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Thomas Smith Denyer
By Doris Richardson
Houston, USA


When my grandfather and his family emigrated from Portsmouth, England, the family tradition of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding came with them. This was my only connection to our family's British past until I began to research.
Thomas Smith Denyer [1812-1864] and his wife Eliza [nee Boxall] [1815-1887] are my third great grandparents. Starting with the 1841 census I found Thomas and Eliza living in Croft's cottage in Kirdford, West Sussex. What really caught my attention was his job description as gamekeeper. It's not a common trade in the US. so I didn't know much about it. Thanks to some online research and a great book, Gamekeeping- An Illustrated History by David S. D. Jones, I have a better understanding of the trade. I learned a gamekeeper is employed by the owner of a country estate to prevent poaching, rear and release game birds, control pests and predators and to monitor the health of the game. A head gamekeeper may supervise several assistants, often referred to as under keepers. I also learned something about the trade that may give a peek into Thomas' character and work ethic. Gamekeepers progress through a ranking system and it can take many years, if at all, to reach the top position of head gamekeeper for an estate. I researched British newspapers and discovered Denyer was head gamekeeper for Richard Hasler of Barkfold House in Kirdford at the young age of about 28 [maybe he was head keeper because it was a small estate, but nevertheless he was in charge].
I continued to research newspapers. As family historians we're always excited to learn a little tidbit about an ancestor. I didn't expect to discover a major story!
Several newspapers report on "the incident." In 1845, while working as head keeper for the Barkfold House in Kirdford, Denyer was involved in a terrible shooting accident. One night while laying in bed he heard gunshots. He got dressed and ran to the home of assistant William Puttick to ask for help. He told Puttick to be quick as it sounds like they might have poachers. Denyer heard some people going over a bridge towards Jacksland and told Puttick he was going to check it out and to meet up with him. When Puttick caught up with Denyer they walked through the property surrounding Barkfold House. As they walked toward the poachers they heard a gunshot coming from Jacksland. When they were close enough to see the poachers it appeared there were four of them. They heard one of the poachers shout, "Go to work, there's only two of them." It appeared one of the poachers was getting ready to use his gun. Denyer called out, "Steady, my lads." The poachers moved on with Denyer and Puttick close behind them. The poachers stopped and one of them shot in their direction. Denyer said he believed the shot passed just over their heads.
The poachers moved on once again, occasionally stopping to see how far behind the two men were. They soon crossed into Barkfold Meadow where Denyer snatched the gun from one of the poachers, throwing it on the ground away from them. Another poacher hit Denyer with his gun. To protect his head Denyer raised his arms and received a major blow to one arm. It didn't stop him from grabbing his gun and shooting the poacher in self-defence with his double-barrelled shotgun. Denyer believed the poacher, Benjamin Remnant, was going to kill him.
The other poachers ran off and Puttick and Denyer carried Remnant, still alive, back to the cottage where Denyer lived with his wife Eliza and children. They laid him out on the floor and called surgeon Henry Boxall. The shot had caused a fatal wound and the doctor concluded that Remnant would not survive. The local parish pastor was called. He told Remnant to be forgiven he must forgive Denyer. He did, saying Denyer was doing his job. Remnant died early that morning. He was arrested on charges of manslaughter and committed to Petworth House of Correction to await the spring Assizes in Lewes. Eliza was pregnant with their seventh child.
Newspapers, including The Times [London], reported on an inquest that took place at the Half Moon Pub, Kirdford. Some of the main points laid before the jury were gaming laws, one being whether or not a keeper should be allowed to carry firearms. They were told there was no law preventing a keeper from using a gun, but if he used it unlawfully, he made himself amenable to the law. A resulting death, in this case, could be hard to prove. Another point was made that many area gentlemen had begun to discourage their keepers from carrying firearms.
The Sussex Advertiser [2 December 1845] contains an incredible amount of detail including not only the inquest report of evidence, but also Denyer's statement. Denyer was given into custody under the coroner's warrant for committal to the Petworth Jail. The reporter also included a conversation he had with Denyer's former employer, Mr. Knox, of New Grove, Petworth, who said Denyer was of a most forbearing, humane disposition. In fact, Knox is the one who brought Denyer to Barkfold. He said the news had caused great regret in the neighborhood.
At least two newspapers carried news of the indictment. After the prosecution statement, Mr. Clarkson [who represented Denyer] submitted, that based on the facts, there was no evidence to go to the jury in support of the charge of manslaughter. The evidence appeared to him a case of excusable homicide. The Lord Chief Justice expressed an opinion that the case ought not go to trial. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
As I learned more about Denyer's early life, I wondered what it must have been like for him to have a job as gamekeeper when one of his primary jobs was to protect the property from poachers. These were difficult times! For many reasons, including the high cost of flour, poaching was a constant concern. Thomas understood that often poachers were looking for ways to supplement the family's diet with stolen game. As a child Denyer and his mother Ann were recipients of poor law benefits. Still, he didn't climb the ranks to head keeper by the young age of 28 by allowing poachers to steal from his master.
