King of the Poachers!
Frederick Rolfe was rarely on the right side of the law. But he did have a roguish charm and a certain tenderness. Steven Russell learns about a woman’s dogged quest to discover the man behind the legend
A GUNSHOT shatters the peace of a November night. The head gamekeeper of the Earsham Hall estate near Bungay, patrolling the woods alone, follows the sound and discovers a poacher. There’s a skirmish as he tries to seize the intruder’s weapon. The gun goes off . . . blowing the rim off the gamekeeper’s trilby hat. “My mother was heavily pregnant at the time and the next day she gave birth to twins!” remembers Fred Bayfield, then the gamekeeper’s teenage son, of that unforgettable scare.
Poacher Frederick Rolfe, a man well known for filching the gentry’s rabbits and birds in the dark hours, was taken to court and given the option of a �2 fine or a month in prison. “Knowing Fred, he wouldn’t pay the fine; he’d do the month . . .”
During a prolific poaching career he was up before the bench at least 30 times – his most severe punishment being two months in jail with hard labour. He was in his mid 60s the last time he received such a sentence.
Rolfe lived in the Bungay area for about 30 years – dying in the town by his own hand in 1938, aged 77 – and Bungay was where he wrote his memoirs: anonymously.
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The story goes that he cured someone of warts – either the farmer’s wife on the Ditchingham estate or a member of her family – and later thought the wife would be interested in reading a notebook filled with stories of his life as a poacher.
She in turn drew the dog-eared manuscript to the attention of Lilias Rider Haggard, daughter of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (he wrote King Solomon’s Mines) and a writer herself. Lilias saw the potential, edited Fred’s work, and I Walked by Night: Being the Philosophy of the King of the Norfolk Poachers Written by Himself was published in 1935.
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It became one of East Anglia’s best-loved tales of country life and is still in print. Fred received �20 for his endeavours.
His legend certainly gripped the imaginations of the parents of six-year-old Charlotte Paton when the family moved to Bungay in the mid-1950s. New to the area, they soon got hold of a copy of his memoirs.
When Charlotte grew up and moved away, her mother bought her her own copy.
Later, Charlotte moved into a house that had been the lodge of the West Bilney estate, near Swaffham in Norfolk. Something rang a bell in her head and she was struck by the similarity between the poacher’s description of a lodge in which he had lived and her own home. It seemed he’d been there in 1894, when for a short period he was literally poacher-turned-gamekeeper and had a legitimate job.
A keen genealogist, Charlotte had her curiosity aroused by what appeared an amazing coincidence. She set out to discover if her suspicions were justified. Step one was establishing the name of the anonymous author, one Frederick Rolfe.
She then embarked on a seven-year labour of love to find out who he really was. The quest involved painstaking searches of historic local records – court archives, birth, marriage and death registers – and manuscripts. At one point the effort seemed so great, the time commitment too demanding, that she nearly gave up.
But Charlotte stuck with it and gradually the misty mental image of an often difficult and unreliable man, though a clever one, grew more solid.
She uncovered so much rich detail that she wrote a book about Fred. The King of the Norfolk Poachers: His Life and Times was published by Ipswich-based Old Pond in 2009.
Now Charlotte has teamed up with director Peter Hodges to produce a documentary film/DVD.
The Truth Behind ‘I Walked by Night’ features interviews with people who remember Fred from his Bungay days; Mrs Nada Cheyne, niece of Lilias Rider Haggard; a descendant of the poacher; and museum curator Christopher Reeve, who delights Charlotte by finding a manuscript written in Rolfe’s own hand.
Labourer’s son Fred was born in Pentney, near Swaffham, in the spring of 1862. “He was always a rebel,” says Charlotte, today a researcher and historian interested particularly in Victorian and Edwardian East Anglia. “He led a school rebellion as a very small boy.”
Interestingly, unlike many poorer folk he read and wrote well. She credits the arrival of a new vicar with progressive ideas and good judgement of people. The clergyman started a boys’ club for local lads and earned respect.
