My Irish Ancestor story: Sligo gamekeeper
This is a celebration of the brief life and love story of gamekeeper Sam Wood of County Sligo. Born on the Lissadell Estate in 1862, he died on the Classiebawn Estate aged just 34, in 1897.
Samuel Henry Wood
My much-loved great grandfather Samuel Henry Wood, self-styled ‘Sam’, is the one and only but very special Irish ancestor that my father’s maternal family have placed on a pedestal for over 100 years. His brief life, cut tragically short at 34 – leaving a bereft young widow and two little girls, of just eight and four – was yet lived to the full. The essence of his charm, including his lively sense of fun, is captured in a series of love letters to his fiancée during their engagement year from summer 1887 to July 1888. These enthusiastic, intimate and sometimes poignant letters melt the hearts of all who read them.
A cabinet photograph of Sam, taken in June 1887, while much faded and foxed, nevertheless shows a proud and ambitious Irishman, with sparkling eyes and elegant good looks. In 1913 my great-grandma Henrietta sat for a photograph, alongside a framed image of this same photograph of Sam, to commemorate what would have been their 25th wedding anniversary. He was her one and only true love – she never remarried. She would always tell her daughters what a wonderful character their father had been, and how sad it was that he had not lived to see them grow up.
Sam spent his whole life in County Sligo. His grandfather Charles Wood had been Gamekeeper on the Greystoke Estate of the Howard family, Dukes of Norfolk, in Cumbria, but Charles’ son Samuel (senior) moved over to Sligo in 1855 to take up the post of Head Gamekeeper for Sir Robert Gore-Booth, on the Lissadell Estate. Sam was born in a gamekeeper’s cottage on the Estate on September 28th, 1862. He evidently had a decent schooling, and was brought up in the Church of Ireland faith. Sam was trained by his father, alongside elder brother William, in the family tradition of game-keeping. Sam spent fifteen years as a junior gamekeeper for Sir Henry Gore-Booth, at Lissadell. It was here that he met and fell totally head-over-heels in love with his future wife, a lady’s maid from London, Miss Henrietta Dunn (1867-1953), his beloved Nettie.
Sam’s mother, Jemimah Rogers, had married Sam’s father on 18th September 1856, at Drumcliffe church, later famed for housing the grave of renowned Irish poet William Butler Yeats. They had nine children, of whom Sam was the fifth; only six children survived infancy. Sam adored his four sisters – Julia, Maria, Emma and Maud. We know little of his mum, who died aged just 46, when Sam was 16. It seems likely that she came out to Lissadell from Somerset, England, as a lady’s maid, and met Samuel senior there. So in a way, history was repeating itself in the romance of Sam and Nettie. Sam’s father remarried in 1885 and retired, and his brother William Wood became Head Gamekeeper in 1886, moving into the family cottage. Sam moved to his own gamekeeper’s cottage at Carney Hill, to the east of the Estate – he was now a single man with a house, in want of a wife to make it a home.
Sam would regularly deliver game to the larder of Lissadell House. Sometimes he would flirt with the housemaids at the pantry door, and beg a cup of tea. Nettie had evidently come out to work for Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth at Lissadell, early in 1887, probably to assist with an influx of house guests, for a specific, limited time period. Sam had heard of the new arrival, and come to take a closer look. As soon as he spied her, across the kitchen table in the servants’ quarters, he laid down his brace of pheasants and started to woo her with his deep-set smiling eyes, even before introductions had been made, and words exchanged. A naturally shy girl, growing up with just her mother and sister Fanny for company, she had little experience of male company. Sam gave her a cheeky wink, which set her heart racing, and made her blush. He chuckled; she looked down coyly, but could not suppress a little giggle. They started to meet up,off-duty, and go for walks to share their dreams. They talked about their families, their Protestant faith, and their shared enjoyment of poetry. They fell completely and irrevocably in love, and very soon started to plan their future together.
