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By Linda Stratmann
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Linda Stratmann
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THE CAMPDEN WONDER
Chipping Campden, 1660–2
Chipping Campden is a small market town built of honey-coloured stone, lying on the edge of the Cotswold Hills. Many of its buildings date back to the fourteenth century, when the town first became of note through its connection with the wool trade. By the seventeenth century that trade was in decline, and the town settled into a more peaceful mode of life, only to be disturbed by a series of events at once dramatic, tragic and inexplicable.
The Manor of Campden was purchased in 1609 by Baptist Hicks, a Gloucestershire man who had amassed a great fortune through trade. A generous man, he built a row of substantial almshouses in 1612 and a market house in 1627. In 1613 he built himself a noble house near the church, the outside of which was reputed to have cost him £29,000, a sum equivalent to about £3.5 million today. There he ordered lights to be set up on dark nights for the benefit of travellers. In 1628 he was created Viscount Campden of Campden, but having no son to inherit his fortune and title, he procured a special licence by which all his honours and titles passed on his death in 1629 to the Noel family, Sir Edward Noel being the husband of his eldest daughter, Juliana. Edward Noel died in 1643 and the title passed to his son, Baptist Noel. The Hicks and Noel families were ardent Royalists during the Civil War, and the manor house served as a garrison for the King's men. When they were forced to quit it, however, they were afraid that it would fall into the hands of the Parliamentarians, and rather than have this happen the house was deliberately burned to the ground. Only some outlying buildings survived, including the gateway, the stables, which were later converted into accommodation for Lady Juliana, and the East Banqueting Pavilion.
It is probable that in 1660, when the extraordinary events that came to be known as the Campden Wonder started to unfold, Lady Juliana, who was then about 74 years of age, was not living in Campden but at the Noel family estates in Rutland. She still retained an interest in the Campden estate and employed a trusted steward, William Harrison, to collect the rents. In 1660 Harrison was about 70 years of age, and he had served the Noel family for fifty years. It is thought that he was then living in one of the remaining outbuildings of the estate, quite probably the East Banqueting Pavilion. Harrison, a respected man in the community, was a feoffee – a governor – of the Chipping Campden Grammar School, the accounts of which provide samples of his signature. Another feoffee was local magistrate Sir Thomas Overbury, whose uncle and namesake had come to an unfortunate end in the Tower of London in 1613. It is to Overbury's account of the Campden Wonder, written many years after the events, that we are chiefly indebted for the story.
In 1660 the legal and political affairs of the country were in a state of turmoil. Richard Cromwell had ceased to act as Lord Protector in May 1659, and the judges he had appointed were no longer in office. New judges had been appointed by the Long Parliament, but after this was dissolved in March 1660 it was uncertain whether their decisions remained valid. Charles II was not declared lawful king until 8 May, and even after that the restoration of the monarchy was still in doubt until Charles arrived in London three weeks later. Although the King's new parliament promised to pass an Act of Indemnity and Oblivion, pardoning offences committed during the conflict (apart, of course, from those connected with his father's death), it was by no means certain that this would happen, and the matter was hotly debated for the next three months.
On the afternoon of Thursday 16 August 1660 William Harrison set out to walk from Campden to the village of Charringworth 2 miles away to collect the rents. He first collected £23 from Edward Plaisterer, then called at the house of William Curtis, but Curtis was out, and Harrison did not wait for him. Turning homewards, he stopped at the village of Ebrington, which was mid-way between Charringworth and Campden, where he paid a brief visit to the home of one of the villagers, called Daniel. After that he disappeared. Mrs Harrison, waiting at home for her husband's arrival, began to worry about him as the evening wore on, and between 8 and 9 p.m. sent her servant, John Perry, to look for his master. Neither man returned that night.
At the time of these events John Perry was about 25 years old and had probably served the Harrison family since boyhood. His mother, Joan, had been widowed about three years previously. John had one surviving brother, Richard, and several sisters. Richard, seven years John's senior, had effectively been head of the family since his father's death and was married with children, whereas John was single.
Early on the morning of 17 August Edward, William Harrison's son, went out to trace his father's footsteps and on the way to Charringworth encountered John Perry, who informed him that his master was not there. The two men went to Ebrington, where they spoke to Daniel. Half a mile away was the village of Paxford, where they made enquiries, but Harrison had not been seen there. The trail had gone cold. Turning their steps towards Campden again, the men must have anxiously questioned everyone they met on the way, and were told of a hat, collar band and comb that had been found in the road between Campden and Ebrington by a poor woman who had gone to glean in a field. They at once went to look for the woman and, finding her, were able to confirm that the items were the property of William Harrison. Disturbingly, they had been much hacked and cut about, and there was blood on the collar. Edward now felt sure that his father had been attacked and murdered, probably by robbers, and asked the woman to show them where she had found the items. She led them down the roadway near a bank of gorse bushes. A search was made, but there was no trace of the missing man.
