Monday, August 7, 2023

A life spent hunting

Today marks the 170th anniversary of the death of Colonel Peter Hawker. A military man by profession, his main love was hunting, and, somewhat remarkably, he left behind a diary in which he recorded - from his teens to his old age - daily kills totalling nearly 18,000 birds. In his own lifetime, he published - anonymously - diary extracts about his military service in Portugal, under Wellington, during the Peninsular War.

Hawker was born in London in 1786, and was educated at Eton. Like his father and other forefathers, he entered military service, through the purchase of a commission in the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, switching after a couple of years to the 14th Light Dragoons, making captain when still only 17. He saw active service in the Peninsular War, but was obliged to retire after being wounded at Talavera, southwest of Madrid, and became a lieutenant-colonel in the North Hampshire militia.

Hawker was married twice, the first time in 1811 to Julia Barttelot by whom he had two sons and two daughters (although the elder son died in infancy). He was married for the second time in 1844 to Helen Susan the widow of Captain John Symonds. His family home was at Longparish, Hampshire, but he also had a cottage at Keyhaven on the Hampshire coast. He was a very keen sportsman, to say the least, and wrote the very popular, and much re-published, Instructions to Young Sportsmen. He also devised technical innovations for certain sporting guns, and, thanks to a great passion for music, invented hand moulds for the piano. He died on 7 August 1853. Further information can be found at Wikipedia and the New Forest Explorer website.

For most of his life, and starting young, Hawker kept a diary. From this, he selected extracts and published them anonymously in 1810 as Journal of a Regimental Officer during the Recent Campaign in Portugal and Spain under Lord Viscount Wellington (i.e. during the Peninsular War). This book is introduced by two short paragraphs called an ‘Advertisement’ which state: ‘The contents of the following pages (never intended for the public eye) were hastily noted down amidst the scenes attempted to be delineated; and the author’s sufferings from a wound have precluded him the possibility of afterwards correcting them. This candid statement will, it is hoped, plead for inaccuracies and frivolous incidents; and those persons who are most able to criticise will no doubt have the liberality to consider the disadvantages under which this narrative makes its appearance.’

After Hawker’s death, his family is said to have destroyed large parts of the diary, nevertheless extracts, particularly focusing on his sporting activities, were published, some forty years later, in two volumes: The Diary of Colonel Peter Hawker (Longmans, Green and Co., 1893). These (volumes one and two), and Journal of a Regimental Officer, are available online at Internet Archive.

The second volume of the diaries published in 1893 concludes with a list of the game Hawker recorded as having shot: from 1802-1853, he claimed 17,753 kills in all; over 7,000 partridges, 575 pheasants, 1329 ox-birds, 2,211 wigeon, 1,327 Brent geese, 2,116 snipes, as well as many other birds. Four types are distinguished by his having shot only one each in his life: stock-dove, Eider duck, avocet, hoopoe.

Here are a number of extracts, the first few (1802-1804) from the beginning of volume one; several in 1829 from the end of volume one; and several more from the end of volume two. They show an extraordinary preoccupation with hunting - from his teens to his deathbed.

27 June 1802
‘Arrived at Longparish House.’

September 1802
‘Altogether killed 200 head of game this month.

Instances of uncertainty in killing jack snipes: The first thirteen shots I had at these birds this year I killed without missing one; have since fired eight shots at one jack and missed them all.’

26 January 1803
‘Sketch of a bad day’s sport: Being in want of a couple of wild fowl, I went out with my man this morning about ten o’clock. The moment we arrived at the river 5 ducks and 1 wigeon flew up; we marked the former down, and just as we arrived near the place it began to snow very hard, which obliged us to secure our gunlocks with the skirts of our coats. No sooner had we done this than a mallard rose within three yards of me. I uncovered my gun and made all possible haste, and contrived to shoot before it had gone twenty yards, but missed it, which I imputed to the sight of my gun being hid by the snow. My man fired and brought it down, but we never could find it; and another mallard coming by me, I fired and struck him, insomuch that before he had flown a gunshot, he dropped apparently dead, but we were again equally unfortunate notwithstanding our dogs were with us. While we were loading, the 3 remaining ducks came by, a fair shot. Having reloaded, we went in search of them, but could not succeed. On our road home, coming through the meadow, the wigeon rose in the same place as before. I shot at it, and wounded it very much; we marked it down and sprung it again; it could hardly fly, from its wounds. Unluckily, my gun missed fire, and my man was unprepared, thinking it had fallen dead. We marked it into a hedge; before we had reached the place we spied a hawk that had followed it; from the same place the hawk was, the wigeon flew out of the hedge close under my feet. I fired at it, but, owing to agitation, had not taken a proper aim; however, a chance shot brought it to the ground; my dogs ran at it; it flew up again, but could not rise to any height, but continued to clear the hedges, and we never could find it again. To add to our misfortunes, we both tumbled into deep water.’

