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Whigs and Hunters: Origin of the Black Act (Peregrine Books) Paperback – 29 Sep 1977

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (29 Sept. 1977)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140551298
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140551297
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,440,302 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By S Wood on 11 Nov. 2009
Format: Paperback
The Lawyer replies to the Squires question - "Yes and with great lenity too; for if we had called it a young tree they would have been both hanged." The quotation (which sits at the beginning of this book) is from Henry Fieldings excellent Joseph Andrews. The law under which the two persons might have been strung up for stealing a "young tree" was the infamous Black Act of 1723 which at a single go increased the number of capital crimes by about fifty. This Act and the circumstances in which it arose are the focus of E.P.Thompsons "Whigs and Hunters".

Thompson volunteered an essay for inclusion in the seminal collection on Crime in the Eighteenth century- Albion's Fatal Tree on the Black Act of 1723. After 5 years of research he produced not an essay but instead this extremely fascinating book which covers a number of issues relating to early 18th Century England. Rather than accept the apparently "obvious" reason for the Act which was ostensibly to deal with organised gangs who were committing depredations in the Kings Forests, stealing Deer, timber, turfs and peat Thompson digs deeper. He reconstructs from the available documents of Forest Courts, Assize Courts, private correspondence of those involved a picture of the area in which the disturbances that led to the Acts were greatest. The area in question is situated - roughly - between Windsor and Southampton including the Forest of Windsor and the Forest of Bere.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Samuel Romilly on 6 Jun. 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
E P Thompson was at the forefront of researchers into the Bloody Code, and produced this important book on the Waltham Black Act. It remains of substantial importance and was written with verve and detail. You do not have to be a Marxist to see class war behind the Bloody Code whose rational was to protect property, including game, by deterrent death sentences routinely imposed if rarely executed. Nor do you have to accept all of Thompson's interpretation to value the research behind, and insights of, this work.

However I do have some editorial quibbles. The author has a tendency to mention things without explanation. For instance on p.30 and on the following pages there is mention of swanicote courts but no explanation of what these were (a court held three times a year to try forest offences, and was so-called because swains made up the jury). Similarly on p.136 he refers to 'tales men' without explaining that these were individuals summoned to make up the numbers on a jury. The offence of breaking down the head of a fishpond is nowhere defined: it was the digging into the side (or mound or head) of a pond to let out the water, usually so that the fish could be more easily stolen. These are not common terms and are not well known to the general or even the academic reader. In short, this is a seminal work but could have done with a little more editing.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Harry Donaghy on 13 Nov. 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fine addition of the works of E.P. Thompson in the home library collection!
Thank you seller!
Harry Donaghy
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 3 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A very serious study of natural resource policy 23 Feb. 2002
By sbissell3 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book has influenced an entire series of books on understanding the evolution of natural resource policy and culture. It is especially important in understanding the development of laws and policy about wildlife. It is, to use a worn-out phrase, a seminal work.
This book is not for casual reading at all. In fact it is a difficult and very scholarly treatment of a period in English history that has repercussions into present day policy in the United States.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The Black Act and the history of property law in the West 8 May 2011
By Helen Boos - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Dry, academic, convoluted and somewhat dated -- it was written in the 1970s, at one point referring to modern opinion of "the fuzz", i.e. the police (p. 260)-- but still worth reading if you like this sort of thing. My only caveat is that it would have helped if I knew more about English history (particularly the Whigs, Walpole, the 1720s, the South Sea [Economic] Bubble etc.) and/or legal history, as some background in these is assumed.

Having given "Whigs & Hunters" four stars, I should add that it took about 3 months to slog through. In the end, the effort was worth it. Part social history, part legal history, it's a very interesting look at this particular British law -- the Black Act -- including the context in which it was enacted, and the socio-political fallout. Thompson (a self-described Marxist) contends that the Black Act was mostly unwarranted, an over-reaction of the newly wealthy to (what they perceived as) a threat to their authority in the form of encroachments on "their" lands. The Black Act, for example, made it a capitol offense to poach or cut trees on someone else's land (or even to cover one's face with a kerchief, as this was taken as a direct threat of malfeasance against the gentry); in other words, you could be executed for cutting down a tree or wearing a kerchief over your face. In contrast, a wealthy landowner was able to purchase a whole village and force out all residents so that he could make it into a garden or hunting park (as happened in more than one instance), this in a time when families had lived in the same village for generations, farmed the same land, fished the same streams, etc. Thompson contends that these views on individual ownership and property rights were radically different and more biased than traditional views (which included rights of common usage), putting far more power and control in the hands of private landowners than had ever been, and that the Black Act provided a brutal enforcement mechanism to solidify and justify these new views. Thompson also touches on how these views shaped Western thought on power, property, and law for centuries to come.

