A few weeks ago we were at Beamish, the wonderful living history museum near Newcastle. In part of their Georgian landscape is the old farmhouse of Pocklington Old Hall.
There on the wall were two man-traps, one an “Iron Wolf” with jagged teeth and the capacity to cut a man or woman in half. There was also a so-called “Humane” trap. No teeth, the hard bars intended to break a limb. The idea that the person caught therein might not be too crippled to continue slaving on the land. If you are near Beamish do go and have a look.
I wrote about mantraps in my book The Compleat Trespasser, and give a few extracts below. Beamish is well worth a visit to see so many aspects of British life over the centuries. One of my favourite and most inspiring places, Beamish always gives me ideas for my books.
“In a dark corner there lies a singular-looking piece of mechanism, a relic of the older times, which when dragged into the light turns out to be a man trap. These terrible engines have long since been disused – being illegal, like spring-guns – and the rust has gathered thickly on the metal. But, old though it be, it still acts perfectly, and can be ‘set’ as well now as when in bygone days poachers and thieves used to prod the ground and the long grass, before they stepped in it, with a stick, for fear of mutilation.
The trap is almost precisely similar to the common rat trap or gin still employed to destroy vermin, but greatly exaggerated in size, so that if stood on end it reaches to the waist, or above. The jaws of this iron wolf are horrible to contemplate – rows of serrated projections, which fit into each other when closed, alternating with spikes a couple of inches long, like tusks. To set the trap you have to stand on the spring – the weight of a man is about sufficient to press it down; and, to avoid danger to the person preparing this little surprise, a band of iron can be pushed forward to hold the spring while the catch is put into position, and the machine itself is hidden among the bushes or covered with dead leaves. Now touch the pan with a stout walking stick – the jaws cut it in two in the twinkling of an eye. They seem to snap together with a vicious energy, powerful enough to break the bone of the leg; and assuredly no man ever got free whose foot was once caught by those terrible teeth. – Richard Jefferies in The Gamekeeper at Home.
A few years ago, I visited a manor house on the edge of Dartmoor and was shown just such a man trap, a vicious looking engine that could only have been intended to maim any poor unfortunate who got caught in its mighty jaws. For weeks afterwards, as I roamed unheeded around the estate’s several hundred acres of woodland, the thought occurred to me that there might be other man traps, long since lost in the undergrowth surrounding its ancient oaks, but still set and waiting to crush the leg of a passing trespasser.
In the earlier years of the nineteenth century, every walk in the countryside must have been fraught with danger from such well-placed man traps and spring guns. The most likely victims of these ‘terrible engines’ was not the skilled local poacher, who would be wary and knowledgeable when entering the preserved park and its wooded coverts, but the naturalist on the lookout for specimens, the literary gentleman seeking inspiration, the early rambler and, most likely of all, the local labourer and his family desperate for firewood, nuts and mushrooms. The contemporary writer and social commentator Sydney Smith declared in the pages of The Edinburgh Review that “there is a sort of horror in thinking of a whole land filled with lurking engines of death…”
Even on my country walks from the 1960s onwards, it was not unusual to find warning signs threatening dire misfortune if you dared to stray off the road or public path. The favourite bore the caveat ‘Beware of Snakes’, often adding for good measure the telephone number of the local hospital. Other notices threatened that, if you trespassed, you would be ‘prosecuted with the full force of the law’ or that ‘severe civil and criminal action would be taken against you’.
There were still spring guns in some of the game preserves, designed to go off if you knocked into a trip wire, albeit just to send off a warning shot to the landowner or keeper rather than putting a dose of lead into your leg as in times of old. I have never encountered any man traps, but there is some anecdotal evidence that a small minority of landowners were still setting them, or putting about the rumour that they were, well into the twentieth-century.”
From The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge, available in paperback and on Kindle eBook reader. Just click on the link to order a copy. You can download a free Kindle App for your tablet or Smartphone if you don’t have a Kindle.