No stories of old Dawley will be complete without referring to the local poachers, especially those whose activities reached a large scale in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.
This was a time when hardships and low wages were the lot of the masses, and it’s not surprising that some members of the male population, in a spirit of venture, and at the same time an effort to increase their meagre incomes, looked on poaching as an answer to their problems.
Rabbits were in abundance, and provided food in thousands of working class homes, and poachers had little difficulty in finding a ready market.
One of the best known poachers in the Wrekin area was George “Banger” Lloyd, who a few years before his death told me with glee, many stories of his adventures.
A coal miner, George Lloyd was a tough but lovable character, and like many other natives of Dawley, I listened to the true stories of his many adventures with both amazement and amusement, - “I was never caught by the police in thirty years of poaching”, George told me, and then with a hearty laugh confided how he had accomplished in those by gone days, what seemed an almost impossible feat.
“After we had raided the woods that surrounded the Wrekin, the biggest job was to get sacks full of dead rabbits to a secret rendezvous in the Lawley Bank area, and we successfully did this year after year by using the railway line in the early hours of the morning, and keeping clear of roads and lanes as far as possible.
When George and his comrades reached the secret hiding place, the sacks of rabbits were well hidden and then the poachers made their way to their respective homes by little known paths and once safe inside rested until sometime after daybreak. Next came the final stage of their nights work; the sale and distribution of the rabbits without detection.
The secret rendezvous had been well chosen and from its situation, anyone approaching from a considerable distance could be seen. After breakfast, a poacher would leave his home and would appear to be taking just an ordinary quiet morning stroll but in reality was very much alert, his keen eyes searching in every direction for sign of danger. Once satisfied he gave an agreed signal and was soon joined by his mates, who quickly sorted the rabbits for distribution to waiting customers.
Poaching at the period 1900 – 10 was on a vast scale in the Shropshire countryside and miners and ironworkers from the Wrekin area were the chief operators.
With little general education, the poachers depended on their own uncanny skill which is fully illustrated in describing the biggest poaching raid in the history of Shropshire, which was carried out with the precision and planning of a military operation. The town of Dawley had for some years become famed for its big Sunday School Demonstration on August Bank Holiday Monday, and was the period each year when many visitors and former Dawley citizens renewed acquaintances with old friends. The town was at this time more or less in fete and about the end of June the local poachers felt August Bank Holiday would be when police, gamekeepers and landowners may relax their continuous vigil. George Lloyd who was more or less recognised as the uncrowned King of local poachers was joined by his mates at a local Inn and in a little back room with an atmosphere of shag and thick twist tobacco smoke from clay pipes, mingled with three pence a pint home brewed beer, they discussed plans for the big August raid with great secrecy.
The following Sunday morning farmers, farm workers and cottagers living in the vicinity of the Wrekin may have noticed a small group of men, whippet dogs at their heels, quietly winding their way through the countryside, well behaved and keeping to the legitimate paths, with the whippets under perfect control, and would likely to conclude the group were miners having a walk to the Wrekin after a weeks confinement in the pit.
Little did they realise every path, gate, type of fence was being noted and the whole area being thoroughly reconnoitred, and alternative escape routes were surveyed if the gang ran into trouble.
George Lloyd never went into action wearing his own clothes, but was always dressed in the rig out of an old Victorian lady complete with black bonnet tied in position under his chin.
It was an unforgivable act, if the old time poacher left a gate open, broke a fence or wire or left any sign to the gamekeeper of their nocturnal visits. These visits over a period of time into the eerie depths of the Wrekin Woods when local folk believed that after midnight spirits walked, and some alleged they had seen strange sights and heard strange sounds had little effect on George Lloyd and his associates, only to give them an uncanny sense of approaching danger, and I was told of the occasion when at two thirty in the morning in the Short Woods the Dawley poachers stealthily and silently making their way home came to a sudden halt, with feeling that somewhere near were other living beings, either human or animal. The gang stood close together, tensed and hardly daring to breath for some minutes, until George Lloyd stretched out an arm and gave a tap on the shoulder of one statue-like poacher, and seconds later the almost perfect imitation of the cry of an owl broke the night silence of the woods.
