The Story

The Battle of Stanhope

The facts connected with this remarkable fray, the battle of Stanhope, which gave rise to the ballad, the Bonny Moor Hen, would probably soon be lost if not recorded, as it took place in 1818, and none is now living who figured in this celebrated episode in the history of the Weardale miners. The various particulars here given have been gathered by the writer, the late W. M. Egglestone, principally from persons who witnessed some part of the proceedings; one authority, Mr. Gibbon, figured in the battle. The story as here told is faithfully given in accordance with the information gathered as previously stated.

 The extensive Weardale moors known as Stanhope, Middleshope, Rookhope, Kilhope, Burnhope, Harthope, Swinhope, Westernhope, and Bolihope, abound with red grouse, and as the season comes around afford good sport for lovers of the gun. Formerly, the right of shooting over a good many of these fells was exercised by the Bishop of Durham, and the Weardale miners were, of course, not allowed to traverse these preserves in search of game. However, there were amongst the miners many poachers who ranged their native hills and bagged game in spite of the bishop’s gamekeepers. At this time, 1818, lead was very low in the markets, wages were consequently not large in the lead mining districts, and the miners experienced considerable hardships. Finding themselves in this position, the miners left off work, and several of them betook themselves with dog and gun to the upland moors to shoot down the bonny moor hen, whereby they could procure by their sale money to buy bread for their families. These poachers relying upon the produce of their guns, frequented the moors so often that the bishop’s gamekeepers reported to his lordship that they were unable to capture the trespassing miners. The Weardale poachers were hardy, robust, and daring men, who ranged the moors with an air of authority, for few dared to molest them in their unlawful vocation. In addition to ranging their native hills they frequented the neighbouring moors of Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland, and Yorkshire. The bishop’s watchers, having abandoned the idea of capturing the poachers en masse, employed their time in keeping a look-out for any waif who might perchance fall into their hands. On one occasion, one of the men of the hills, Charles Siddle, had to succumb to the powerful Frank Johnson, a constable, who took the poacher by surprise at the miners’ yearly party at Newhouse. As soon as Frank had secured the hand-cuffs on the wrist of the prisoner, he took the bye-ways and hastened home, to his residence at East Black Dean with the captive. A conveyance was soon in readiness in the shape of a horse and coal-cart, and in the middle of the latter Charlie was securely placed. The constable, equipped with truncheon, seated himself on the cart head and started for Stanhope, to deliver up to the authorities one of the notorious Weardale poachers. As the vehicle drew near to St. John’s Chapel the functionary found that the other poachers, who had got wit of the affair, had gathered together at Chapel Cross and were awaiting the arrival of the approaching conveyance, which in sue course was stopped by the miners, who immediately surrounded the cart and ordered the constable to liberate the prisoner. In this case, discretion was undoubtedly the better part of valour, as the miners had their coats and waistcoats off and were ready for action. Frank reluctantly unlocked the handcuffs and the poacher was liberated.

 The poachers continued to range over the haunts of the moor hen, notwithstanding the more strict watch of the keepers. Reports were sent frequently to the bishop about the miners shooting down the grouse, and ultimately  the prelate determined to suppress them. He gave instructions to his head agent that the whole force of gamekeepers, watchers, constables and others who held divers offices in Darlington and Bishop Auckland should be called up, and a number selected to proceed to Weardale for the purpose of capturing the notorious poachers, each of which stood at a premium of five pounds. The officers selected in Auckland were George Gibbon, father of the late Mr. Robert Gibbon, the poet, John Robinson, James Smith, and Willy Wilson, all stalwart men and likely to withstand a rough encounter.