4 June 1803
‘Left Longparish House to join the 14th Light Dragoons on the march at Hythe.’

1 September 1803.
‘Folkestone. 4 partridges and 1 landrail. I went with Major Talbot and his brother: we were out from half-past four in the morning till eight at night, and walked above five hours before we saw the first brace of birds. Major Talbot killed a brace, and his brother 1 bird; a brace of birds and 1 rabbit were shot between us by means of firing at the same instant.’

18 February 1804
‘Left Folkestone to be quartered at Dover, till further orders.’

6 March 1804
‘Left Dover for Romney.’

3 May 1804
‘Romney. Went out in the evening, saw several very large shoals of curlews, but could not get near them; just as it grew dusk I laid myself down flat on the sands: every flock assembled into one prodigious large flight, and pitched within ten yards of me. I put them up with the expectation of killing not less than twenty, and my gun missed fire.’

14 June 1804
‘Romney. Shot an avoset (swimming). This is a bird rarely to be met with but on the Kentish coast. The above is its name in natural history; it is here known by the name of cobbler’s awl, owing to the form of the beak, which turns up at the end like the awl.’

1 September 1804
‘Romney. In a bad country we had never been in before Major Pigot and I bagged nine brace and a half of birds, exclusive of several we lost. We sprung one covey too small to fire at; Major Pigot picked out the old hen and I the cock, and bagged them both. There were sportsmen in almost every field. In the course of the day, my old dog Dick caught 8 hedgehogs.’

23 November 1804
‘Marched from Romney to be quartered at Guildford.’

2 December 1804
‘Left Guildford to stay a week at home at Longparish House.’

21 April 1829
‘After having been more or less unwell ever since I came to town, and several days confined to my bed and the sofa, I this day completed several repairs and improvements to the locks and breechings of my large gun, and got all safe away from the hornet’s nest which Joe Manton’s manufactory was in while he was in gaol, and this billet beset by ‘Philistines.’ His men worked under and for me, and had to keep an incessant eye lest anything should happen on the premises. No other workmen in London could have done such a job well to my fancy.’

28 April 1829
‘Longparish. I caught 24 brace of trout in a few hours, though the cold weather still continued.’

8 June 1829
‘London. The best Philharmonic ever known, and a duet between Sontag and Malibran considered the best piece of singing ever heard in this country.’

7 July 1829
‘Longparish. Took two hours’ fishing this evening, and killed 25 large trout.’

9 July 1829
‘Made a droll trial of a new-stocked duck gun, which was well done by my carpenter Keil. I knocked down, in seven shots, 6 bats and 1 moth. A duck at dusk flight may therefore know what to expect.’

10 July 1829
‘Fished and killed 20 very large trout indeed, and I then left off, not wanting any more fish to-day.’

20 April 1853
‘I may venture to say that I am getting on (though of course very, very slowly) towards the chance of recovery, for which prospect I have to thank Sir B. Brodie and an All-wise Providence.

Another remarkable circumstance - and a lucky one for me, who could eat nothing more nourishing than fish - the trout in our river, which were not even eatable when broiled till near July, have come in many months before their time, and ate better than I have known them to be for these last twenty years. One of my fishery tenants, Mr. Macleod, in the first week of March, had killed, in a severe winter’s day, 15 brace with a fly, and he kindly sent me a few as red and as good as salmon. This phenomenon is accounted for by the continued rains flooding all the low lands, and washing down constant winter food for the fish, which, notwithstanding the severe winter that afterwards cut up everything in March and April, never lost their high condition.’

23 April 1853
‘1 have been taken out for the last few days, for short drives in the carriage; but I am now a figure of skin and bone.’