Suspicion naturally fell on John Perry, who had thus far failed to explain why he had stayed out all night. On the following day he was examined before a Justice of the Peace, who was not named in Overbury's pamphlet but may have been Overbury himself, which would account for his detailed knowledge of the case. Perry said that having travelled a land's length (a furlong, or 201m) on his way to Charringworth, he had met William Reed of Campden, and told him of his errand. He told Reed that he was afraid, as it was growing dark, and thought he would return, fetch his young master's horse (presumably Edward's) and come back. The two men walked to Harrison's court gate (probably the gate leading to the courtyard of the old Campden House). There the two men parted, Reed going his own way, but Perry, for reasons he never explained, did not go to get the horse, but stayed where he was. A man called Pearce next happened by and Perry walked with him into the fields for a 'bow's shot' (about 200 yards) before returning with him to his master's gate, where they parted. By now, Perry's wanderings back and forth and standing around had occupied two hours, during which Mrs Harrison no doubt thought he was searching for her husband. Perry then went into his master's hen-roost and lay there for an hour, without sleeping. When the church clock struck midnight he got up and went towards Charringworth. Then, he said, a great mist arose and he lost his way, so he spent the rest of the night lying under a hedge. At daybreak he continued his journey to Charringworth, where he spoke to Edward Plaisterer and William Curtis. By now it was 5 a.m., and the sun was rising, so Perry set out for home, meeting up with Edward Harrison on the way.
At first glance Perry's tale looks highly suspicious; however, all the four men he mentioned supported what he had said as regards themselves. The Justice asked him how come he was so bold as to go to Charringworth at midnight when he had been afraid to go there at nine? Perry replied that he was afraid at nine because it was dark, whereas at midnight there was a moon. Records show that moonrise that night was at about 10.30 p.m., so we can assume that at midnight the moon was well risen and bright. The Justice also asked him why, having twice returned home, did he not think to go into the house to see if his master had returned while he was out? Perry said that he knew his master was not home as there was a light in his chamber window which never used to be there so late when he was at home. It is possible that Mrs Harrison had placed a light in the window to help light her husband home. Harrison usually retired to bed early, so had he been home the light would have been out. It does seem strange that Perry, who was born and bred in Chipping Campden, managed to lose his way, even in the mist, but he was clearly unwilling to go about when he could not see his way. All his odd behaviour can be accounted for by fear of the dark. His waiting around was for enough moonlight to travel by, and he at once attached himself nervously to any passer-by who would keep him company.
Perry was kept in custody pending further enquiries. He remained in Campden either at the inn or in the common prison from Saturday 18 August to the following Friday. During this time the same Justice questioned him again, but his story remained the same. It was later rumoured that, being often pressed to tell all he knew, he had satisfied his listeners with more than one story, telling some that his master had been killed by a tinker, others that a gentleman's servant of the neighbourhood had robbed and killed him, and still others that he had been killed and his body placed in a bean-rick. The bean-rick was duly searched but nothing was found.
Eventually, Perry stated that if he could speak to the Justice again he would tell him something that he would say to no one else. On Friday 24 August he was brought before the Justice and said that his master had been murdered, but not by him. The murderers, he said, were his own mother and brother. The Justice, shocked at this unexpected revelation, quite rightly cautioned him, saying he feared that John might be the guilty one, and asked him not to draw more innocent blood on his head, for the charge might well cost his mother and brother their lives. Perry stuck to his story. He said that ever since he had been in service with Mr Harrison, his mother and brother had pestered him to tell them when his master went to collect the rents so they could waylay and rob him.
John then launched into a detailed description of the murder of William Harrison. He said that on the morning of Thursday 16 August he had gone into town on an errand. There he met his brother, Richard, in the street and set matters in motion by telling him where Harrison was going that day. That evening, after being sent out to look for his master, he had met Richard again by Harrison's gate, and they walked together to the churchyard. There they had parted, John taking the footpath across the churchyard and Richard keeping to the main road around the church. Why they should have parted at this point John never explained, but a search for Harrison seems the most likely motive. In the highway beyond the church the brothers met up again, and walked to the gate a bow's shot from the church that led into ground belonging to Lady Campden called the Conygree. For anyone who held a key to the gate, which his master did, it was the quickest way to Harrison's house. John said he had seen someone, who he assumed was his master, go into the Conygree and told Richard that if he followed he would have the money. Declining to take part in the crime himself, he went for a walk in the fields. After a while he followed his brother into the Conygree, and there found his master lying on the ground, Richard standing over him and their mother standing nearby. 'Ah, rogues, will you kill me?' Harrison had exclaimed. John told his brother that he hoped he would not kill his master, but Richard said, 'Peace, peace, you're a fool', and strangled Harrison. He then took a bag of money from Harrison's pocket and threw it into his mother's lap. John and Richard carried the body from the Conygree to the adjoining garden, where they discussed what to do with it. They decided to throw it into the 'great sink' (probably a cesspool) by Wallington's Mill behind the garden. Richard and his mother sent John to the court next to the house to listen if anyone was stirring, but he chose not to return to them, going instead to the court gate where he encountered John Pearce, as mentioned in his original statement. John Perry had with him his master's hat, band and comb; later, after giving them some cuts with his knife, he threw them on the highway, where the poor woman found them, so as to make people think his master had been robbed there.
