If like me you are researching your family history and your ancestors came from Wokingham in Berkshire then you will at some time come across at least one reference to a group of local felons known as the Wokingham Blacks. I first came across them in a small booklet entitled Wokingham A Chronology in which they were referred to as:
"….a notorious gang of poachers led by a local farmer, Will Shorter, who infested the forest; they terrorised and extorted blackmail and eventually committed murder."
I wondered if any of my ancestors could have been gang members so I wanted to know a little more about these villains. I asked various people who I thought might or ought to know about them but no one I asked seemed to have heard of the Wokingham Blacks. Then Google came to my rescue for a quick search revealed that they were a group of locals who blackened their faces as a form of disguise and got up to no good in Windsor Forest in the very early 18th century.
David Nash Ford in his Royal Berkshire History website refers to them variously as an infamous band of robbers and as footpads and ruffians. Their crimes it would appear were robbery, blackmail and murder and their leader William Shorter commanded most of the criminal activity in Eastern Berkshire at that time. Ford further claims that the locals were afraid to speak out against them.
Wikipedia describes them as an infamous band of ruffians who terrorised the local area. Also on the internet the Border Morris explain that they blacken their faces because they follow the tradition of the Wokingham Blacks, who were a band of footpads and ne’er do wells who were a major criminal problem in the forests and roads between Wokingham and Windsor.
Martin Prescott in his book The Crow on the Thorn talks about a gang of ruffians known as the Wokingham Blacks who terrorised the district in 1723. Prescott claims they started out as poachers but then discovered that housebreaking, extortion and blackmail were more profitable. He also claims that they were a threat to public safety. Arthur Heelas in his Historical Sketches of Wokingham, written around 1930, a copy of which is held in Wokingham Library, describes them as a dangerous gang of criminals who terrorised the neighbourhood and blackmailed the farmers.
A number of other websites including uk-thamesvalleyexplore.co.uk reported:
"It was at Bracknell, in 1723, that a troop of mounted grenadier guards had a pitched battle with the infamous band of ruffians known as the Wokingham Blacks. They had been marauding around this area of Windsor Forest for over a year, but, after one of their number was forced to reveal the gang's whereabouts, the authorities were, at last, able to capture some twenty-nine men."
While bfheritage.org.uk/history reported:
"One notorious local gang, the ‘Wokingham Blacks’ poached dear and terrorised the area with burglary, mugging and even murder. The name ‘Blacks’ referred to their habit of blackening their faces. Four of the gang were tried in Reading, condemned and hung in chains on the heath. "
Having discovered all of this I heaved a sigh of relief in the belief that none of my Wokingham ancestors would have involved themselves with such a terrible band of criminals. After all many of them were gamekeepers, indeed my great, great grandfather was under-keeper at Windsor Park, and several were small farmers, husbandmen and agricultural workers. These were hardworking and respectable people, God fearing and church going.
Then a distant cousin wrote to me explaining that many years ago her grandmother had discouraged her from researching her family’s history by declaring that her ancestors were a bunch of criminals and that they were all buried on the wrong side of the church wall. The grandmother explained that her ancestors never married and the children were not baptised so no record of them would be found at the church. My cousin then went on to describe a family crest in her possession which consisted of a blackened face and an oak leaf. Could this be a reference to the Wokingham Blacks?
Like everyone involved in family history research I have been encouraged to welcome and value an elderly relative’s recollections and to recognise that old family stories often have more than a grain of truth to them. However I have also learned to be just a little bit sceptical and to look for evidence to substantiate the content of these old memories and bits of family folklore before accepting them as true. I must admit to being just a little more than sceptical in this instance.So were my ancestors a bunch of heathens and felons?
I had been able to trace all of my father’s family back through Berkshire parish records to the marriage of my 3x great grandfather at Wokingham, All Saints in October 1790. This did not seem to me to be a family living on the wrong side of the church wall. My 3x great grandfather was a husbandman and widower who farmed at Honey Hill near Wokingham and he could read and write. He married by licence so he clearly had friends who trusted him and were prepared to stand surety for him.
Honey Hill is just off the Nine Mile Ride in that part of Wokingham called Wokingham Without which is part way between Wokingham and Crowthorne. In the 19th century many of the families in this area lived in tents or in small cottages in clearings in the forest. The primary source of income for many of families was broom making and as a consequence they were called "broomdashers".
So what about the other aspersion that my ancestors were a bunch of criminals and did the supposed family crest suggest an association with the notorious Wokingham Black?
I have been unable to locate my 3x great grandfather’s baptism or the details of his first marriage but in my search I have found my family surname (or it’s variants) in parish registers throughout East Berkshire and also in parish registers in North East Hampshire and North West Surrey. The earliest entry in the Wokingham Parish records was in 1598 for a burial. The parishes with the greatest concentration of my family surname entries are Barking, Binfield, Easthampstead, Warfield, Windlesham, Wokingham and Yately. So my ancestors are found throughout Windsor Forest and across Bagshot Heath i.e. the stomping ground of the infamous Wokingham Blacks. They lived in the right place so were they involved?
