Fearsome animal menace

Throxenby Mere - killing a goose here in the 1600s was considered a serious offence
Throxenby Mere - killing a goose here in the 1600s was considered a serious offence

By Dr Jack Binns

Since the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 has not had as much deterrent success as originally hoped, recently it seemed necessary to increase the penalties on irresponsible owners of prohibited breeds and uncontrolled, vicious animals. In future, there are to be more prosecutions, fewer cautionary warnings and longer prison sentences for offenders up to 18 months.

Looking through Scarborough’s own court records of the early 1600s reveals that there is nothing new about this particular public menace of dangerous dogs and statutory attempts to curb it.

At the sheriff’s tourn held on April 6, 1627, townspeople were reminded and warned “that every man that kepe a mastye dog or bich to go abroad unmussled shall pay for every default according to the statute”. Presumably, “a mastye dog” was any one of the many fighting breeds then kept commonly as house guards, but what the law decreed should be the punishment for not muzzling one out of doors was not here explained.

In 1632 Mistress Elisabeth Peacock, a well-to-do widow, was presented at the general sessions “for kepeing an unlawfull bitch”. Why her animal was “unlawful” was not defined. However, sometime later, Roger Boyes’ “unlawfull dog” must have been a fearsome and powerful animal: not only did it bite Mather Potter, it actually pulled him down from his horse!

Finally, in 1646, at the sheriff’s tourn that April, the court issued another warning to Scarborough’s owners who did not muzzle their “mastiffe” dogs: the standard fine would be 12 pence. Nevertheless, Christopher Huntriss was one who ignored it: his “maste dog being unmuseled” savaged the son of Ralph Hall and he had to pay double the penalty for his defiance.

Some Scarborough residents kept other kinds of dogs for other illegal purposes, namely poaching. The court book of March 1604 records briefly that someone unnamed was in trouble for “trespass with a spaniel”. Today we assume that a spaniel is a household pet rather than a hunting or working dog, but it is doubtful whether any class of our ancestors regarded any canine breed as a domestic accessory.

Greyhounds, for instance, were bred and trained to hunt hares and rabbits, not to compete with each other in races. At one of the sessions in 1627 three men were presented “for trassing [tracking?] hayres y[in] the snow about the last of January”. But using greyhounds for hunting and killing hares was, as Sam Weatherill learned at the sessions of January 1632, “contrary to the statute”. His greyhound had been seen chasing and killing hares in the grounds of Scarborough castle which were then owned by the Thompson family. It must have been an exceptional dog: usually it takes two greyhounds to catch an adult hare.

At that time the only wild animals you were permitted to kill with impunity were foxes and pole-cats. These were considered such a public nuisance that St Mary’s churchwardens would give you a shilling for a fox’s head and fourpence for a “fourmart’s” (pine marten). And only the town’s appointed warrener was authorised to trap rabbits and hares on the borough’s land.

It was also illegal to shoot at birds and ground game with firearms. According to a badly-worded entry for the April sessions of 1627, Robert Heselgrave was summoned “for shouteing [shooting] at pigons upon the oath of John Staincliffe & that the sayd Robt shott att corners [?]”. Bringing down pigeons with shotguns seems to have been a popular pastime or perhaps a desperate search for food. Robert Watson and Thomas Hippye were caught doing it with a “handgun” in 1630 and two years later William Lawson was seen killing pigeons with the same means at Falsgrave.

Francis Sheppard, a 21-year-old Scarborough mariner, was almost certainly up to no good in January 1630 when he was seen on “Throstenby [Throxenby] fell” with a fowling piece. Under examination, he admitted that his “peece” had been “charged” and that he had intended “to shoote att certaine pigeons”. However, the powder was wet and “wold nott go of” and so, putting the gun under his arm, “the peece went of and some geese being behind him he chanced to kyll one...and left it there in the feild”.

Killing a goose at Throxenby Mere was presumably considered a much more serious offence than merely shooting at pigeons, but Sheppard’s tale of an accidental death was a lame defence and doubtless Scarborough’s jurymen found it no more credible than we would.

Scarborough Mere in Burtondale was for centuries a rich source of freshwater fish, but they were denied to the ordinary mortals of Falsgrave or Seamer. Known variously in early documents as “the Marre, the stanke of water adjoining Wapness [Weaponness]” or later as “By[w]ard Wath”, this 40-acre expanse of water was jealously protected by the Corporation, its owner.

A Common Hall order of 1602 declared that “Mr Bailiffs shall have the Marr to their own use for their time of their baliffwicke [year of office] & that non shall shut nor fysh upon payn of the old fine”. Two years later, the Mere was leased for 21 years at a rent of one pound a year to five leading burgesses, William Peacock, William Hickson, Robert Fysh, John Lacey and William Wedderill.

That was as far as privatisation was allowed to go. Nearly two hundred years later, the Mere was still the property of the Corporation, still 30 acres in area and fishing rights there were still strictly guarded. As late as 1781, John Pecket was imprisoned in York castle gaol for fishing illegally at the Mere and his petition for release was rejected.