistent, it’s not hard to imagine a man with a lung condition may easily get sick, receive no treatment, and die.
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