Friday, 23 November 2012

The Extraordinary Evanishment of the Campden Codger

            Sir Thomas Overbury’s nephew, also called Sir Thomas Overbury, was a magistrate who presided over one of the strangest cases in English legal history – that of the Campden Wonder. It all started in 1659, when John Perry, a servant of William Harrison, claimed that he had been attacked by two swordsmen dressed in white in a field at Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire. He had fought them off with his pitchfork, which showed cut marks on the handle, although none of the other residents of Campden had seen anyone suspicious in the neighbourhood. 

Chipping Campden

Chipping Campden was then a quaintly straggling one-street village in the heart of the Cotswolds, noted mainly for the ruined manor house that had been built by Sir Baptist Hicks, a wealthy silk merchant, and had been deliberately burned down during the Civil War, to prevent it falling into the hands of Parliamentarian soldiers. William Harrison lived in what remained habitable of the manor, where he was the steward, or ‘factor’, of Lady Juliana Hicks, Countess Campden, daughter of Sir Baptist. One market day in 1659, William and his family were ‘at the lecture’ in church, a Puritan form of worship, when someone put a ladder up to window of their home, climbed in and stole £140, belonging to Lady Campden. Now, it could have been a wandering Cavalier or Roundhead soldier, expediently robbing the quiet house, or it could have been John Perry, who made up the story of the two swordsmen in white to deflect suspicion from himself and to inspire rumours that there were thieves active in the area. We will never know, (but we can guess). 


On August 16th 1660, William Harrison, then seventy years old, left his home at Campden to walk to Charringworth, just two miles away, to collect rents from Lady Campden’s tenants. When he didn’t return in the evening, Mrs Harrison sent the servant, John Perry, to look for him. Neither man nor master returned that night, which was not particularly unusual - perhaps the old man had got talking to his friends and the hour had overtaken him, so he decided to stay with them until daybreak. There is every chance that he had done this before and so no questions were asked. 

On the following morning, Edward Harrison, son of William, walked out to find his father, and met Perry on the road, who said he had not found the old man. Together they walked on to Ebrington, a mile from Campden and midway to Carringworth, where they were told that William Harrison had indeed called to collect the rents on the previous evening. Then came the report that a hat, a shirt collar band and a comb (a hat cockade, a kind of badge of office), had been found by a poor woman in a gorse brake, between Campden and Ebrington. Edward and John sought the woman out, identified the items as belonging to Harrison, and went to where they had been found.

Gorse, Furze or Whin

The hat and comb were both cut and there were bloodstains on the collar band, but there was no blood found at the place where the things were found. The whole village of Campden was roused, and everyone set out to look for Harrison, but no body was found. Obviously, suspicion fell on Perry, who was arrested and questioned by Justice Overbury. He had, he said, gone from Campden between 8 and 9 pm, but had returned after looking in the fields, had spent some time sheltering in Mr Harrison’s henhouse, then when the moon came out, at about midnight, he had set out again for Carringworth, but a mist had descended, he had got lost and slept under a hedge. 

In the morning, he went on to Carringworth, where he spoke to tenants who had paid £23 in rent to Harrison on the previous evening. Harrison had set off for home, and had been seen at Ebrington, but had then disappeared. Perry had then met Edward Harrison, and the rest was as already stated. Perry was held in custody as more enquiries were made. 

Lady Juliana Hicks, Countess Campden

Then, strangely, Perry told Overbury, that his brother, Richard, and his mother, Joan, had long planned to rob Harrison of the rent money, and when he had gone out to find his master, John had met his mother and brother and the three of them had gone together, found Harrison near Ebrington, where Richard had strangled the old man and given the rent money to his mother. They had then taken the body into a garden and thrown it into a pond. Searches were made in all the ponds around Campden but no body was forthcoming, but Joan and Richard Perry were taken into custody. They proclaimed their innocence vehemently, and upbraided John for lying, but he stuck to his story, declaring that everything he said was the truth. He also told Overbury that Richard had robbed the £140 from Harrison’s house, whilst John ‘had a Halibi’, in that he was in church with his master. The Perrys were held until the Spring Assizes of 1661, when they were tried for the murder of William Harrison. 

To the surprise of all, John Perry pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charge, saying that when he gave his previous evidence, he was, “… then mad, and knew not what he said.” Nonetheless, and notwithstanding that the body of William Harrison had not been found, the jury found the Perrys guilty of murder and they were sentenced to death. Joan Perry was hanged first – it was thought that she was a witch, who held power over her sons, and if she were dead, this power would die with her, enabling her sons to confess. Richard went to the gallows on Broadway Hill, within sight of Campden, pleading with his brother to confess his innocence but was hanged anyway. John, ‘dogged and surly’ was hanged in chains on a gibbet on Broadway Hill, but immediately before he died, he said, 
“…he knew nothing of his master's death, nor what was become of him, but they might hereafter possibly hear.

Hanged in Chains

So imagine the surprise of Sir Thomas Overbury JP, when two years later he received a letter from William Harrison. It told a story even stranger than the garbled sound and fury told by the idiot Perry. Harrison claimed that he had left Campden in the afternoon of August 16th 1660, and had walked the two miles to Carringworth, where he found the tenants were out in the fields, gathering the harvest. Unable to collect the full rents, had had managed to take just £23, and had walked back to Campden. At the furze brake at Ebrington, he had been attacked by three men in buckram, who had stabbed him with their swords, beaten him and put him behind one of them on his horse, securing his hands with something with a spring lock on it that had snapped shut. 


They covered his head with a cloak and rode away, and after staying at various places along the way, they arrived eventually at a place by the sea called Deal, where two of the men spoke to a sea captain – Harrison heard the sum of seven pounds mentioned – and he was then taken aboard, and sailed away for six weeks, during which time his wounds healed. One day, Wrenshaw, the sea captain, sighted three Turkish ships, two of which came alongside, and Harrison and others were transferred aboard them. 


They then sailed on to Smyrna, where Harrison was sold as a slave to an eighty-seven year old Turkish physician, who said he had once lived in Lincolnshire. Harrison was made to work in cotton fields and to mix medicines for this Turk, who gave him the name Boll and presented him with a double gilt silver bowl. One day, the old Turk died and Harrison ran away, eventually using the bowl to pay for his passage home, via Lisbon, Portugal.

Turkish Slave Market

What are we to make of this? It is so mad and filled with inconsistencies that it is obviously a tissue of lies. Why on earth would three kidnappers target a seventy-year-old man? Why not just kill him and rob him of the £23, rather than carry him on horseback across the south of England, a distance of nearly two hundred miles? And why stab him, obviously making their task that much harder? If they intended to sell him into slavery, why damage the goods? Who would buy a seventy year-old slave, anyway? Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère? Are we to believe slavers were stealing enough old men from England to make up a cargo-ship full of them? 

These are just the initial questions that spring to mind. Other more interesting speculations are, where did Harrison actually go, and just what did he do for two years? What caused him to write to Overbury – why admit to being back? What could he gain from this? If he did it to steal the money, why not wait until he had collected the full rents, rather than just £23? And why did John Perry make up a story that eventually hanged not only himself, but his mother and brother too? Was it some sort of misplaced Münchausen’s? Pure spite? Madness? We will never know – but, as I have already said, we can guess.

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