“Fred’s dad was terribly religious and Fred got fed up of having religion thrust down his throat. This vicar didn’t preach at him, but encouraged him to read and write. I think Fred’s typical of so many people of that era: he had a brain but not education.”
In 1882, at the age of 20, he had his first conviction for a poaching-related offence and was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour in Norwich prison. He was denounced by his father.
In the 1880s Fred also meets Norfolk girl Anna, who falls pregnant and becomes his first wife. Habitually in trouble with the law, he flees to Manchester after a fight in 1884 leaves a gamekeeper badly hurt. Anna is left behind, pregnant with their second child.
Sadly, Anna later dies of consumption, and her young son is raised by his grandmother.
Fred returns to Norfolk in 1888 and, after serving a short jail sentence, invites Kitty – a girl he met in a Manchester cotton mill – to join him in East Anglia. They marry that autumn and go on to have two children.
By the mid-1890s he appears to have made a 180-degree turn and become a gamekeeper on the West Bilney estate, living in the lodge that Charlotte would later call home.
Life should have been good, by the standards of the time. As well as having a decent roof over their heads, the family had fewer children than most to support, and three acres of land on which to grow produce. It would likely have provided enough wood to burn, too.
“Financially he must have been far, far better off than most people. But he couldn’t stop himself,” Charlotte tells the EADT. Despite his job, Fred returned to his old ways and the stay there must have been a couple of years or so at most, she assumes.
The old rogue wrote late in life: “I have always had the idea that game was as much mine as anyone else’s . . . I envy not the Ritch man’s lot nor the Prince his dream. I have took a fair share of the ritch. I am well over 70 and waiting for the last Roll Call. If I had my time to come over again I still would be what I have been – a Poacher.”
One can’t help feeling sorry for his family. Years later, daughter Emily – who met a soldier and emigrated to Canada, leaving her two illegitimate children behind – had a stab at writing an account of her mother’s life, from Kitty’s point of view. It suggested Fred’s wife had anticipated being very happy when they moved to the lodge; but the countryman’s old habits died hard. Or, rather, not at all . . .
Emily’s writings talked about the estate workers and tenants being invited to the big house at Christmas, where there was a fine tree and parties. They were happy occasions – “The only time in her manuscript,” says Charlotte, “she had anything other than doom and gloom and dire poverty!”
Things getting “too hot”, the Rolfes moved from the King’s Lynn area to north Norfolk. Then Fred got another shot at a legitimate job, when he obviously impressed someone of influence and was invited to be the under-keeper on the Flixton estate near Bungay. He and Kitty moved into a cottage there in 1917.
“He was there only four or five months,” sighs Charlotte. “There was a tremendous altercation and he was sacked.” Fred had been poaching on the very land under his protection.
“This is what irritates me about the man. He could not resist it,” says Charlotte, in a tone half-despairing and half-resigned. “I think he was an intelligent man, and yet on his own beat he was taking the pheasants and selling them to the butchers in Bungay! You might know he would be caught . . . it doesn’t stop him. He can’t help himself.”
It seemed that the thrill of clandestine activity, and getting one over on the gentry, was addictive.
“I have a coterie of old boys, since I wrote the book, who write to me and ring me up to share old stories. They all say it starts off as necessity, as people were hungry in the 1920s, and then it became like a drug, they said – the adrenalin rush.”
Fred himself wrote in I Walked by Night: “Poaching’s something like drug-taking: once begun, no going back . . . The excitement go a long way to soothe your conscience if it trouble you.”
Towards the end of the First World War he joined the Suffolk Volunteers as regimental rat-destroyer, “I suspect because he couldn’t get anything else”.
At that time the Rolfes were supporting Emily’s illegitimate children, David and Bertha. Kitty moved to Bridge Street, Bungay, and took in lodgers.
“Of course, he left his poor wife to fend for herself,” says Charlotte. “In desperation, she picked watercress off the meadows and sold it door to door to keep herself.