Since Thomas was baptised in April 1812, I researched poor law disbursement books for the early 1800's for Woolbeding, available at the West Sussex Record Office. The responsibility of providing for the poor was placed on each parish through the collection of poor rates, and these funds were used to provide relief to the poor. An overseer was responsible for responding to the needs and maintaining records for the disbursements. On 26 March 1812, a payment was made to "Denyer boy" in the amount of £1.16s. Was this rather large disbursement for the time made to Ann to assist her and her new baby boy? She continued to receive monthly benefits for several years. New to the account in 1820 is " Widow Denyer." So now there's Ann Denyer and Widow Denyer receiving benefits. This doesn't raise my genealogical eyebrows quite yet because there are a few other Denyer's in the area. But, in August 1821 there's an entry for "Widow Denyer and boy." This is also the first month where there are no disbursement entries for Ann! Did something happen to Ann requiring that Widow Denyer take care of Thomas? Was she Ann's mother? I found no death record for Ann or evidence of her residing in a workhouse. In 1822, at the age of 10, Thomas begins receiving benefits, and in 1825 I found a peddler was paid to provide a pair of shoes for Thomas Denyer. This is the final disbursements book entry for Thomas.
Were the shoes made for Thomas as a final send off into what lay ahead for him and where did Thomas go from there? Was he apprenticed as a child? Children of poor families, orphans and widows were often apprenticed out, at the parishes' expense, to masters who might teach them a trade. These apprenticeships alleviated the parish of any further expense for the child. Apprenticeship records do exist, but primarily between 1710 and 1811 when a stamp duty was levied on each apprenticeship indenture.
So far I've found no record of Thomas being apprenticed, but apprenticed or not, it's likely Thomas worked in an agricultural setting in the Sussex area because in 1816 an act restricted the distance children could be sent away for work to a 40-mile radius from their home. Perhaps he worked as a kennel boy and possessed qualities of character that make a successful servant, later rising through the ranks until he became a gamekeeper. Perhaps as a young man he walked side by side with a master who treated him well, encouraging him and giving him the confidence he needed to rise out of the poverty of his childhood. I like to think so! Records indicate one of Thomas' son's and later a grandson became gamekeepers.
In 1851, I found the Denyers living in Trotton and the census indicates Thomas is an agricultural labourer. In 1861 the family still lived in Trotton. Thomas and his son Thomas are both listed as keepers.
During a visit to Petworth House I met Peter Symonds who works for the Trust. I told him I thought my ancestor worked for Petworth House because there are payroll entries for both father and son. Incredibly helpful, Peter told me that while both men worked at the Dumpford Manor in Trotton, it was owned by Petworth, and therefore, on its payroll. A little side note… Peter contacted me within a few weeks after my visit to inform me someone else had inquired about "the gamekeeper." We connected and we're cousins! This happened not because of an ancestry database or social media, but because Peter took the time to connect us!
Sadly, pay was not the only entries found in the Petworth records. In 1864 my third great grandfather committed suicide. A news article said he shot himself in the head, blowing his brains into atom size pieces! Was Thomas unable to forgive himself for killing someone? The article only states he had been in a dull state of mind for some time.
As family historians we must be prepared to discover the good, bad, and the ugly in our family's past. Discovering that an ancestor took his own life was difficult. And why would he do this? I asked myself this question many times as I learned about Thomas. Afterall, the newspaper said he was an upstanding man in the community, and his former employer had highly recommended him to Barkfold House. I now ask myself, had Thomas suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not appear until months or years later.
The act of killing someone wasn't the only traumatic event he experienced. Following his arrest Thomas was placed in the Petworth Jail. I learned a lot about the jail from Gravelroots, a locally operated website based at Fernhurst. The notorious jail delivered hard labour and solitary confinement to mostly petty criminals. The jail used a method of punishment called the ‘treadwheel.' Treading the wheel was similar to climbing a flight of stairs. The wheel turned 48 steps per minute and each prisoner stepped through 11,340 feet, or just over two miles per day. The distance had to be achieved within a specified time - ten hours in summer and seven in winter. Time spent on the dreaded treadwheel was known as 'grinding the wind.' If a person stumbled on the wheel they would be mangled, and many were. There was nothing to hold on to, as even the hand wheel turned.
During what may have been about four months of Thomas' incarceration at Petworth Jail, conditions for inmates were particularly harsh under Prison Governor John Mance. If the most common reason for jail time at Petworth was petty crimes, how cruelly was Thomas treated since he had killed a man.
Thomas took his own life with a double-barreled shotgun. It was also a double-barreled shotgun that Thomas used to defend himself against the poacher. Had Thomas used the same gun in both instances? I'm pretty sure I'll never know

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