Another short period of anxiety, and only a short distance away was heard the cry of a night animal, sufficient to ease the tension and give a signal for the poachers to move forward and some minutes later in the dense blackness of the Short Wood extended greetings to members of the Ketley Gang.
A few handshakes, a few whispered words, and they were gone.
With gamekeepers and police continually on the lookout for poaching gangs, the poachers used all kinds of ingenious ruses to mislead the upholders of the law, and on the occasion of the record August Bank Holiday raid George Lloyd really excelled himself.
A day or two before the raid George assisted by his twin brother Tom had checked the nets and these with other necessary material including George’s Victorian Ladies outfit complete with his grandmother’s bonnet were taken into the area of the Short Wood and hidden in a secret hiding place.
On the August Bank Holiday Sunday, the poachers went for a midday pint at a local Inn and had a final conference, everything was in position, the direction of the wind had been checked, for this was of vital importance in laying out the nets for if the prevailing wind carried the scent of the poachers towards the rabbits all was lost.
George Lloyd gave his final instructions and advice, every man would, as darkness fell individually make his way to his selected place assigned, and await a signal from their leader.
It was when all was set for “operation rabbits” and within an hour or so of the start of the night’s work that George Lloyd played his master card.
Like most workers of those days, George possessed a best suit only worn on rare occasions.
With his usual moleskin trousers, longish made jacket almost certain to have a couple of inside pockets sufficiently large to accommodate a brace of pheasants, cloth cap and muffler, often tied in a knot under the ear, George Lloyd was no fashion model, and on that August Sunday evening during the reign of Edward V11, he realised to don his best suit would create a bit of a local sensation.
As he left his home about 7 o’clock, “topped up” as he described it, in his best suit, white silk muffler crossed over his chest, watch chain, George Lloyd looked a completely transformed person, and no wonder the congregation leaving the local chapels after the evening services tittered among themselves. George did not appear to notice the stares, his mind being occupied with details of the coming raid as he walked towards Dawley and passing through High Street entered the Royal Exchange Inn. As the landlord served him with a pint of home brewed, the customers smiled but no comment was made feeling even George Lloyd wished to respect the traditions of Dawley Bank Holiday event. With darkness falling about nine o’clock, George kept his eye on the time and at half-past eight, drank up and left the Inn, walking down Dawley High Street.
His strategy was to show his best suit as much as possible and give an impression that poaching was the farthest thought in his mind that Sunday evening.
Then a stroke of luck which even George had not anticipated came his way, for as he approached the Lord Hill Hotel, he saw standing under the old Victorian street lamp which at that time marked the bottom of High Street the local Police Sergeant and a Constable. With wide grins the officers inquired if there had been a fire. With a knowing nod George grinned back and turned into King Street feeling his “toffing up act” had in the eyes of the law dismissed him from any poaching activity that night.
George however knew otherwise and quickening his pace turned through the Rough Ground and soon was walking through Lawley Village and New Works to the “happy hunting grounds”. Everything went to plan and although it was never told, the number of captured rabbits taken in that major operation it must have been very substantial. When in later years, when mix amitosis became rampant, George would impress on me that during all his poaching years, no rabbit suffered a lingering death, remarking that his own brother Tom, was so expert that he would go down the nets killing each rabbit instantaneously, as he would say “one a second”
George Lloyd and his mates did not concentrate all their efforts on the rabbit population and occasionally they bagged a few pheasants and it was on one of these excursions George himself was nearly captured. He had been in the vicinity of the Wrekin, and carrying a well hidden gun had in what appeared to be a remote area, shot his pheasant. He fully realised that the sound of the shots could attract attention to the area and in daylight he ran a risk, so the technique on these occasions was to grab the birds and run, putting as much distance as possible in the shortest time from the spot where he had shot the pheasant towards Lawley Village.
