In February 1852 the Bury & Norwich Post said this: “The neighbourhood of Thetford has for several years been infested by a formidable gang of poachers, whose exploits have from time to time been referred to in our pages. It is supposed to consist of as many as thirty, whose homes are chiefly in the direction of Ixworth, but whose place of rendezvous for the shooting season is a public house in Thetford, from whence they have been in the habit of setting out in large parties on their marauding expeditions to the various preserves by which that town is surrounded. To such a pitch of audacity have they reached, that they would latterly sally forth without disguise, with their dogs and guns, and return in the morning loaded with their spoil. We have before mentioned a case in which they even defied the keeper to come out of his house, and carried off his great coat as a trophy. Their depredations were not confined to the game covers, but extended, when occasion served, to the farmer’s poultry, and it is believed also to the sheepfolds, which have so severely suffered in this district”.
Matters had come to a head in December 1850. Following a tip-off, a party of gamekeepers was patrolling land on the Elveden Estate late at night when they encountered poachers; they followed the gang, despite threats of violence, until several poachers turned and fired three shots, killing the head keeper and wounding one of his deputies. The story was so shocking that it was syndicated by the Bury Post to at least 54 newspapers across the country. As a result Colonel Newton, the owner of Elveden Hall, and Mr Bartlett, a well-to-do Thetford farmer, travelled to Scotland Yard to seek assistance. They approached Inspector Lund who had become nationally famous as a pioneer of the Detective Force (along with Sergeant Jack Whicher, recently the subject of a book and film). Lund agreed to provide someone to infiltrate the gang and bring them to justice; the spy arrived in East Anglia in September 1851.
That man was Robert Boughen, originally a farm labourer from Marham in Norfolk but latterly a footman working for Mr Wainwright, a parliamentary agent, in Westminster. He had hoped to receive a ‘government situation’ through his master but was willing to try this route instead. He used the alias Ben Knights; strangely he had told the 1851 census (and presumably also his employer) that his name was Robert Knight. Having travelled to Thetford and Ixworth he contacted the gang and gained their confidence by paying their fines with money he claimed to have inherited. He was actually being paid six shillings per day by Bartlett. Boughen became known as ‘the General’ within the gang even though he claimed not to have taken any part in planning crimes.
One moonlit night in December 1851 Charles Hustler and Thomas Bantock of Ixworth went to a plantation on the Culford Estate, called Timworth Thicks, where they began shooting pheasants. An under-keeper heard the shots and went to investigate; when he found the men he got into a fight with them and the poachers used their guns to beat him unconscious. The beating was so severe that one of the guns sustained a broken stock. Robert Boughen was lodging at the Woolpack Inn near Ixworth Bridge at the time, Bantock had told him of plans to go shooting and Boughen had loaned him his gun, the gun had appeared in the Woolpack yard the next morning with a broken stock.
In January 1852 Boughen set off from Thetford in the company of Charles Hustler and Jeffery Reeve (of Ixworth again) to Charles Newdick’s farm at Ingham because Reeve said there were sheepskins to be stolen. They took a gun with them which Boughen held and kept watch while the others searched the premises; after some commotion they appeared with five dead chickens and a lambskin which they took back to Thetford and sold to an accomplice.
Both offences came to trial in March 1852, thanks to Boughen’s information, and both relied heavily on his evidence to gain convictions. The defence attorneys questioned both the legality and morality of Boughen’s position and suggested that he was every bit as responsible for the crimes as their clients were. All three men were found guilty and sentenced to transportation: Reeve for 10 years, Hustler and Bantock for 15 years. The Ixworth Gang had been broken up and the local press were jubilant. Ironically the Elveden murder turned out to have been committed by a gang from Isleham and their subsequent conviction failed due to a lack of evidence.
Robert Boughen probably did not get his government situation. In November 1859 he took over the running of the Salutation public house in Westminster, married a local lady and died 3 years later aged 44.
The three gang members all had different routes through the legal system and that is where we turn now. It should be noted that, at this date, Western Australia was the only remaining convict penal settlement and had only recently become one at the request of local landowners. They wanted the manpower but wished arriving ‘guests’ to have undergone some degree of reform in Britain’s new state prison structure first.