 The Auckland division of the bishop’s army, equipped with guns and pistols, set out for Weardale, on foot, on Sunday night at seven o’clock, and marched under orders of their captain, who, in knee breaches, led his men to Wolsingham Bridge, where they met the Darlington division, Joseph Hopper, John Bowbank, Miles Fordy, and other fine strong supporters. The army now consulted on Wolsingham Bridge, and having fixed on what route to take, Thomas Dobson, of Bolihope, essayed to take them across the moors. They set out to come along the fells, but the moon went down, and they were benighted on the dreary wilds of Bolihope common. One of the Auckland men, Robinson, being troubled with heart disease, took very ill, and very greatly impeded their progress. However, they got off the hills, with safety, and arrived at Stanhope, Gibbon carrying the sick soldier on his back. Here they left Robinson, and set out up the dale, and arrived at St. John’s Chapel at an early hour on the morning on Monday, the 7th of December, in the year 1818. The bishop’s keeper, Rippon, met the army at St. John’s Chapel, and they took the rebels by surprise. In a cottage situate at the back of the King’s Head Inn, Chapel, and now partly occupied as a printing office, lived two of the poachers, Charles and Anthony Siddle, and the bishop’s army, being informed of their place of abode by the gamekeeper, Joseph Dawson, who kept the Black Bull Inn, next door, proceeded to the said cottage to apprehend the inmates. But the Siddles had got wit of the strangers’ arrival in town. By the time they arrived at the door it was bolted, and behind it was stationed Joe Smith, with a hatchet in his hand, ready to cleave the head of the first constable or keeper who entered. The bishop’s officers, panting for an engagement, kicked and knocked at the door for a considerable time. Meanwhile, by displacing a few slates in the roof of the house, the Siddles made a hole through which, in night-caps and shirts, they easily made their egress. But house-top travelling was somewhat precarious, for the frost during the night had rendered the slates slippery, owing to which Charley slipped both feet and fell from the house-top into the arms of Joseph Hodgson, watcher, who was on the look out. Anthony, his brother, being also captured, they were taken into the Black Bull Inn, where they were handcuffed and, being locked in the room, were left in care of Dawson, the landlord, and some of the other watchers, whilst  three of the constables made their way to the village of East Black Dean, to apprehend John Kidd, another of the poachers. The shrill blast of a tin trumpet, blown by the Siddles mother, summoned the dalesmen to the rescue, and Tom Wearmouth, having witnessed the affair, betook himself to East Black Dean, awakened Kidd, and informed him of what had taken place. Armed with his fowling-piece, the poacher and his informant, whilst hastening to Chapel,  espied three individuals with lights and lanterns approaching Pinder Lane bridge, which spans the Wear, over which they passed. On learning that those persons were the constables, Kidd fled the road, and as they passed, the poacher had his gun three times to his shoulder to fire, but Wearmouth implored him, for his (Wearmouth’s) sake, not to pull the trigger. After the constables had passed, the poacher hastened to Side Head to inform Jim Greggs of the doings of the bishop’s gang, whilst other poachers had gone out at an early hour for a “beckin’ shot.”

 The constables, as you might suppose, were disappointed when they got to Kidd’s residence at East Black Dean, so they returned to Chapel, and, procuring an old chestnut-coloured horse and a long cart, they brought the two captives in chains out of the Black Bull Inn, and placing them in the cart, handcuffed one on each side of Gibbon. The bishop’s functionaries, learning that the other poachers were on the moors, left Chapel in good spirits, as they had the two Siddles in possession, and boasted that they could take all Weardale with a “black pudding.”

No time was lost in carrying the alarming news to the Fells and informing the other poachers, who, on hearing what had befallen the Siddles, came in from the moors with their trousers doubled up and their guns over their shoulders. Jock Curry and Tom Lowe by one route, Dick Watson and Will Bell by another, followed by others. The men of the moors gathered together at Rowntree Foot, the residence of Tom Lowe, and there they consulted as to what was best to be done in such a crisis. They were men of few words, and on coming to the conclusion that they would rescue the Siddles, or die in the cause, down on the pavement went the butt end of their guns; as the poachers stood in a group in front of Low’s house, the powder flasks were soon to the muzzles, the ramrods rattled in the barrels, and every gun was quickly in proper order for fire. Kidd examined his pocket dagger which he carried with him, and then the poachers marched off to Chapel. The late John Hill of St. John’s Chapel, had a vivid recollection of what took place at Low’s, when the poachers came from the Fells. He was then a boy living next door, and remembered well seeing the poachers charge their guns, and Kidd take his dagger out of the sheath and sharpen it on the window-sill. When the poachers arrived at St. John’s Chapel, they learned that the constables with their prisoners were gone.  The window-shutters of the gamekeeper, Dawson’s house, were fastened up, and between the black Bull and the King’s Head Inns was pacing the pavement in deep distress, a woman, who hurled stones against the door of the former house, for Dawson had aided in capturing her two sons, who were then in the hands of the Auckland constables, and were on their road for Durham.

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