The early part of their courtship was conducted with due discretion; doubtless the secrecy added to the excitement. Sam set up a series of designated meeting places around the Lissadell Estate. An early note, written on June 28th while on a visit to his ailing father down at Tonafortes, just south of Sligo [site of a Bronze age henge] – reveals one of these assignations:
Look out for me at the top of the steps, the old place & the same time.
The Lissadell kitchens were accessed via an archway leading into a long, dark servants’ tunnel which sloped down to a basement-level back-yard – so that below-stairs staff, and tradesmen, were not seen coming and going by the Gore-Booth family and their guests, from the upstairs windows. At the top of this tunnel were steps leading to a grassy bank, and away up to the stables and beyond to the Estate cottages. This was where Sam habitually waited for Nettie to come off-duty, taking her by the hand, leading her over towards Cats’ Corner woods, near his cottage, where he would whisper ‘sweet nothings’ in her ear. He certainly secured the occasional kiss – he writes: you want to know if it is only the kiss or yourself that I want. It is the both that I want – but Victorian propriety and a natural mutual respect, based on firm Christian values ensured that they ‘always stopped at the garden gate’, a telling family phrase.
Once Sam had proposed and been tentatively accepted, he followed Nettie back to London to respectfully ask her widowed mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage. They had their engagement photographs taken, and then he returned to Sligo alone. There followed a series of love letters for the long period marking their separation, between their betrothal and their marriage. These letters kept their long-distance relationship alive, and were much treasured in later years – a dozen of Sam’s letters thankfully survive (as well as several of Nettie’s). We learn that once back in Sligo, Sam was pleased to hear that Nettie had found some temporary work in London to keep you out of mischief but asked Did Lady Gore say anything about you coming back? , anticipating – or at least hoping – that there might soon be more work for her at Lissadell.
Sam made it abundantly clear that his fiancée’s place was with him, in Ireland. He vowed to keep her ‘in the style to which she wished to become accustomed’, a phrase used to denote a gentle ambition to aspire to a better standard of living. Nettie evidently tried to persuade Sam to apply for work in England, but he was adamant that he could earn more where he was:
Pen and ink letter from Sam to Nettie, summer 1887
“You say I should come to England and that I would get some nice place there. Well, I am sure you would not like me to give up a place where I can get from £20 to £30 a year more than I could get in a head place in England. Only thing is I have to work very hard here in the winter, but not much in the summer to do, so Sam will stop where he is for a bit longer. Gamekeepers’ places is (sic) very hard to get now. I may say there is none to be had of any good, so rather one likes to hold what he has in The land of my birth.”
Sam describes to Nettie how, on his return to work, he sensed that there was a lot of excitement, below stairs, about his whirlwind romance with Nettie. Various domestic staff well-known to Henrietta – George, Bessie and Susan – questioned him in turn, and he was eventually summoned by the housekeeper, Mrs Bailey. She was very maternal towards him, and regularly gave him dinner and tea. His extended absence had clearly caused her concern that he might not return.
I came home on last Wednesday, went over to Lissadell, went to Mrs Bailey and got well-teased there you may be sure.
News of the romance had even reached upstairs:
On Thursday Miss Gore (Miss Constance Gore-Booth, later Countess Markievicz) asked Willie (Sam’s brother William, now Head Gamekeeper) if I had come back. He told her I had; then it was all right. I think she must have heard what was going on.
Sam was touchingly eloquent in the language of love, and romantic gestures. When Nettie first returned to England he was anxious till I got a letter from my own dear love love love. I will send you a box of flowers on Thursday…my mind is always fixed on little Nettie when she is far away. He addresses Nettie as my own dear love and my own darling. He signs off your sweetheart and with fondest love, yours for ever. He even dares to write Tell your mother I think she has had you long enough. It is my time now.
Once September came, Sam wrote wistfully of the familiar places that now reminded him of her: I went down by the top of the archway and then I missed you the most of any time. And in another letter: I only go to the top of the arch way and look down – my own dear pet is not there.
