When looking back through the records of past crimes there is a temptation to focus upon the sensational cases – the most gruesome murders, the most brazen robberies, the most devious scams and cons. But as exciting as they are they do not give a true sense of how justice operated at a more mundane level, when evidence was presented and a judge and jury considered it… as with the case of Silas Ping and his death on Twickenham Warren.

Game keeper - courtesy of Life Magazine

In the early hours of a moonlit night in late July 1722 a man called Silas Ping was killed on Twickenham Warren. The man accused of his death was William Chunn, the local Warrener responsible for the care of the warren and the rabbits that lived there. He was arrested and taken into custody.

On Friday 7th September 1722, the Right Honourable Sir William Stewart , Kt. Lord Mayor of the City of London; the Honourable Mr. Justice Fortescue; Sir William Thomson, Kt. Recorder; and 12 good men and true from Middlesex gathered at Justice Hall at the Old Bailey to consider the case of William Chunn, the Warrener from Twickenham.

William Chunn knew all about rabbits which were an important and convenient source of food at the time. His family had been looking after rabbit warrens in the Twickenham area from the early 1600s. Now he was charged with murder and manslaughter.

Poachers apprehended

Thomas Brown, a witness for the prosecution, said that about 2.00am he was walking about 160 yards from Twickenham Warren with Silas Ping and John Screen. Thomas Brown said that he was carrying a flail and John Screen a hedge stake. They were accompanied by 3 dogs. According to Thomas Brown they were approached by William Chunn who was carrying a quarterstaff, a 2 metre long hardwood shaft used for personal defence. When Chunn knocked Silas Ping down to the ground Brown and Screen ran off into the night.

Another witness, Mary Steward, appearing on behalf of William Chunn, said that she saw the three men advance towards Mr Chunn, who asked them what they were doing on his warren in the middle of the night.

As Mary ran off to summon help she heard the dogs barking and sticks rattling and then Mr Chunn crying out, “Mr Turner, come help me!” When Mr Turner, an associate of William Chunn, arrived he found him standing by Silas Ping who was lying on the ground. At this point Ping was still alive. William Chunn and Mr Turner asked Mr Ping what he was doing on the warren in the middle of the night. According to Mr Turner and another defence witness, Mrs Cunningham, Silas Ping said that it was the first time that he had every visited the warren and he asked to be forgiven.

John Chunn, William’s son, also arrived at this time carrying a gun. He described seeing the three dogs attack his father and the three men – Brown, Ping and Screen – hitting him with their sticks. He added that his father did not retaliate. In fact when he asked his father if he should shoot the dogs William replied, “No! Run Away.” John reported seeing Silas Ping hit his father again. William Chunn then replied with a blow behind Ping’s left ear which knocked him to the ground.

William Chunn sent for Mathias Perkins, the local surgeon barber, to come and take care of Silas Ping but according to the court records…

“When he came be found him dead. That he opened the Head, and saw the Skull broke, which was the cause of his death. Not far from the prisoner, he found a Cony (a rabbit) newly kill’d.”

Judges by William Hogarth

This was the only statement in the court records suggesting that Silas Ping and his two friends, Thomas Brown and John Screen, might have been poaching but it was enough for the judge and the jury. William Chunn, the Warrener from Twickenham, was acquitted on grounds of self defense (se defendendo) and released. Thomas Brown, the witness for the prosecution, was taken into custody accused of poaching.

None of this was of much interest to Silas Ping. By the time the case came to court he was dead and buried in St Mary’s Church, Twickenham. The burial register records…

“Sylus Ping buried 24 July 1722 “that was killed upon our Comon soposing to be hunting or killing of Chunns rabbets.”

There are no further records for Silas Ping, Thomas Brown or John Screen. One can only suppose that they lived outside the area and came to Twickenham just to poach a rabbit or two. William Chunn continued his stewardship of Twickenham Warren and later his son John became the Warrener at Whitton Warren established in 1720 by Sir Simon Harvey.

Set against the grand events of history the death in 1722 of a virtually unknown poacher in Twickenham and the acquittal of the local Warrener seem as nothing. However they do suggest in their own small way that 290 years ago there was justice to be found in this country.

CREDIT: The picture of the Judges is by William Hogarth. The picture of the Gamekeeper is courtesy of Life Magazine – copyright free.

— from Martyn Day