A poacher’s life ... The Whistlecraft family, with Pip Wright
Our June meeting was treated to a wonderfully entertaining evening by Pip Wright, a retired school teacher and author of a string of local history books.
Enticingly labelled as a ‘tale of poaching, murder, heavy drinking and intrigue’, Pip recounted the true story of the WHISTLECRAFTs, a notorious family from Rickinghall and Hinderclay, who have now attained ‘folk hero’ status in the local community.
In order to enhance his talk, Pip first asked the audience to suspend disbelief and imagine that they were spending the next hour or so in the company of the central character, Joe WHISTLECRAFT.
He then donned a cloth cap, tucked a rifle under his arm and, assuming a broad Suffolk accent, delivered an absorbing account of Joe WHISTLECRAFT’s life, in the first person.
Named originally as George Edward RUFFLES, one of three illegitimate children born to his mother before she married William WHISTLECRAFT, Joe was convicted over a hundred times, mainly for poaching, and ‘knocked out’ his sentences in the prisons of Ipswich, Norwich, Pentonville, Wandsworth and Dartmoor. He died in 1960, but not before spending some of the happiest years of his life working for Major WILSON of Hinderclay Hall, a gentleman with whom he’d had a number of runnings in the past, but who then proposed to employ Joe on the premise that ‘poachers make the best gamekeepers’.
Pip’s spellbinding delivery was enhanced by the perfectly timed arrival of a summer storm over Snape Village Hall, just as we listened to the account of one particularly infamous night-time poaching sortie to Stubbings Wood. As real thunder and lightning provided an atmospheric backdrop, it was easy to imagine Joe and his younger brother struggling through flooded ploughed fields, their boots clogged with heavy clay soil, as they made their way towards the cover of the wood. On this occasion, their evening would end in disaster. Startled by a bright flashlight cutting through the darkness, Joe fired his rifle to put out the light but, instead, shot the gamekeeper Charles CORNWELL, causing fatal injuries. Subsequently tried for murder, Joe was acquitted thanks to the intervention of a skilled barrister, Mr Gerald HOWARD, who proved able to dismantle the case for the prosecution. Joe was minded to send Mr Howard a brace of pheasants by way of thanks, but then thought better of it!
For anyone interested in finding more about the WHISTLECRAFT family, Pip WRIGHT’s excellent book ‘Whistlecraft – The true story of the poachers of Rickinghall’ is available via the author’s website www.pipwright.com, or to borrow from our Help Centre Library. The photograph of Joe WHISTLECRAFT that adorns the book’s cover is said to have hung for many years on a wall in The Greyhound Inn, Rickinghall.