Catchers in the Rye

E.S. Turner

  • Rural Reflections: A Brief History of Traps, Trapmakers and Gamekeeping in Britain by Stuart Haddon-Riddoch
    Argyll, 416 pp, £40.00, April 2006, ISBN 1 902831 96 9

A multi-volume Anthology of Huntingdonshire Cabmen (‘sure to be the standard work on the subject’) was a running gag in J.B. Morton’s ‘Beachcomber’ column in the Daily Express. Compare and contrast, as the examiners used to say, with the anthology of Wednesfield trapmakers which occupies more than a hundred pages (with 70 more pages of non-Wednesfield trapmakers) in this extraordinary compendium, or ‘mine of information’, disarmingly entitled Rural Reflections. There is nothing in the least jokey about the Wednesfield A to Z. It is a painstaking tribute to the blacksmiths and ironfounders of a Staffordshire town who for generations took on the duty of regulating the more tiresome elements of the brute creation; or as Stuart Haddon-Riddoch puts it, producing ‘an ecological balance in our ever-changing countryside’; or, as the manufacturers might have put it, eliminating pests in the interests of good husbandry, public safety, sanitation, sustenance, fun and fashion. The men of Wednesfield took over a trade which had been practised successfully in Dorset since around 1700. The demand for their ‘engines of destruction’ was world-wide and seemingly inexhaustible. The reader now bracing up for a world of three-legged rabbits and one-legged birds will learn, by way of introduction, of a much-burrowed field in Suffolk, in the 1930s, in which a warrener was to be found working from dawn to dusk removing dead and dying rabbits from 250 traps lining three sides of his killing-ground, and augmenting his haul with additional contributions from snares in the adjacent barley. If one English field needed armaments on that scale, what could be the state of that notoriously rabbit-ridden continent of Australia? Yet in the lists of Britain’s manufacturing exports you never read of Wednesfield’s specialised output, any more than you read of exports of leg-irons and thumbscrews (‘Hiatts of Birmingham are of course famous for their manufacture of handcuffs,’ we’re told).

For every creature which could be classed as pest or vermin, and many which could not, there were special modes of comeuppance. There were lion traps and mole traps, tomtit traps and puma traps. There were traps which were supposed to spare foxes and domestic pets. There were dog spears which allowed a bouncing hare to escape but impaled the nose-down pursuer. There was an otter trap with spiked teeth and a length of chain to help the animal drown itself. There were pole traps in lonely places designed to tempt down eagles. There were even traps for kingfishers and herons (hard to think of kingfishers as vermin, but gamekeepers saw them as a threat to trout and salmon parr). There were ‘humane’ – that is, toothless – traps designed to avoid mutilating the furs of prized prey. There were traps which condemned rats to death by drowning and traps which offered up squirrels for others to drown. There were traps to catch live sparrows, the fate of which can only be surmised. There were nets for scooping up skylarks, as on the Sussex Downs (every poulterer hung up his skein of larks), and there were snares with which shepherd boys could profitably catch wheatear, also for the dinner table.

From the late 18th century onwards the trapmakers found their trade increasingly impeded by a creeping humanitarianism, seen by the hardier squires as a sick and unmanly sensibility. The gin trap – a powerful spring trap with teeth – faced perennial criticism, not least when a more robust version came to be widely deployed as a mantrap. In 1907 Wednesfield beat off a stiff challenge from an unexpected quarter. Without warning, the governor of Nigeria, Sir Walter Egerton, imposed a prohibitory tariff of one shilling on every trap imported into his territory. The prolific use of toothed devices had left the area round south Ibadan with ‘probably 40 to 50 per cent of the bush fowl shot with only one leg, the other having been torn off in a trap’. The Wednesfield Steel Vermin Trap Manufacturers’ Association was quick to complain to the Colonial Office about the ‘loss and privation’ the tariff would create in their workforce. Of the two million traps made annually in Wednesfield apparently a third went to the Nigerian markets. Sir Walter Egerton was seen off, but he had given valuable impetus to the campaign for toothless traps.

Of Haddon-Riddoch the publishers say only that he ‘started’ as a trap collector, of whom there may be more than we would think. An earlier, slimmer version of his book appeared in 2001. Its title is not the least of its oddities; it is as if the public hangman had published a rundown on drops and nooses called ‘Urban Reveries’. Fundamentally, it is a work for the specialist, heavily loaded with the sort of data to be found in books about ‘collectables’. There are nearly four hundred illustrations of death-dealing contraptions, all well reproduced. Exasperatingly, the text switches from narrative to dense reference material, and then back again. The author is deeply obsessed with the design, workings and evolution of his machines, infernal and otherwise. Not every lode in this mine of information yields treasure, but social and industrial historians will find many oddities. Whence came those water tanks once strewn about Australia? They were the containers in which millions of traps were shipped from the Black Country. Did World War Two bring a slump in trapmaking? Not in Australia, where a Wednesfield subsidiary toiled to produce the seven million traps needed to provide skins for army slouch hats and flying-suit linings. In 1953 the spread of myxomatosis failed to spread ‘misery and want’ among trapmakers, whose wares were in high demand elsewhere. Traps which were banned in Britain were not necessarily spurned in, say, India. The biggest manufacturer in Wednesfield, Henry Lane, rather gave the game away in an advertisement for pole traps after the 1904 ban was imposed: ‘NB. It is perhaps superfluous to mention that use of the above traps is now prohibited in the British Isles, but they are still largely used abroad, and for this reason are advertised in the list.’ Haddon-Riddoch darkly surmises that after mantraps were banned in 1827 they were still used in America to catch runaway slaves.