His research seems to be exhaustive, though surviving evidence is apparently scanty and many aspects of the era are/were (at the time of publication) still too murky to give a clear idea of what actually happened that led to the passage of the Black Act. Furthermore, the academic analysis interrupts what could have been some very good storytelling. Where the lay-reader would have appreciated reading about individual incidences from start to finish, such a comprehensive view is rarely given, with stories usually presented in bits and pieces, parsed for details to exemplify various legal points being asserted. Most times, the relentless parsing can be very confusing, but ultimately it is the details that make "Whigs & Hunters" worth reading. Quoting letters, for example, Thompson describes how one roguish "gentleman" --in the socio-political sense of the word only -- received rough justice:

"The Reverend Thomas Power.... seems to have married a local Wokingham woman for her money; and she was so truculent as to neglect to settle all her worldly goods upon him. ... Power had been assiduous in attempting to persuade her to make over the residue of her estate to him, which 'she being unwilling to consent to, he lately threatened to hang her out of the window by one Leg', and, if she continued to be obstinate, to cut the string 'and so make an end of her'. Her neighbours, who heard of the affair, thought this exercise in persuasion excessive, and four of them, 'famed for chivalry', came to the aid of 'the distressed Dame'. One of them disguised himself as a woman, and knocked at Power's gate. When he came to inquire, the 'woman' seized him and shrieked for help. The others then leaped from the bushes, secured Power's arms (a blunderbuss and two guns), dragged him through a pond, took him a mile into the forest and tied him to a tree. The 'woman' there pretended to be the spirit of his wife's grandmother, and upon her plea a mock trial was held and Power was condemned to die. 'He, half dead with fear, not knowing whether they were in jest or earnest, desired time for his praying.' the 'knight errants' then fired over his head, and left him tied up in the forest, threatening worse treatment if he did not reform his behaviour to his wife."(p. 71)

Unfortunately, this incident happened after the Black Act was passed, and such rough justice against a "gentleman" was not to be tolerated. To find out what happened to our "knights errant" (and, for that matter, to the rogue, Thomas Power), you'll have to read the book.... :-)

One last note: Thompson's discussion of the effect of the South Sea [Economic] Bubble, the social upheaval it ultimately caused, including setting the stage for the socio-political transition from "common use" rights to individual property rights, is VERY INTERESTING in light of our own post-2008 economic upheaval. Makes me wonder what's in store for us. Already we see signs that current views are at least being challenged -- for example in, say, the role of government in providing specific services to its people, with some people calling for literally everything to be privately owned and managed (those who look to Ayn Rand for direction, for example). According to Thompson, the fallout from the South Sea Bubble fiasco ultimately resulted in fewer rights for ordinary people, more power (and therefore more "rights") for the wealthy. Who knows where our current economic restructuring will lead...? Very interesting....
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"Jesu!" said the Squire, "would you commit two persons to bridewell for a twig?" 6 July 2012
By S Wood - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The Lawyer replies to the Squires question - "Yes and with great lenity too; for if we had called it a young tree they would have been both hanged." The quotation (which sits at the beginning of this book) is from Henry Fieldings excellent Joseph Andrews. The law under which the two persons might have been strung up for stealing a "young tree" was the infamous Black Act of 1723 which at a single go increased the number of capital crimes by about fifty. This Act and the circumstances in which it arose are the focus of E.P.Thompsons "Whigs and Hunters".

Thompson volunteered an essay for inclusion in the seminal collection on Crime in the Eighteenth century- Albion's Fatal Tree on the Black Act of 1723. After 5 years of research he produced not an essay but instead this extremely fascinating book which covers a number of issues relating to early 18th Century England. Rather than accept the apparently "obvious" reason for the Act which was ostensibly to deal with organised gangs who were committing depredations in the Kings Forests, stealing Deer, timber, turfs and peat Thompson digs deeper. He reconstructs from the available documents of Forest Courts, Assize Courts, private correspondence of those involved a picture of the area in which the disturbances that led to the Acts were greatest. The area in question is situated - roughly - between Windsor and Southampton including the Forest of Windsor and the Forest of Bere. Thompsons conjecture, after spending much time in the primary records, is that rather than being gangs of organised criminals those who were committing the crimes were those who had lived in the forest since time immemorial and whose customary way of life was being undermined by the Park authorities acting on behalf of the dominant Whig establishment and the King himself. The picture he paints of their way of life and their actions in defence of it are completely absorbing, and only those with a hard heart wont feel any sympathy for them in their struggle. Rather than making an honest and impartial attempt to adjudicate between overlapping property rights, the powers that be including such figures as Britains first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole come down firmly on the side of the Forest authorities, which given that they often had places or placemen in those authorities is hardly surprising. One might be surprised at modern politicians and their expenses paid Duck ponds, but a Duck pond is small beer indeed in comparison to a Deer park.

It's not the easiest piece of reading and when I read it 8 or so years ago I considered it as the lesser of Thompsons three major works (the others being The Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common). Having read it a second time I wouldn't have any problem with considering it almost the equal of the other two. Its now sadly out of print, and hideously expensive 2nd hand so perhaps this is one to look for in the Library. I suspect that it will not be everyones cup of tea, but for some this will turn out to be a fascinating and memorable book.
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