Object of the Month - December 2018
Spring guns were common during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when poaching was a common issue for land owners. Poaching became a problem after the Enclosure acts which had started being passed since the end of the seventeenth century. These meant that land that had before been common land (for anyone to use) was now divided up by the nobility for their own private use. Poaching was included under the Black Act of 1723, which made over fifty crimes capital offenses, punishable by death. The severity of this act, and the amount of people put to death because of it, earned it its nickname “The Bloody Code”.
Since poaching was illegal, the law was on the side of the landowners when it came to deterring or preventing poaching. One such way landowners attempted to do this was with spring guns. These were set up on the land and trip wires were attached to them. When a wire was tripped the gun would spin round to the direction of its victim. The pull on the wire would active the trigger and cause the gun to fire. Since these guns would have been placed on the ground it meant they would shoot at the victim below the waist, and would cause a great amount of damage. The landowners aimed to seriously maim and possibly kill the poachers in order to protect their land.
There is a suggestion that these guns would also have been used to stop grave robbers from digging up peoples’ loved ones. At a time when human dissection was still illegal, medical men willing to engage with the black market would have paid a great deal to have a human corpse to work on. The guns at Selly Manor Museum, however, are anti-poaching devices.
Selly Manor Museum has three spring guns in its collection, one on display to the public in the attic, and the other two in our archive. They are unusual pieces to have in the collection and the museum only has them thanks to Laurence Cadbury and his passion for collecting.