Thomas Bantock. Born in Ixworth in 1814, Bantock’s early career is difficult to detail because he is only one of six Thomas Bantocks living in the Ixworth area in the 19th Century, five of whom were very well known to the judicial authorities. We do know that in the census of 1841 he was living on the Abbey Estate and working as an under-gamekeeper (thus reversing the age-old saying). He was sacked from that job in September ’41 and gaoled for poaching at Ixworth Thorpe two months later. In June 1842 he met William Cocksedge (a gamekeeper and his old boss from the Abbey) at night on the highway at Ixworth and assaulted and robbed him. That was, in effect, highway robbery and Bantock was sentenced to 10 years transportation. He arrived at the prison hulk ‘York’ at Gosport at an interesting time. HMS Owen Glendower had been retired from active service and was nearing the end of a refitting process at Chatham. Owen Glendower was now a prison ship and sailed to Gibraltar in October 1842; on arrival she was dismasted and became a full-time floating prison, her 200 convict passengers were set to work building the new breakwater and harbour – Thomas Bantock was one of their number.
Bantock lived aboard the Owen Glendower throughout his time at Gibraltar. The quarterly muster registers show that his behaviour was good or very good throughout his sentence and that he was always healthy apart from one bout of dysentery. (The gaoler at Gosport had described him as a ‘loose character’). He was granted an early discharge and returned to England on HMS Sultan in December 1848.
In November 1849 he was caught poaching with Jeffery Reeve at Thetford and sentenced to 5 months in prison – it seems that he had found the Ixworth Gang soon after his return. In the 1851 census he was at home with his parents in Crown Lane and unmarried, despite the Bury Post claiming that he had deserted his wife and left her a liability of the Parish – there is no evidence to support this accusation.
As a convicted member of the Ixworth Gang in 1852 his transportation was for 15 years in light of the seriousness of the assault. He was second in command of the gang and known as ‘the Captain’ according to the Police spy. First sent to Millbank Prison he appealed against his sentence on the grounds that the Culford gamekeeper had not recognised his attacker but had gone along with the spy’s version of events for fear of being dismissed. He was moved to Portland Prison from where he appealed again, this time saying that his sentence was so severe because he had been implicated in the Elveden murder during the trial but he could not have been involved since he was in Bury Gaol for poaching at the time. He also pointed out that he had been in solitary confinement for 19 months in Bury and Millbank. He was moved on again to Dartmoor Prison before finally departing to Western Australia aboard the ‘William Hammond’ in January 1856, nearly four years after his sentence was delivered.
Described in the transport register as being 5ft 6in tall with grey eyes, a sallow complexion and with part of his left forefinger missing, he arrived in Australia in March 1856 and drowned in Freshwater Bay, Perth, four months later. In July 1857 Bantock’s younger brother, Alfred, wrote home from Ballarat, near Melbourne, where he had emigrated with his wife.
Charles Hustler. ‘Alias Blood’ as we learned at his Ixworth Gang trials, Hustler was born in Troston in 1821. He appeared several times in the local papers when being gaoled for poaching (a later prison register says he had 10 convictions for this) and twice for assault. In the 1851 census he was lodging in a beer-house in Ixworth High Street (probably the Mackerel’s Eye, no 98) which was being kept by a Charles Bantock at the time. Hustler was the only one to be involved in both of the Ixworth Gang trials; since his offences were tried in reverse order he received one year in prison for the second and 15 years transportation for the first.
On arrival at Millbank Prison he petitioned the Secretary of State protesting his innocence; apparently when the assault on the gamekeeper had taken place he was 8 miles away, with his friend Thomas Bantock, who could vouch for him. That appeal cut no ice and he was transferred to Portland in April 1853 before being put aboard the ‘Ramillies’ a year later, arriving in Western Australia in August 1854. He told the transporting authorities that he was a miller; they listed him as being 5ft 7ins tall and stout with grey eyes, a florid complexion and a mole under his right eye. He was given his ticket of leave to work in the local community in 1856 and a conditional pardon in 1862. He settled down in the area just east of Perth, married and had five children before his death in 1893.