In the early months Sam was sensitive to Nettie’s shy nature. He encouraged her to be more at ease with his sisters. I do not know what makes you so shy to see Jude & Maud for you need not be,
you will find them all right with you love. He also wants her to be confident about her forthcoming uxorial role: Do not be shy with
any of my friends… for you are the one and no one else. I hope I will see the day when you will be able to snap your fingers at
Glen Cottage (c.1910)
with Sam’s gamekeeper brother-in-law and a niece.
As winter approached, Sam became increasingly impatient for Nettie to come back to Sligo as his wife, to keep house for him, cook his meals and provide him with much-needed company. His letters give a touching insight into his lonely domestic life as a bachelor of 27, in his small isolated cottage:
Only think, been away all day & coming back at night and have to light the fire when it is bed time to get something to eat, how nice it would be if you were here to have it ready, and someone to speak to. And again: Cat Corner is very lonely. The long night is coming fast. It is not very nice to sit in the house for hours together without seeing anyone. I wish the winter was over.
Work life largely dictated the pattern of Sam’s social life too. Sam wrote to Nettie about going to church – Lissadell had its own church on the Estate. He revealed that he had to be a bit unpredictable; otherwise the poachers would know when to come and steal the game.
I have to be out every Sunday morning now as there is some people wants to poach a bit if they could get me to go to church in the morning, so I be out all Sunday morning and go to church in the evening.
Only Protestant, Church of Ireland gamekeepers were employed at that date; it was a profession barred from Roman Catholics. Court records reveal that Sam’s father had to appear as a witness in 1864 and 1871, to give evidence against suspected poachers, and Sam followed suit in 1889.
After Nettie and Sam were married – on July 8th 1888 at All Saints’, Tufnell Park, Islington, London – they settled into five years of busy but contented early married life at Carney Hill, with their first child Winifred born in 1889. Sam then moved up – both geographically and professionally – to the White House at Killologe, out on the exposed headland of Mullaghmore adjacent to Classiebawn Castle in April 1893, to assume the position of Head Gamekeeper for The Honourable Evelyn Ashley. On April 10th my grandmother Violet Hilda was born. Sam was probably hoping for a boy to carry on the family tradition, but life was still full of promise.
Henrietta, with Winifred and baby Violet c.1894
Gamekeepers went out to work in all weathers, at all times of year. It could be bleak. The area from the Classiebawn woods, across to Cliffoney and Grange, and over to the table mountain of Ben Bulben was prone to mists, frosts, high winds, rain, heavy gales, hail storms, and sleet. As Head Gamekeeper, Sam needed to ensure a good stock of game for the shooting season, for his Master’s table, and Estate coffers. Sometimes brother William, or one of the Bracken family gamekeepers, worked alongside him. Sam would accompany his Master and distinguished house guests on shooting parties, keeping exact tallies of the partridges, woodcock, grouse, snipe, wild ducks, plover and curlew bagged, for entry in the game book. He also had to set the traps, prepare the dogs and guns, catch thousands of rabbits and dozens of hares annually, and control vermin. He walked miles every day, usually heavily-laden. It would often have been wet and muddy underfoot, especially in the bogs around the lakes, where they also caught some sizable fish.
Sam first fell ill with a chest infection sometime after mid-October 1896. He simply could not shake it off.
A letter from Evelyn Ashley of Classiebawn to Henrietta Wood concerning
Sam’s illness indicates that he is sending his own physician Dr Ball to attend ‘Wood’. Sam’s widowed father had married The Hon Evelyn Ashley’s housekeeper, Fanny Shillito, in 1885 at St George’s, Hanover Square, Mayfair, London.
Sam’s death certificate records that he died of emphysema, which he had suffered from for three months, compounded by pleurisy and pneumonia which had sealed his fate in the last 14 days. He died at Mullaghmore on May 3th, 1897, with Henrietta by his side, and was interred at Drumcliffe Church on May 5th. While there is a record of Sam’s burial there (the entry in the register reads 33 No 261), there is no surviving headstone. Even so, we like to think the fairies keep watch over his grave, in memory of a true Irish romantic’s short life, well lived.
25th December 2016