Bill Sykes had a wife..
I’m not sure if it’s just me that gets a bit intrigued by stories that inspire songs. This one’s a bit convoluted, I was watching Sharpe on some random Freeview channel and rifleman Daniel Hagman was singing a traditional folk song about poachers in Rufford Park. I googled it, I even messaged Ken about it as it brought Crime and Punishment to mind and well, one Google search leads to another and you end up with this!
Plus I’ve not written anything about Ferocious Dog, my principle subject matter, for quite a while, have I? I touched on the back story of the song back when I first wrote about the album – the star of the song, Bill Sykes, actually being a relative of Ken’s – and probably would’ve faded into obscurity as a historical figure were it not for the discovery of letters his wife wrote to him after he’d been transported out to Australia.
You see – Bill Sykes did have a wife (children he had four, too!) – and well, it’s pretty safe to assume that he didn’t see them no more as well. You can read Myra Sykes’ letters in full here thanks to Wikisource – initially sent to Portsmouth prison where he spent a couple of years before being transported aboard the Norwood (Barry, are you reading this? I’m sure we were discussing the name of the ship outside Newbury!). You can even read Bill’s own diary of the voyage here, too.
How personal is that? Pretty incredible really – I even found some contemporary newspaper reports of the incident too, those sources were perhaps unsurprisingly less sympathetic to the alleged perpetrators than the Ferocious Dog song, it has to be said. The Yorkshire Gazette on 11th November 1865 (click on the image for a larger version) – my favourite quote in it has to be “The dog which accompanied the poachers has also been found and spoken to, and it has been proved to have belonged to Bone” (Bone being one of the other poachers).
The overall story I found resonated perfectly with the song though – a group of poachers, a mêlée with a gamekeeper gone bad – and one of them, Woodhouse, turning Queen’s evidence and implicated seven of his companions, identifying John Teale, William Sykes and Henry Bone as those that struck the deadliest of blows to the prone gamekeeper Lilley. Interestingly as Ken sings, six men were arrested – one was still at large at the time of the article.
Thanks to Google Books I even found an excerpt from A Grim Almanac of South Yorkshire by Kevin Turton which documents the event, and includes a verse published by the Rotherham Advertiser presumably at the time of the event. These were certainly accounts on the side of the authorities though unlike the song, as you can read below:
“At about 10pm this night Bramley gamekeeper William Lilley charged across an open field at Silverwood, intent on arresting a group of poachers as they set their nets. Well armed and accompanied by two other keepers, he believed the men in front of him would either scatter or else give themselves up. He was wrong. The other keepers, who had failed to help co-ordinate the attack, did not charge with him and therefore when he met the poaching group he was alone. The first man he met struck him a single blow to the head that forced him to his knees. Others quickly joined in and within a few short minutes they had beaten him to death. The other keepers never managed to get within striking distance of Lilley’s attackers: pinned down by a lethal hail of bricks and stones hurled by the other poachers, some dozen men, they were forced to flee from the field
Lilley’s body was discovered by Police Constable Jabes Fowler some two hours after the murderous assault. It lay where the gamekeeper had sustained the first blow, beside a blood-covered hedge stake believed to have been one of the murder weapons. The policeman arranged for the body to be transported back to Lilley’s home in Bramley. Eight men were subsequently arrested and charged with the attack. One of the eight became an approver (turned Queen’s evidence), which was the breakthrough the police had been looking for. It was he who named the key attackers: John Teale, William Sykes, Henry Bone and John Bentcliffe. All were found guilty but the jury ignored the judge’s direction and refused to return a murder verdict. In its place they recorded one of manslaughter. Despite this, the judge then ordered they be transported to the penal colony in Western Australia for up to twenty years.”
It’s interesting that even contemporary reports differ on initial arrests made, and don’t seem to mention the two years spent in jail in Portsmouth prior to transportation (although I guess maybe that wasn’t planned or hadn’t happened at this point! Certainly there’s little sympathy for the plight of a group of men driven to illegally poach presumably because they were so hungry – so maybe Ferocious Dog are offering the other side to the tale – and well, regardless of guilt being shoved on a convict ship and deposited on the other side of the globe is one hell of an experience.
In another archived newspaper account – once which actually transcribes sections of the trial – there’s an extraordinary tirade of editorial after the factual account. The case against those convicted hinged on the testimony of Woodhouse, one of the perpetrators and eye witness statements by the keepers who didn’t accompany Lilley – when it was dark. Of course, a crime clearly took place, we must remember. I’ve transcribed that newspaper article as it was a bit long to just copy and paste in here it was originally published in the weekly supplement to the Sheffield Telegraph on 30th December 1865.
I will finish up with the poem I referenced earlier though, as I said it was originally published in the Rotherham Advertiser and again, definitely doesn’t take the side of the poachers!
At Wickersley there lived a gamekeeper
Of honour and great fame,
He took delight in the dead of night,
Preserving of his game
On the tenth night of October he left his wife and children
The weather was cold and chilly;
The poachers shed the blood near Silverwood
Of famous William Lilley
It was Sykes, Teale, and Bone
Fought with hedgestakes, sticks and stones
More like savages in a mêlée;
They shed the blod near Silverwood
Of famous William Lilley
The murderers found no resting-place,
Whereever they did scout;
And Hockaday from Wakefield came,
And searched the villains out.
The crime of murder will stick close to them,
Whereever they may be,
And stain the spot they finish at last –
If on the gallows tree
Though years and centuries may pass away,
Then human blood will chill
To hear the tale of wilful murder
Of poor William of the hill
Poor Lilley is gone, and we greet him,
Though in these woods we will meet no more;
Still we hope some day to meet him
On some peaceful, happy shore.
Not the most amazing prose, but it did make me smile that certainly more than a century on we’ve all heard the tale of, well, perhaps not wilful murder in the case of the Ferocious Dog song – but certainly of the respective fates of the gamekeeper and one of those accused of his murder. Of course, a jury had reasonable enough doubt to bust the charge down to manslaughter at least – and clearly the establishment at the time weren’t very happy about it!
There you go – a Ferocious history lesson, of sorts!