A quick telephone call to Wokingham Library Local History section proved most helpful. The librarian responsible for the local history section recommended that I read E P Thompson’s definitive book on the Wokingham Blacks called Whigs and Hunters. Having read Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class many years ago I knew I would enjoy this book for he writes with an understanding of the experiences and circumstances of the ordinary people affected by events.
Tracking down a copy of Thompson’s book took a little time and while waiting for it to arrive I visited the University of Southampton library and with the librarian’s help located two articles of interest. The first was by Pat Rogers’ The Waltham Blacks and the Black Act in which he discusses at length amongst other things the activities of a group of Blacks operating across the parishes of Easthampstead, Bagshot and Windlesham in Windsor Forest. The second was written by John Broad called Whigs, Dear Stealers and the Origins of the Black Act in which he discusses the activities of Blacks in Buckinghamshire which were similar to the activities of the Windsor Blacks.
After many hours of reading I have come to the conclusion that as usual history has been less than kind or truthful about those who have been wronged but are powerless. I am now of the opinion that the people known as the Wokingham Blacks have been much maligned and the suggestion that they were lawless thugs and common criminals is a gross injustice. They were most definitely by definition not footpads nor were they housebreakers.
The Wokingham Blacks in the main were men of substance and according to Pat Rogers their number included:
- Thomas Power a clergyman of Easthampstead;
- William Shorter a farmer;
- Edward Collier a felt maker of Wokingham;
- George Wynne a clock maker of Wokingham;
- Richard Fellows a butcher of Maidenhead;
- Edward Stevens a farrier of Easthampstead;
- James Barlow an innkeeper of Winkfield;
- Charles Rackett of Bagshot a gentlemen and brother in law of Alexander Pope:
- John Perryman of Oakley Green a gentlemen.
These men were not ruffians and they had too much to lose by being simple footpads. These men had real purpose in their activities and their actions were politically motivated.
The time in which these men lived was most interesting. George I was on the throne and Robert Walpole was the Prime Minister. There was great unrest in the country with rumours rife regarding Jacobite plots and uprisings. Needless to say there were those who suggested falsely for their own political ends that the Wokingham Blacks were active Jacobite supporters.
The South Sea Bubble had burst with small investors being the biggest losers. The men listed above would probably have been amongst those small investors and their losses would have been ruinous. There was also great wealth in the country as a consequence of the expansion of plantations in the colonies and successful overseas trade including the slave trade. At the time there was a fashion for large country estates and Windsor Forest saw the rapid and dramatic expansion of these estates at the expense of those who were dependent on the forest for a living. The administration of the forest was in the main in the hands of Whig nominees and they plundered the Forest’s resources and raised the fees for local people to collect peat and wood and to kill game other than deer. In effect they were forcing the locals out of the forest and denying them their livelihood.
At this time deer were being kept in increasingly large numbers in Windsor Forest for the King to hunt and they were protected in ways which added to the hardship of the ordinary forest dwellers. The foresters were prevented from erecting suitable protective fencing around their planted land such that their crops were often damaged or lost to the deer. So the foresters fought back by killing and poaching the deer, knocking down the fencing and damaging or destroying ponds of the large and expanding estates.
The first reference to the activities of the Wokingham Blacks was published in the London Gazette in March 1720. This tells of fourteen men on horseback armed with guns who along with two men on foot with a greyhound all with blackened faces or other disguises had coursed deer in Bigshot Walk threatening a keeper and killing four deer.
The keepers would obviously pursue the Blacks and if they caught them their dogs would be destroyed, their guns confiscated and the culprits would be heavily fined. On the one hand the destruction and plundering of the forest by the wealthy landowners went unchecked while those who opposed them were heavily punished. The Blacks therefore sought reimbursement from any keeper who caught one of their number for the money paid to meet the fine and also for the replacement of any dogs destroyed or guns confiscated. Their visit to collect repayment was sometimes proceeded by a letter demanding money hence the origins of the term blackmail.
These activities were not restricted to the Windsor Forest area but also took place across Hampshire around Waltham Chase near Portsmouth, as well as in Buckinghamshire.
Inevitably the wealthy landowners with influential political friends had had enough and in 1723 the infamous Black Act was passed by Parliament. This Act is considered to be one of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever passed by Parliament in respect of the number of offences for which the punishment was the death sentence.
Walpole was so incensed by the activities of the Windsor Blacks that he approved the expenditure of large sums of money by his agent Baptist Nunn in their relentless pursuit. Nunn employed spies and paid money for information on the Wokingham Blacks’ activities that enabled him to eventually snare them and to capture them with the aid of Horse Grenadiers.
