A summer Sunday in 1892 and two young men are sitting on a gate in the sunshine. Alfred Shortland (19) and Abraham Jennings (17) are spending what little leisure time they have in the countryside, having taken a walk from Lutterworth along the footpath to Cotesbach. What could be more idyllic?
The scene cannot be as innocent as it appears, however, or why were the youngsters’ names recorded and a log of the incident kept? The document itself holds no clues as to the reason – but local newspapers of the time do. Members of the Shortland and the Jennings families were often before the Lutterworth magistrates (of whom Charles Marriott of Cotesbach Hall was one) accused of minor anti-social offences; eighteen months previously, Abraham Jennings had found himself before Mr Marriott on a charge of letting off fireworks in the street. Charles Marriott (whose handwriting this is) had reason to suspect that Alfred and Abraham could be up to no good.
The real concern, of course, was that this might be a poaching expedition. The theft of rabbits was a perpetual worry to the landowning class and was treated harshly by magistrates; a week’s imprisonment with hard labour could be earned merely by being caught with poaching nets. Such punishment seems severe but landowners had to protect what was to them a lucrative source of income. In the 1890s, Charles Marriott was offered one shilling per rabbit for a regular supply to a butcher in Rugby, at a time when a rural labourer’s wage might be only eleven shillings per week. Most weeks, he dispatched twenty or so animals and he employed a rabbit-keeper (Mr Kettle) to make sure that the supply was maintained.
Mr Marriott’s suspicions about poaching were not wholly without foundation. The lads’ summer jaunt seems to have had no repercussions but Alfred Shortland was unwise enough to visit Cotesbach by the same footpath again six months later, accompanied by a friend called Garnett. This time the pair took to their heels when they saw Charles Marriott but he gave chase and caught them in possession of a ferret and a poaching bag. Alfred Shortland was fined fifteen shillings by the Lutterworth magistrates.