Dual purpose gamekeepers
There was a time when most gamekeepers were expected to fulfil secondary roles on estates, says David S. D. Jones, some of which were a little unusual.
Today, gamekeepers are under more pressure than ever before and many barely find enough time to carry out their own work, let alone to undertake other duties. In times past, in a more halcyon age, when keepers were plentiful on every sporting estate, it was not unusual to find men performing a dual role, combining keepering with a variety of other tasks, ranging from security work and taxidermy to acting as shore observers for offshore lighthouses!
Back in the 18th century, when game preservation on many estates consisted of little more than vermin control and poaching prevention, a gamekeeper would frequently double as a woodward or forester, and as keeper of a deer park. Some keepers at this time were also responsible for looking after a small private pack of hounds or harriers, acting as the huntsman or whipper-in.
Following the introduction of artificial pheasant rearing and driven game shooting during the first half of the 19th century, gamekeeping became a much more specialised occupation. The majority of keepers then concentrated solely on game preservation. However, on some large estates, a small number of dual purpose gamekeepers continued to be employed, usually as falconers, as vermin killers, as river keepers or as menagerie keepers in charge of exotic birds and animals.
By the mid 19th century, many gamekeepers had become accomplished taxidermists, stuffing and preserving birds or animals as a sideline. Some even went on trophy hunting expeditions with their employer, both at home and abroad, or shot unusual specimens on behalf of wealthy collectors. Others acted as bird egg collectors, usually for amateur naturalists and ornithologists such as Church of England clergymen.
During the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, when fashion dictated that a large estate should have its own band, keepers were sometimes recruited for their musical ability rather than for their keepering skills. Indeed, Charles van Raalte, owner of the Brownsea Island estate in Dorset, actually made it a condition of employment that each of his gamekeepers should play a musical instrument and double as a bandsman on high days and holidays.
In Scotland, at this time, virtually every sporting estate and deer forest retained a keeper-piper who would play a waking up call on the bagpipes in front of a shooting lodge early every morning and pipe guests into dinner in the evening. Many of these keeper-pipers also acted as fishing ghillies and as deer stalkers in addition to their other duties.
The eminent archaeologist, General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, proprietor of the Rushmore estate in Wiltshire during the final decades of the Victorian period, even trained his gamekeepers and farm workers (who acted as beaters on shoot days) to spot flint weapons and other historic artefacts in order that they could assist with his excavation projects as and when necessary. According to local tradition, the General is reported to have once stopped a shoot after a beater found a flint axe head and, in a much excited state, organised the keepers and beaters into lines to search the area thoroughly for similar objects – upon which his shooting guests left in disgust!
Late Victorian and Edwardian gamekeepers were often asked to travel with their employers on shooting visits, either as loaders or equerries, or to accompany them on big game hunting expeditions to Africa or India. They were also expected to play in estate cricket or football teams or to become part-time soldiers in estate-based militia units such as the Eaton Troop of the Cheshire Yeomanry or the Lovat Scouts.
In the pre-welfare state era, many public-spirited Edwardian gamekeepers acted as unofficial social workers while doing their rounds, calling in on elderly and infirm folk who lived in isolated cottages, occasionally giving them the odd rabbit, rook or pigeon for the pot, and reporting back to their employer's wife or the local vicar if they thought that any charitable help was required. Matthew Grass, headkeeper to Sir Berkeley Sheffield, Bt., on the Normanby estate in Lincolnshire, even arranged for his wife to provide daily hot dinners to those in need, at his own expense.
Perhaps the most unusual dual purpose role carried out by a gamekeeper during the Edwardian era, that of a Scottish clan chieftain, was undertaken by Alexander McGillivray, head gamekeeper to Lord Marjoribanks at Guisachan in Inverness-shire from the 1870s until his death in 1905. McGillivray served as Chief of the McGillivray Clan, a position that that his employer was always keen to promote to sporting guests!
Following the outbreak of World War One in 1914, gamekeepers rushed to join the armed forces in order to fight for their country. Those who were either too old or were considered unsuitable for military service enlisted in the Local Defence Volunteers on a part-time basis or, in coastal areas, acted as Royal Navy observers. Many also combined their keepering duties with farm work or forestry as and when required.
In the aftermath of the war, particularly during the early 1920s, a considerable number of gamekeepers were made redundant due to high taxation imposed upon landowners by the Lloyd-George Liberal Government. Apart from on very large estates, which were usually financially secure, junior keepers on smaller properties were frequently expected to help out in the forestry department or to carry out estate work such as hedge laying or river management.
Some head gamekeepers at this time were sent by their employer to give ‘nature talks' to the more senior pupils at the local village school as a sort of PR exercise, although the cynics of the day suggested that this kind of activity was just a ploy to see if children were playing truant in order to poach. Duncan McKellar, for example, headkeeper to the Earl of Pembroke at Wilton House in Wiltshire, not only gave regular talks at schools in the vicinity of the estate, but also presented prizes for outstanding nature essays.
During the 1920s and 30s, gamekeepers were often requested to take on unusual dual roles. Harry Hill, headkeeper to Lady Northcote at Compton Place in Sussex from 1922 until 1934, also acted as her personal outdoor companion, accompanying her on walks through the gardens or around the estate. A gamekeeper employed by Lady Gregory at Coole Park in Co.Galway was ordered to move into her mansion to act as her personal bodyguard during the Irish troubles of 1921; while Bert Tiller, headkeeper at Broadlands in Hampshire, nursed his employer, Lord Mount Temple, throughout his final illness in 1939.
When World War Two was declared in 1939, many gamekeepers of military age were ordered to remain at home because of their specialised countryside knowledge and were assigned to elite Home Guard units engaged in special operations duties. Others, who were too old to fight, served in estate Home Guard battalions as special police constables, as fire watchers or as vermin killers at defence establishments for the duration. A considerable number of men also continued to carry out limited keepering work, at the same time helping out on local farms during busy periods.
Following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, many estates cut back on their keepering staff due to government restrictions placed on gamebird rearing. Keepers employed on smaller sporting properties were subsequently obliged to double as keeper-chauffeurs, keeper-gardeners, keeper-farm workers, keeper-foresters and, exceptionally, as keeper-valets!
Gamebird rearing for sporting purposes was eventually re-introduced in the mid-1950s, with the result that many dual purpose keepers were able to return to full-time work, albeit on a single-handed basis in most cases. Few men now had time to act as auxiliary farm hands or foresters or to serve as territorial soldiers in addition to their normal duties, irrespective of the technological advances which had taken place in the world of gamekeeping during the post-war period.
Today, gamekeeping continues to be carried out on a single-handed basis on many estates, with keepers working long hours to achieve employers targets. Even on large sporting properties, where several men are employed, there is little time for other work apart from in exceptional circumstances. Sadly, the day of the dual purpose gamekeeper is now over!