Some fifty years ago, researching a book, Roads to Ruin, about bitterly opposed reforms now taken for granted, I was much occupied with the subject of mantraps and spring guns. These deadly devices were increasingly used in the late 18th century by game-preserving squires on their enclosed estates. As the Reverend Sydney Smith said, ‘There is a sort of horror in thinking of a whole land filled with lurking engines of death – machinations against human life under every green tree – traps and guns in every dusky dell and bosky bourn – the lords of manors eyeing their peasantry as so many butts and marks, and panting to hear the click of the trap and to see the flash of the gun.’ There were even engines of death in churchyards to deter the ‘Resurrection Men’. Sydney Smith was laying it on a bit: worse carnage may be seen on the roads any weekend now. But it was the wanton, vicarious nature of the slaughter meted out by uncaring landowners that eventually provoked outrage. The victims of the ‘iron wolf’, as Richard Jeffries called it, included not only poachers but maidservants, clergymen, courting couples, botanisers and bird-nesting boys as well as members of the owner’s family and his absent-minded gamekeepers. Poachers were undoubtedly thinned out dramatically; in 1785 a Hampshire gentleman described as ‘the most shocking sight I ever beheld’ four poachers caught in mantraps, three of them with their thighs broken and the fourth dead. The early traps seized their prey in fierce, saw-toothed claws more often used against wild beasts. The spring gun, operated by a trip wire, might be a simple rifle mounted on a cleft stick or a purpose-built swivel gun fired by flintlock. The manufacturers, urged to bring in a ‘humane’ version of the mantrap, had difficulties of their own to surmount. It was no use producing a trap with jaws that could be forced apart by the poacher’s accomplices; one solution was to fit a lock which operated when the jaws were sprung and could be opened only by a keeper’s key. Steel of good quality was essential, as the snap vanished quickly from jaws kept open for long periods.

The much-opposed act which banned ‘Engines of Destruction’ in 1827 was the work of Lord Suffield, an affluent Norfolk landowner seen by many as a traitor to his class. It prohibited the use of mantraps and spring guns only out of doors, not within walls. For years there was much fudging of the rules; spring guns were allowed to fire harmless shot or none at all; instead of spreading grief and gangrene they became mere frighteners or alarm guns not unlike those in use today. The warning notices ‘Spring Guns and Mantraps Set Here’ were often left in position as bluff. Gamekeepers deprived of their iron wolf were now invited to arm themselves against poachers with the ‘life-preserver’, a heavy-knobbed club resembling the strap-hanger provided on old-fashioned trains. It was sometimes described as a priest, since it also served to administer ‘last rites’ to mangled creatures. Life-preservers and dark lanterns, wielded alike by ruffians and police, figured freely in popular fiction of the Sherlock Holmes era.

It is something of an anti-climax when the trapmaking story descends into descriptions of beetle and cockroach traps, along with rat pastes, poisons and gases. Surprisingly, Haddon-Riddoch never mentions birdlime, that sticky abomination which was outlawed in 1925. As a form of woodcraft it had been used for centuries and was traditionally made from holly bark and mistletoe. It was featured in a dubious idyll from the pen of Mrs Beeton in the first edition of her Book of Household Management. She pictures a lonely trapper in his cabin beside a limed tree to which inquisitive songbirds are being lured by decoying whistles. One trick was to stick two finches together with a limed twig laid on top, in the expectation that their twittering would attract the curiosity or jealousy of nearby birds. The best singers secured in this fashion would end up performing caged in parlours and drawing-rooms. Victorian schoolboys were encouraged to use birdlime as an educational aid. Was there ever a Birdlime Manufacturers Association? Probably not. If Haddon-Riddoch cannot bring himself to mention this sneaky substance, who shall blame him? He is to be congratulated on writing extensively about gamekeepers without even a passing reference to Lady Chatterley’s Lover (notoriously inadequate in its coverage of a keeper’s daily duties).

It emerges shyly on page 149 that in 1996 the author was presented by a visitor from Australia with a fine gold-plated Ace rabbit trap in recognition of his interest in the trapmaking industry. As an authoritative guide to the tools of bone-breaking and concussion he can have few rivals. Like that Anthology of Huntingdonshire Cabmen this book is ‘sure to be the standard work on the subject’.