This month our theme is turkey. The Epiphany Session, held in January, is the busiest of the year. One reason for this is the number of thefts of food that occur in the months of October, November and December as the cold weather sets in and possibly people start thinking of Christmas celebrations. In the 1829 Epiphany sessions we come across our first case of theft of turkeys when Thomas Nobbs was accused of stealing a cock and a hen from William Cripps of Caddington five days before Christmas 1838. [ref.QSR1839/1/5/36].
We seem to often hear that turkey only recently became a Christmas tradition, goose being more popular in times gone by, but was this really the case?
Turkeys have been reared in England since the early 16th Century. There is some evidence that the English farmer was less keen to bother with them than his European counterpart ans this meant that the price for turkey remained high until the 20th Century. The price of a turkey was too high for most of the population, but the life cycle of a turkey, its size and its taste compared to other fowl such as swan and peacock meant that it quickly became a Christmas favourite amongst the higher classes. We have many documents, particularly from the 17th Century, that include requests for fat turkeys to be supplied at Christmas as part of the rent for a property. We also hear about them in other documents. Evidence of the High Sheriffs Assize court include a 1671 case referring to a man 'that drove turkeys' along the York Road (the Great North Road).
The following year, 1672, Sarah Brace gave evidence relating to the custom of her late husband and herself in the payment of tithes. As part of her evidence she states that she had no turkeys of ducks that year as she was to leave the farm at Michaelmas [ref. L24/368].
Finally, we have another case of theft, from January 1865, when Charles Albone was accused of stealing a turkey cock. The farmer stated that his stolen turkey 'was of a peculiar breed'. We also learn from the farmers son that the turkey was a tame one which he had been in the habit of playing with [ref.CD1042/30], whilst a labourer reports having seen all the turkeys at roost about four feet from the ground earlier that evening.