Joe Whistlecraft: Poacher – getting away with murder by Pip Wright

In Pip Wright’s introduction, he assured us that the title of his talk was not simply an idiom, but was a reality. Joe Whistlecraft actually did commit murder and get away with it. 

Born into a large family in rural Suffolk, Joe was quickly taught all the poacher’s basic crafts, such as how to shoot, snare, train a dog, fight and know when to run and hide. His father was frequently in and out of prison, so it is not surprising that coming from such a notorious family, Joe was often in trouble. His first experience of prison was when he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and threatening a police officer, but being unable to pay the fine he was sentenced to 8 days in prison. Though apprehensive, his father told him about his own first time in prison when, determined to cope with the experience, he resolutely told himself, ‘I can knock it out.’

Further prosecutions followed, ranging from failing to pay a dog licence to the more serious offences of assault, robbery and arson, the latter resulting in 3 years in Chelmsford prison. One of his brothers died in prison whilst another turned his back on crime and in 1912 ‘went straight’, earning himself the nickname ‘duke’. Two brothers emigrated to Canada in early 1914, but on the outbreak of World War I, they came back to fight. Joe remained at home, unable to enlist because he was missing two fingers after a shotgun accident. It was during this time, during tensions between Joe and his father that he admitted to an offence he was not proud of – he shot his father. The charge of attempted murder was reduced to unlawful wounding, but still resulted in a sentence of 18 months hard labour.

In 1929, however, Joe faced a more serious charge. Together with his younger brother Ernie, he went poaching in Stubbing’s Wood, on the estate of the Wilson family. On a dark and wet evening, Joe fired his shotgun randomly into the trees in the hope of hitting some birds, but this brought their presence to the attention of an old adversary, the gamekeeper Cornwell.

Although Ernie picked up a bird and ran off, Joe was slowed by the muddy conditions when suddenly a spotlight shone into his face. Joe fired at the light to put it out and without knowing the consequences fled. Later, he was arrested and charged with murder, but his barrister was able to undermine the prosecution’s evidence, which led to his acquittal.

Having ‘got away with murder’, Joe then kept a low profile and went to live with his sister. During World War II, Major Wilson approached him with the offer of becoming the gamekeeper for his estate. In accepting the offer he had, indeed, turned from poacher to gamekeeper. Although described as a ‘wrong ‘un’, Joe almost became crime free, only bagging the odd rabbit for the pot during his official duties. He died aged 84 in 1960.

Roland Thacker

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