David S. D. Jones looks at the unsung heroes of the gamekeeping world of yesteryear – the wives of gamekeepers who supported their spouses through thick and thin.
Much has been written about the world of the gamekeeper in times past, but little has been recorded about the unsung heroes in his life – the wives, partners and girlfriends. For centuries, these very special ladies have supported their husbands and families through thick and thin, often moving house on a regular basis to different parts of the country and having to set up home in unfamiliar surroundings, as well as assisting with a multitude of duties ranging from pheasant rearing and vermin control to caring for dogs, chickens and other livestock.
Today, gamekeepers’ partners generally live relatively comfortable lives in modernised houses, with central heating and mains services, access to a car or a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and often go out to work – sometimes following a professional career of their own. But most still assist their husband with shoot related matters, too, looking after his dogs, doing clerical work, providing shoot lunches and carrying out a multitude of other tasks.
However, as recently as the late-1950s, when employers began to provide estate staff with decent housing and more acceptable working conditions in order to stop men leaving the land for highly paid factory work, gamekeepers and their wives often lived a pretty isolated existence in remote but picturesque cottages, with only a bicycle or ‘shanks pony’ for transport. Keepers’ wives rarely worked at this time, apart from helping out in the ‘big house’ during busy periods.
Traditionally, gamekeepers’ wives were usually keepers’ daughters, daughters of small tenant farmers, or servants at the ‘big house’– often the cook or a kitchen maid. They were invariably strong characters, capable of getting on with things with little or no help from others, and often lost touch with their family due to constantly moving around the country whenever their husband changed his job. Indeed, prior to the outbreak of the First World War, many were never heard of again after marrying a keeper, particularly if they were unable to read or write.
In times past, gamekeepers’ wives needed to be hard working, self sufficient and capable of running a cottage which relied upon a well or a spring for water, a bucket toilet for sanitation, a solid fuel or paraffin stove for cooking, oil lamps and candles for lighting, and lacked both a bath and a shower. Notwithstanding such primitive living conditions, many of these ladies brought up a large brood of well behaved children, regularly cramming up to 10 or 12 into a two-bedroom home.
It was not uncommon for gamekeepers to live in the middle of a wood, a park or amidst fields in a remote part of an estate – often a mile or more from the nearest neighbour and, in some instances, two or three miles from the nearest village or hamlet. Therefore, their wives saw few folk other than farm workers, woodmen, tradesmen and members of shooting parties who happened to be in the vicinity of their home, or itinerant characters such as gypsies and tramps who might be passing through the area.
Apart from the regulatory weekly trip to the nearest church or chapel on a Sunday, and the occasional visit to a fete, bazaar or other village fundraising event, the gamekeepers’ wives of yore rarely left their home except, perhaps, to travel to the local market town once every couple of months to purchase drapery or order essential supplies such as flour, sugar, dried fruit, candles and lamp oil, which would be delivered by the carrier’s wagon a week or so later. Those with large families or living in particularly isolated areas frequently purchased all of their goods directly through the ‘out rider’ from the nearest grocer or draper, who would call monthly, collect orders and payments, and arrange delivery.
Gamekeepers usually received fuel free of charge in the form of coal, wood or peat, and were invariably allowed rabbits and hares, and either a haunch of venison, a joint of beef or a brace of pheasants at Christmas-time. Some were also supplied with milk, butter, beer and other useful commodities. Furthermore, many landowners provided keepers’ wives with a length of suitable cloth on an annual basis, from which they could make their children’s clothing, or gave them ‘hand-me-down’ clothes that had previously belonged to the children at the ‘big house’.
In bygone days, gamekeepers’ wives were virtually self-sufficient, baking their own bread and cakes, curing bacon and hams, making jams and chutneys from the fruits of garden and hedgerow, preserving fruit in bottles and making home-made wine. Many fed their families on a diet of rabbit stew and sparrow, rook or coot pie, supplemented with a cheap cut of beef or mutton on a Sunday.
Gamekeepers frequently expected their wives to help in the garden, carrying out tasks such as weeding, fruit picking and harvesting vegetables. In addition, they would usually look after a small flock of hens and a pig – both of which were fed on surplus household food – and milk the family cow, if one was kept. Some wives even chopped-up firewood and collected kindling from nearby woodlands and coppices.
Although marginally better off than farm labourers, woodmen and other countryside workers, gamekeepers and their wives still found it difficult to make ends meet, especially if they had a large family. Luxuries were few and far between, usually a box of chocolates, a book or similar given by an employer or his wife at Christmas-time and, perhaps, an invitation to attend the annual servants’ ball in the ‘big house’.
Sadly, in times past, many gamekeepers’ wives died before their husband, worn out by years of arduous work and childbearing. Those that did outlive their spouse, might, if lucky, be provided with a small cottage or flat by a benevolent employer, although more often than not they would go to live with a married son or daughter or end their days in an undignified manner in the local workhouse.
Fortunately, life for gamekeepers’ wives has improved beyond all recognition during the course of the past half-century. Long may it continue to do so!