In an article published in the Guardian on 3rd March 1995 entitled The Hunters and the Hunted George Monbiot wrote about repressive game laws in which he described the many legitimate and quite cruel forms of punishment for poaching. With regards to the Windsor Blacks he wrote:
"These people, so called because they blacked their faces for their night-time raids, protested against the royal Hunt’s restrictions on farming and gathering rights not only by poaching, but also by damaging the property of the hunting gentry and beating up gamekeepers. Fifty new capital offences against the Blacks were passed by Parliament without debate: you could be hanged for crimes as grievous as pulling down a fence or blacking up your face. The severity of their treatment reflected the Blacks engagement in Britain’s first recorded acts of hunt sabotage."
There was more than one of my ancestors involved with the Wokingham Blacks but perhaps the best known is Edward Collier. For his part in their activities, namely stealing a tame deer from Sir Robert Rich, a Special Commission at Reading sentenced Edward to seven years’ transportation to America. Soon after sentencing Edward managed to escape from prison and went into hiding in Windsor Forest. This obviously caused great hardship for his wife Elizabeth as well as for their two children Edward and Thomas. Edward had married Elizabeth Heath by licence at Wokingham in September 1720, interestingly the bondsman was George Wynne another Wokingham Black.
Several years later, on learning of the death of Sir Robert Rich, Edward gave himself up and sought mercy from Sir Robert’s widow Dame Mary Rich. She proved to be most forgiving and with her support Edward received a pardon from the King and returned to his family. In 1730 Edward’s wife gave birth to twins, Barbara and Hester who were baptised at All Saints, Wokingham on 30 September 1730.
The first clause of the Black Act is chilling in its description of the actions of the Blacks and of the punishment to be expected by those who copied them. Further more a very popular publication in the 18th and 19th century was the Newgate Calendar which would probably have been found in many homes. Its contents were designed to frighten children into becoming law-abiding adults. Several of the criminal escapades contained in the Newgate Calendar were used for inspiration by authors including Dickens and Fielding amongst others.The Newgate Calendar published the substance of the Act by which the various Blacks were convicted:
"After the first day of June, 1723, any person appearing in any forest, chase, park, etc., or in any highroad, open heath, common or down, with offensive weapons, and having his face blacked, or otherwise disguised, or unlawfully and wilfully hunting, wounding, killing or stealing any red or fallow deer, or unlawfully robbing any warren, etc., or stealing any fish out of any river or pond, or (whether armed or disguised or not) breaking down the head or mound of any fishpond, whereby the fish may be lost or destroyed; or unlawfully and maliciously killing, maiming or wounding any cattle, or cutting down or otherwise destroying any trees planted in any avenue, or growing in any garden, orchard or plantation, for ornament, shelter or profit; or setting fire to any house, barn or outhouse, hovel, cock-mow or stack of corn, straw, hay or wood; or maliciously shooting at any person in any dwelling-house or other place; or knowingly sending any letter without any name, or signed with a fictitious name, demanding money, venison or other valuable thing, or forcibly rescuing any person being in custody for any of the offences before mentioned, or procuring any person by gift, or promise of money, or other reward, to join in any such unlawful act, or concealing or succouring such offenders when, by Order of Council, etc., required to surrender, shall suffer death."
The Newgate Calendar also describes in gory detail the fate of the Waltham Blacks from Hampshire.
One controversial aspect of the Black Act caused the Reading Mercury to publish the following in July 1723.
Were the Wokingham Blacks felons and are the descriptions at the beginning of this blog appropriate? I would say yes that they were felons as they broke the law but that some of the more colourful terms applied to them are inaccurate, untrue and distort the truth. I believe it is more appropriate to use Eric Hobsbawm’s definition and describe them as a social bandits who together with others used direct action as a means to resist the extensive changes that were taking place in Windsor Forest at that time. These changes were making a hard life even more difficult for local people.
The Wokingham Blacks predate the Berkshire Machine Breakers by nearly one hundred years but their cause was similar in that they were challenging the rapid and dramatic changes that were destroying a way of life.
For a more balanced perspective on the Wokingham Blacks than the Internet and local history books and pamphlets provide I recommend that you read the following books and articles:
- Whigs and Hunters by E P Thompson. Penguin Books 1990
- The Waltham Blacks and the Black Act by Pat Rogers. The Historical Journal, xvii, 3 1974
- Whigs, Dear Stealers and the Origins of the Black Act by John Broad. Past and Present Number 119 May 1988
- The Hunters and the Hunted by George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 3rd March 1995
- Bandits by Eric Hobsbawm. New Press, New York 2000
- Wokingham A Chronology. The Wokingham Society 1977
- The Crow on the Thorn by Martin Prescott. Privately published.
- Historical Sketches of Wokingham by Arthur Heelas. circa 1930 Wokingham Library
- London Gazette of March 1720.
- The Newgate Calendar. http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng169.htm
- Reading Mercury July 1723. Reading Central Library