“She must have had a terrible life. She didn’t read or write, and in dank and dreadful weather – dark perhaps at 3pm, and I’m quite sure Fred was often down the pub – what could a woman like that do?”
Poor Kitty would breathe her last in 1935, after badly cracking her head on a mangle handle – though it seemed heart trouble was the cause of death.
She spent the last six weeks of her life in Shipmeadow workhouse, between Beccles and Bungay – not as a pauper, but because workhouses also offered a degree of medical care for those who could afford it.
“Only Fred could do it,” tuts Charlotte. “I went through pages and pages of Shipmeadow records and only Fred could be the one who failed to cough up and had to have a stern letter written to him.”
She’s sure he could easily have paid on time. “But he was at her bedside when she died, so we must give him some credit for that.”
After Kitty died, Fred lodged with Bungay widow Jessie Redgrave. At some stage there was an allegation, with sexual overtones, of him acting improperly towards his landlady’s daughter. Charlotte found no mention of an arrest or charges being laid.
Mrs Redgrave kicked him out and he went to live at Mettingham, before the widow forgave him and he returned.
Fred Rolfe hanged himself, using wire, on March 23, 1938. He was 77. It’s easy to think his death was linked to those allegations, but Charlotte says suicide wasn’t uncommon in those days. For many poor and aged souls, the only real prospect was seeing out their days in the workhouse – not an attractive thought. Death was often viewed as a better option.
“He was crippled with arthritis. If he was also likely to have the ignominy of the finger pointed at him, or the thought of the workhouse . . . a lot of elderly men, that was the way they decided to end their lives.
“On the newspaper page on which his death was reported, there was another suicide of another elderly man. It was not uncommon.
“It says in his own book ‘I must bring this book, as I should like to bring my life, to a close.’ So I think he was already thinking about suicide at that point. And when all this came up, I think he thought ‘The time’s right; I can’t be doing with all this. End of.’ And perhaps he knew the snare was the quickest and most efficient way, and would have been reasonably painless.”
While Fred undoubtedly had myriad faults, he earns respect for looking after his dependents, even if his approach was often eccentric, unreliable and selfish when judged by modern standards. Charlotte never came across any evidence of a family member having to go into a workhouse because there was no other option.
Kitty and Fred cared for illegitimate grandson David, for example, after his mother left for Canada with her beau. However, by the time Fred was in the final quarter of his own life, it was clear he could no longer support the lad.
“There’s evidence he’d refused to let him go into the workhouse. He’d tried to get him in a Salvation Army home and failed. So he had really given it his best shot.” Eventually, they secured a place with Barnardo’s for the eight- or nine-year-old, who had attended Flixton school.
David’s descendants say it actually turned out well, because it led to a career and a brighter future than he otherwise might have enjoyed.
Charlotte managed to get from the charity a photograph of the little boy – something that added pathos and poignancy to the Fred Rolfe story.
“It happened to arrive on a Christmas Eve. You know what it’s like at home on Christmas Eve, when the sherry’s out . . .” she smiles. “I opened the envelope and this sad, sad little face came out – the day he went into Barnardo’s.”
See the film
DON’T miss the chance to see the documentary The Truth Behind ‘I Walked by Night’.
The first opportunity comes at 6pm on Thursday, February 17 at Abbeygate Picturehouse in Bury St Edmunds. (Box office 05719 025722, www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Abbeygate_Picturehouse/)
The second is a 2.30pm and 7.30pm double-screening at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay, on Wednesday, March 23 – the 73rd anniversary of Fred’s death in the town. (Box office 01986 897130 and www.fishertheatre.org)
Both dates are due to feature an after-show question-and-answer session involving director Peter Hodges and researcher/presenter Charlotte Paton.
The Fisher Theatre is a fitting venue. Fred and his landlady used to watch silent films there. Because she couldn’t read, he used to tell her what the captions said.
The DVD can also be bought from many bookshops or for �15.95 from Old Pond Publications on 01473 238200 and www.oldpond.com