It was on such a return get a way reaching high ground adjacent to New Works that he spotted a couple of police officers near Lawley Cross Roads. To go back he may walk into a trap, to go forward & be seen by the officers was simply asking for trouble. Without hesitation he dropped on his knees and crawling among the bushes quickly found a spot to hide his gun and pheasant. He then quietly made his way taking as much cover as possible towards Lawley Church. George’s usual luck again held good for to his great surprise he noticed a funeral cortege was leaving the church into the churchyard, and making his way almost unnoticed round the outside of the church wall and taking up a position at the wall nearest Wellington, rested his arms on the wall and reverently listened to the burial service taking place a few yards away. By this ruse, he had placed the whole of the mourners between himself and the officers and with only his head showing above the wall he probably was not even recognised. At the end of the interment as the mourners poured out on to the main road he used them as a shield to slip away down Lawley Hill and make a detour through Lawley Furnaces towards his beloved Lawley Bank.
George (Banger) Lloyd knew his Shropshire countryside like the back of his hand, not only the Wrekin area, but areas including Sherlow, High Ercall, Roden and his activities often included land alongside the River Severn at Buildwas and Leighton, and on one of these river side expeditions, he and a companion clashed with the local Squire’s son who riding up on horseback enquired what were they doing on his father’s land. George’s reply “Having a look round”, so incensed the young horseman he lifted his whip and threatened to use it if they did not move. This was too much for the renowned “Banger” who reaching down picked up a few “jackels”, (old Dawley word for pebbles), and told the young Squire “if you raise that whip to hit either of us I will throw this jackel and hit you straight between the eyes”. Whether the young Squire thought this possible or otherwise he did not stop to find out for wheeling his horse round he galloped off threatening he would see they were quickly moved from his father’s land. Heedless to say George and his companion did not wait to see if the threat would be turned into action. George later told me “I’m sure that young Squire was a nice young chap, looked the young officer type of the old days. He had no doubt lost his temper seeing us on their land. I didn’t mind him losing his temper, but when he said he would use his whip on us, he didn’t know he was facing George “Banger” Lloyd.
But even “wily” old George did not always escape the power of the law and did a short spell or so in Shrewsbury Gaol as he called it, and as the writer of these series I would point out that George Lloyd, typical of the poacher of days gone by, was not a vicious man, in fact he was possessed of great good humour.
If George got into trouble it was mostly caused by a drop of beer to much, with a few fisticuffs thrown in for good measure, and once in one of his jollier moods told me of a short spell in “Shroosbury (sic) Gaol. The security measures in those days are so good he said “that an earwig drawn out a yard long” could not get out until the Governor said yes”
Laughingly he would tell of his first Sunday in “Shroosbury” (sic) Gaol when he attended the service in the prison chapel, and the Chaplain announced the hymn, “There is a Green Hill”. I could not resist nudging a fellow prisoner and whispering “yes and I wish my feet were on it right now”. Even in prison George could not forget his beloved Wrekin, symbol of his many adventures. A year or so before his death, I visited George Lloyd for his views of mix amitosis and taking an extra suck of his well smoked pipe, he spat on the ground in disgust. “Yo think” he said “years ago we were hounded like criminals for doing what is now being done by barbarous methods”. If the farmers and landowners had allowed old “Banger” even at seventy years of age, and a few of his old cronies to try their hands again, we would soon have reduced the rabbit population without such things as mix amitosis and gassing and also provided some tasty meals.
George had no time for the modern day poachers and again spitting in disgust commented “They are like a bull at a gate, they breakdown fences and do damage right and left” and added “The expert poachers are gone perhaps for all time.
During the severe food rationing of the 1939 – 45 War, lorry loads of rabbits were taken to Midland Industrial towns, where queues up to a mile long had assembled. The rabbits had been captured in a South Shropshire area and must have been a very welcome extra during the dark days of Britain’s food shortage.
With the coming of the First World War, Banger Lloyd’s poaching activates declined, but he was soon to exert his energies to another sphere; that of a Football Referee, and again in this popular sporting pastime soon became locally famous as the one and only “Banger Lloyd”.
Such characters as George Lloyd cannot be left out of any true history of Old Dawley for they are a reflection of a section of citizens who despite any personal traits, nevertheless, worked tremendously hard in the build up of Britain’s Industrial might.
By Alfred William Bowdler (Scoop)