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  • Janean Marti

They Walked By Night: Poachers and Curly-Coated Retrievers

Published January 23, 2020

Copyright J. Marti and

Nineteenth-century gamekeepers and poachers battled each other, even to the point of death, but they shared an affinity for the same dog breed. Here's proof.


In the hardscrabble days of the 1700 and 1800s, farm laborers faced increasingly difficult economic conditions. Farmworker wages plunged while the cost of basic foodstuffs increased dramatically.

Poaching became a means to survive for many.

Facing extreme poverty while trying to feed their families, many laborers were driven “to risk everything to steal rabbits in order to survive,” David Jones writes in his book Gamekeeping: An Illustrated History. When the UK and other European countries turned to a more agrarian-based society, rabbits found tended crops an abundant and easy food source and the rabbit population exploded. English gamekeeper Norman Mursell even referred to “menacing hordes” of rabbits.

By law, hunting was reserved for landowners and the nobility. Until the mid-1800s, it was illegal in England and many other countries to buy and sell wild animals. Laws against poaching became so strict offenders could face imprisonment, flogging, deportation (usually to Australia), or heavy fines. If a poacher resisted arrest, they could even be hanged to death!

Hunger and cash are powerful motivators, however, and some peasants and laborers worked together, forming groups to poach rabbits and game birds and even larger animals like deer. Banding together proved to be more efficient and less dangerous for many of these poaching groups.

Some, however, eschewed human partners for a more gifted and talented assistant: a dog. Dogs had the scent and chase powers hundreds of times better than a human partner. Dogs wanted recompense of just a few scraps of bread or meat. They would not demand an equal share of the poached meat or any of the money made by selling the poached game.

A dog couldn’t testify against another poacher in court and didn’t hang out in pubs, uttering poaching boasts which were repeated around town until the authorities heard them.

Among the preferred breeds for poaching were lurchers (often a cross between a greyhound and a scent hound), setters and spaniels, and the curly-coated retriever.

In her book, The Curly-Coated Retriever, curly expert Audrey Nicholls refers anecdotally to a curly belonging to a poacher. Alluding to the numerous curlies owned in Lancashire, UK, in the mid-to-late 1800s, Audrey mentions the dog named “True”.

“It was said that he was bred by a well-known poacher and had been shot at several times before Dr. Morris acquired him, but he became most successful on the bench and sired many of the best dogs of the day," Nicholls wrote.

Etching of the curly-coated retrievers True and Nell. Circa 1879.
Curly-coated retrievers True and Nell. Circa 1879. True is believed to have been bred by a poacher and shot at several times.

Records from the English kennel club indicate True’s breeder was an L. K. Watson (not to be mistaken for another curly breeder by the same name in the 1990s). True’s dam is listed in pedigrees as “Watson’s Bitch.” The Kennel Club’s records do not include any information about the ancestors of “Watson’s Bitch” or whether her owner was a poacher!

True was whelped in 1869 and sired by Challoner’s Sam. He won many conformation show prizes, including first place at the Dublin dog show in 1872. An important early stud dog, True sired at least a dozen curlies that are present in the pedigrees of modern curlies.

There is an even more authoritative source of poachers’ partnerships with curly-coated retrievers and that is the statement of a poacher himself. And not just any poacher, but the self-described KING of the Norfolk poachers.

Fredrick Rolfe was born in 1862 in Norfolk and began his poaching when just a child. He was once described as a “notorious poacher at war with the authorities and with his own inner demons for much of his troubled life.”(1)

Cover of book I Walked By Night. Life story of Norfolk UK poacher Fredrick Rolfe.
Cover of the book containing the autobiographical stories of notorious Norfolk, England poacher Fredrick Rolfe.

When he was in his 70s, Rolfe gave a notebook filled with his stories to Norfolk writer Lillias Rider-Haggard. Rider-Haggard persuaded Rolfe to write more stories and they were published in 1935 as I Walked By Night: Being the Life and Times of the King of the Norfolk Poachers.

After being imprisoned as a young man for poaching, Rolfe actually worked as a gamekeeper for a short time and trained several dogs before returning to poaching and training his own dogs for poaching.

Among the captivating stories and unusual characters in his narrative, Rolfe actually throws in a few training tips for poacher dogs and names his favorite poaching breed.