24 April 1853
‘Another circumstance to record - Captain Duff and his friend came to my river to fish, and, in spite of the adverse weather, had a few days’ good sport; and, that is a miracle, every trout was better in season (though in April) than, for these twenty years, I have seen them - even than in June and July, the only time they have hitherto been fit to eat. They were quite red, firm, and full of curd - in short, delicious. Thus my lamentable illness has ‘cut me out of’ the best angling season on record, as well as the use of my new ignition punt gun at Keyhaven, in the finest hard weather we have had there since 1838.’

4 May 1853
‘Winter again; bitter cold gale of wind east by north. As I made but slow progress in the low and water-meadow situation of Longparish, I had made up my mind to forego all the comforts of the mansion for the more healthy air of my dear little cottage on the coast, and therefore I left Longparish for Keyhaven this day, after having passed twenty-five days and nights at the former place, without strength or appetite. We arrived at Keyhaven Cottage about six in the evening, after my very long absence from the 26th of October, 1852, up to this 4th of May, 1853. My good people were all delighted to see me, which they had made up their minds they should never do any more.’

5 May 1853
‘Keyhaven. Stephen Shuttler has done me justice in every possible way in my long absence, and kept everything in the very best order, in spite of awful floods; and then a north-pole winter in spring. N.B. Found the air here far pleasanter than at the other places. Thanks to God for all blessings up to this Holy Thursday — or Ascension Day — for 1853.’

7 May 1853
‘A total change of weather to south by west, and a pouring fall of rain all day; in the afternoon the cock flew round again to the north-east with the most furious increase of cold rain, and a heavy fall of snow - lamentable weather for my poor eyes and limbs. Instead of having a fair chance to breathe the good air here, I’ve been, ever since I entered the cottage, a close prisoner; could not even step into the garden.’

12 May 1853
‘Anniversary of my Douro affair, forty-four years ago. Cold and piercing north-easter, which is comparative luxury to the deadly poison of a white frost, insomuch that I suffered far less to-day, and my eyes got better.’

13-14 May 1853
‘Bitter white frosts again. But two hours’ fine weather on the 14th, when I got the sea air for the first time by being rowed down to Hurst and back. I came home refreshed, but much exhausted; and, on landing, who should be here but old Buckle, just arrived from Scotland. I was, however, not man enough to enjoy his ‘yarn’ as of old.’

18 May 1853
‘A beautiful day. Crossed to Yarmouth, and got driven to Freshwater for the fine sea air, but too weak to walk along the cliffs. Lots of ‘gents’ popping at rock birds and rifling the cormorants, and rookeries being stormed inland. All to tantalise me, like the gents having good sport angling the other day in view of my windows at Longparish, and I too ill to go out.’

26 May 1853
‘I sailed to Yarmouth, and got Butler’s excellent phaeton to the high lighthouse, and returned by Groves’s Hotel; but was so weak I could not enjoy my old paradise, Alum Bay, as before. The lighthouse is now kept by a Mr. Henderson, vice Coleraine, and the dangerous occupation of taking the eggs of rock birds is performed by a man named Lane, of the village below, called Weston, whose brother was lately killed in this awful pursuit.’

29 May 1853
‘Sunday. Being too weak to walk, I went in a donkey chaise to morning church at Milford (where, as well as at Longparish, Mrs. Hawker had me prayed for when expected not to recover), to return thanks to God for my escape from death in my long and dangerous illness, through which I had not been in church since the early part of last January, and never expected to be in church again, except on my way to the grave.’

July 1853
‘Longparish. From the 1st I have been so dreadfully ill that I could do nothing. My nights have been as awful as before.’

7 July 1853
‘The thunder and lightning all night caused such oppressive heat that no one could rest in bed. My sufferings could scarcely be conceived.’

8-14 July 1853
‘Too ill to get about save by quiet easy drives in the carriage, and to crawl out to look at all the grand repairs outside the house, which are now done. Attended by Dr. Hempsted twice a day, as my sufferings are alarming. We have had incessant wet weather ever since I returned to Longparish, and consequently the heavy water-meadow fogs oppressed me even more than those of London, from which I had retreated on the score of health. To-day, the 14th, Dr. Hempsted went from me to his other patient, the Earl of Portsmouth, for whom he had no hope, and who died this day at one o’clock. Peace to his soul!’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 7 August 2013.

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