Jeffery Reeve. Born around 1820 in Botesdale, Reeve became a butcher and was living in Stow Lane with his father, Samuel (also a butcher) in 1841. It does seem that there were a lot of butchers in Suffolk villages at this time – perhaps they were more like ‘people who knew what to do with freshly-killed animals.’ He married Mary Byford in 1845 and they had a daughter, Harriet, in 1847. When Harriet was born her father was in Bury Gaol; he and his brother Alfred had been found guilty of wounding two police constables at an Oddfellows dinner at the Pickerel, Jeffery got 18 months and Alfred 2 years with hard labour.
In 1848 John Nixon (Landlord of the Pickerel, formerly landlord of the Greyhound and Ixworth’s constable) forwarded a package of papers to the Secretary of State. This included a petition signed by several prominent Ixworth residents, a petition signed by members of the local Oddfellows and a letter from the Gaol Chaplain. It all supported the view that the Reeve brothers were lovely boys, they had got a bit carried away by the music and ringing of bells at the event and, in any case, the trouble had been started by a drunk who ran away. The sentencing judge said he would not vary the punishment as stiff penalties were necessary for the protection of the Police. The Board of Magistrates did wish to show leniency but initially did so under the wrong act of parliament, thereby wasting time; so if the lads got any reduction in sentence it was likely to be very little.
A year later Reeve got his gaol sentence for poaching with Bantock and there was no sign of a petition by anyone. In 1851 he was living in the High Street with his wife but his daughter was with his father-in-law at Kiln Hill. The Bury Post also accused Reeve of deserting his wife and leaving her to the support of the Parish, they said he was living with his mistress in Thetford. Next came his Ixworth Gang conviction and a sentence of transportation for 10 years.
Reeve was removed to Millbank Prison like the others but he was further transferred to Brixton and then Pentonville before arriving at Portland, normally the last stop before boarding a ship. In April 1856, after just over three and a half years in gaol, he suddenly received a Royal Licence to be at large in England for the remainder of his 10-year sentence and was discharged. He was now a ‘ticket of leave’ man, what a huge stroke of luck and what an opportunity to make a clean start.
He worked as a butcher in London for a time and returned to Ixworth in April 1857. In January 1858 five sheep were stolen from a farm in Stanton; George Chapman was remanded in custody accused of selling the skins at Diss and shipping the carcasses to London. George was not happy with this situation and had a quiet word. In February Jeffery Reeve, John Cook and William Fulcher appeared on remand at Ixworth Petty Sessions charged with sheep stealing. Two days earlier Superintendent Clark of the Ixworth Police had gone, at night, to arrest Reeve at a cottage in Stow Lane (where he was co-habiting according to the Post). There he claimed that Reeve attacked him with a stick and very nearly killed him; Clark had allegedly left a trail of blood for the whole of the 100 yards back to the Police Station.
Despite all this Reeve was clearly offered a deal, although he denied this in open court. Cook and Fulcher were tried at the Assizes in March 1858, found guilty and gaoled; all charges against Reeve were dropped and he appeared as a witness for the prosecution. Within days Reeve was taken from Bury Gaol by an officer from Bow Street, his ‘ticket’ was revoked and he went straight on to Portland to serve 6 years, the unexpired term of his transportation. He sailed on the ‘Edwin Fox’ and arrived in Western Australia in November 1858. He was recorded as being 5ft 9ins tall with the usual grey eyes, a sallow complexion and scrofula on his neck. He was not inside for long, his ticket of leave came in 1859 and his conditional pardon in August 1860. There are few records of Reeve after this; he died at Perth in September 1881 and seems to have been calling himself Charles Jeffery Reeve at that point. He presumably married again because he had a son and grandson, both of whom became butchers in Perth; his son was a founding member of the City Council.
Postscript: In 1861 Reeve’s English wife was working as a laundry maid at Little Horkerley Hall in Essex and his daughter was still with his father-in-law at Kiln Hill, Ixworth. In court in 1858 Reeve had said that he had no idea where his wife lived anymore, she had left him because they ‘didn’t live very comfortably’. He also claimed to have remarried in England after his first wife died but the dates he gave do not fit with the records.
The hull of the Edwin Fox still exists in a heritage centre in Picton, New Zealand.