The strange thing about Perry's tale which no one seems to have commented on at the time was that Harrison was said to have returned home well after Perry was sent to search for him, in other words when he had already been missing long enough for his wife to be worried.
On hearing this story the Justice had no option but to give orders for the arrest of Joan and Richard Perry, and for the sink to be dragged for the body. No trace of Harrison could be found, however, either there or in the fish ponds, or in the ruins of Old Campden House, all of which were thoroughly searched.
On Saturday 25 August all three Perrys were brought before the Justice, where Richard and Joan indignantly denied all the charges. Richard agreed that he had met his brother in town on the Thursday in question, but that their conversation was nothing to do with Harrison's going to Charringworth. He and his mother now rounded on John, saying he was a villain to tell such lies, but John stuck to his story.
As the three prisoners were returning from the Justice's house to Campden, Richard pulled a cloth from his pocket and with it came a ball of inkle, a kind of linen tape. One of the guards picked it up and Richard explained that it was a hair-lace belonging to his wife. Noticing that the length of inkle had a slip knot in it, the guard showed it to John and asked whether he knew it. John shook his head sorrowfully and said that he did, for that was the string his brother had used to strangle his master.
The next day being Sunday, the Minister of Campden (probably the Revd William Bartholemew) asked to speak to the prisoners, and they were brought to the church. On the way they passed Richard's house, and two of his children went out to meet him. He took the smaller in his arms and led the other by the hand. Suddenly, both started to bleed at the nose, an event which was seen as ominous.
The Justice, having thought over the statements made by John Perry, now recalled some unusual events in the recent past which he thought might be related to Harrison's disappearance. In the previous year Harrison's house had been burgled, between eleven and twelve noon, on Campden market day when all the family was out. They had returned home to find leaning against the wall a ladder leading to a second-storey window. The window had been barred with iron, but the bar had been wrenched off with a ploughshare, which was later found in the room. A sum of £140 was missing. The culprits were never found.
More recently, only a few weeks before Harrison's disappearance, John Perry had been heard making a huge outcry in the garden. He had come running out in a great state of alarm with a sheep-pick (a pitchfork) in his hand, saying he had been set upon by two men in white with naked swords, and he had defended himself with the sheep-pick. The handle of the implement was cut in two or three places and a key in his pocket was also cut, which he said had been done with their swords. He himself seemed to be uninjured.
John Perry was closely questioned about these two incidents and said that it was his brother who had committed the burglary. He said he had not been there at the time but he had told his brother where the money was kept and where he might find a ladder. Richard had afterwards told him he had buried the money in the garden. The attack on himself he confessed to being a fiction, to make people think that rogues haunted the place, so that when his master was burgled it would be thought they had done it. The Justice ordered a search to be made for the money, but nothing was found.
While the prisoners awaited trial an event happened that was to have an important effect on the outcome of their case. On 29 August 1660 the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion was finally passed. At the assizes in September Joan, John and Richard had two indictments found against them; one was for the burglary and the other for the murder of William Harrison. The judge of the assizes, who is generally thought to have been Sir Christopher Turnor, an eminent and highly respected man, refused to try the Perrys on the second count, as no body had been found, but they were then tried for the burglary. All three initially pleaded not guilty, but at this some whispering was heard behind them; after some consultation they changed their plea to guilty but begged the benefit of the pardon conferred by the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion, which applied to the 1659 burglary, although it could not apply to the more recent charge. It is very probable that they had been advised by their lawyers to make this plea in order to save the time of the court. It was, as it turned out, a fatally bad piece of advice. All three were granted a pardon under the new Act, although after the trial they continued to deny any guilt in or knowledge of the burglary. In the meantime, John Perry continued to say that his mother and brother had murdered Harrison. He also accused them of trying to poison him while he was in the jail, so that he dared not eat and drink with them.
Excerpted from Gloucestershire Murders by Linda Stratmann. Copyright © 2013 Linda Stratmann. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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