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....