“I do not think there is a more sencible dog than the old English curly coted Retrever, though you don’t see many of them about these days. It is hard to beat him as a sporting dog. I have trained a lot of Spanells, but they are a class of dog that if you get one that will do as he is told you will get others that are willful,” Rolf wrote.

So there we have it straight from a poacher’s mouth. His preferred breed was the curly-coated retriever. Not really a surprise to those of us who have hunted wild birds with curlies or witnessed their talent finding and chasing furbearers like rabbits.

Retrieving rabbits used to be a large portion of a retriever's work as a meat dog but retrieving work was not limited to rabbits and game birds.

“I had one retriever bitch that would find Plover’s eggs and bring them two at a time in her mouth without cracking them,” Rolfe wrote. (Editor's note: As many of you know, several curlies of mine have brought me wild turkey eggs, intact, uncracked, and we even hatched one. A century later the egg gathering gene lives on!) Rolfe goes on to tell the story of this bitch saving his life.

“I was out after duck one very sharp night in winter. I shot one and the bitch jumped a fairly large dyke to fetch it. Wen she started to come back with the duck she tried to walk over the ice and wen she was well out into the middle it broke and let her in.

"She could not get a foothold, and was like to go under the ice, so I got down to the edge to help her and the side gave way and there I was up to my neck in freezing mud and water and stuck fast.

"As luck would have it the bitch got out some how and came down the bank to me and I got hold of her collar, and by clinging to that and a little bit of a bush I struggled out. If she had not been there I must have smothered, but as it was I never took any harm and was soon home, but I am thinking I am payen a lot of price for them duckings now I am old.”

The tough old poacher turns tender-hearted when remembering the demise of the retriever gal who brought him Plover eggs and saved his life.

“You may be shure I thought a lot of her after that, but like evrything we human beings set the most store by, some thing is shure to happen to them. I was out shooting with my Master and a gentleman and he wounded a hare by the side of the Railway. The hare got on the line and my bitch went to fetch it. Just at that moment a train ran her over and of corse killed her.

"I felt the loss of her as much as I would of a frend, I could never get her equall for sagasity and sence.”

The gamekeeper turned poacher continued on with other dogs.

"I had another, a small retrever bitch, I trained for the gun at night. She could find a Phesant up a tree as well as I could, all I had to do was to watch her, and she would find them. As sone as the bird was killed I had it in my hand, but like a lot of useful things, she died before she was verry old. I well rember goen in a wood not far from Bungay. I shot a bird from a tree and the bitch brought it to me growling. There were two Keepers within 20 yards of me, but I simply crawled in the wood and laid down and they passed me by." Poacher's dogs were trained to drive rabbits into nets. Not as easy as it sounds. The dog had to work silently and swiftly, finding a rabbit in the night, flushing him and then turning him and driving him into a small net stretched across a short portion of a dark field.

Rolfe's life included several wives, a couple of prison terms, hard work, rural hardship and running from the law. He hanged himself in 1938, a couple of years after his life story was published. In the end, it appears he had no regrets.

"If I had my time to come over again I would still be what I have been a poacher. So I remain, Gentlemen, The Ex King of the Norfolk Poachers," he wrote at the conclusion of his memoirs.


(1.) Description of Rolfe by the 2010 EDP-Jarrold East Anglian Book Awards judges committee.


Additional Information and Notes:

A later book about Rolfe's life was written by Charlotte Paton. The book "King of the Norfolk Poachers" was the basis for a documentary film about Rolfe. Here is a trailer of the film from Youtube.


Personal experience: My curly-coats have often been fairly silent dogs who seldom bark unless absolutely necessary. My early mentors said this reticence to give voice fit in nicely with a poacher’s wish to work silently and swiftly at night.

I once read something someone wrote about coats in the breed being matte rather than shiny because poachers wanted the dog to blend into the night. I am not an advocate of that theory.

Lack of shine of the coat is merely physics. Reflections and shine are created by light rays bouncing back at the same angle and direction from a surface. If light rays hit a rough surface, like the coat of a curly-coated retriever, the rays bounce off at different angles and the reflection is diffused and less shiny. (Dark colors also absorb more light so reflect less.)

Think of a smooth as mirror lake opposed to one where the water is being churned up into waves and ripples. Churning, wavy water does not reflect as well as smooth water.

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