The Campden Wonder mystery attracted popular attention in England in the years 1660–1662 (17th Century) due to its remarkable occurrences. It still does today.
The events were documented in a letter by Sir Thomas Overbury titled “A true and perfect account of the examination, confession, trial, condemnation and execution of Joan Perry, and her two sons, John and Richard Perry, for the supposed murder of William Harrison” together with an accompanying letter by him detailing his whereabouts in the missing years.
The English public keenly followed the tales of Thomas Overbury’s letter containing the events that took place in 1660 and 1662.
The Campden Wonder Mystery
On August 16th, 1660, William Harrison, Estate steward and rent collector to the Noel family, set out on a walk from Chipping Campden to Charingworth, aiming to make the two miles on foot.
As he was had not returned home by the appointed time, his wife asked her husband’s servant, John Perry, to go and look for him.
William Harrison’s son, Edward, also went out to look for his father and was on his way to Charingworth when he met John Perry.
Perry said he had been unable to locate Harrison, and the two of them continued to Ebrington, where they were told by a man called Daniel that Harrison had been there the night before.
Edward Harrison and John Perry, then travelled to the village of Paxford but were unable to find any more information on Harrisons whereabouts.
Edward and John then headed back to Chipping Campden. During the trip, they learned that some personal items belonging to William Harrison had been discovered on the main road between Chipping Campden and Ebrington.
These were a hat, a shirt, and a necktie. The hat had been cut and slashed, and the shirt and neckband were covered in blood – but there was no trace of William Harrison, let alone his dead body. The “Hue and Cry” was raised, search parties were sent out, but nothing further was found.
The next morning, under questioning from local magistrate Sir Thomas Overbury, John Perry told his story.
Having been sent out as it was growing dark, he had met with a local baker and talked awhile, but by then it was night and becoming afraid to proceed on foot, he decided to return and get to his master’s horse.
He then stated that he had got lost in a field and lay down until morning and then, when it was light enough to see where he was going, he met a further local who had more information about Harrison. He decided to return and tell him all that he had learnt.
Sir Thomas was not entirely satisfied with his story, so he was kept detained for further questioning. Rumours abounded in the town, they the lock-up was not secure and tales were beginning to circulate.
On further questioning by the magistrate, Perry’s stories grew wilder.
Eventually, he accused his mother, Joan, and his brother, Richard, of robbery and murder. They denied their connection with Harrison’s disappearance, but John continued to claim that they were accountable for his death, even claiming that they had dumped his body in a brook.
The brook was dredged, but investigators didn’t find a body nor any trace of Harrison.
The Trial of the Perry’s
The first court hearings involved issues relating to a plot to steal money from William Harrison.
Despite his mother and brother pleading not guilty, John Perry’s testimony convinced the jury (despite circumstantial evidence and charge of murder) of the following:
- That John had no apparent reason to be lying about the matter.
- That John claimed the robbery was his own idea.
- That John informed the court that Joan and Richard had stolen £140 from William Harrison’s house (roughly the equivalent to £21,200 in 2019) the previous year.
- That John had lied about being robbed a few days before Harrison disappeared.
All charges were dropped for the participants under the Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660, enabling them to enter a plea of innocence without first paying a fine.
This was a poor piece of advice by the lawyers for the defendants. However, at the time, the judge ruled that the prosecution did not need to be initiated for the 3 defendants as no body had been found.
Later that same year, as a result of the court’s previous refusal to punish them for robbery, they were considered to be criminals.
John Perry took on his mother and brother at their trial for the murder of William Harrison, at the Gloucester Assizes the following March
The witness declared his prior testimony to be misleading as a result of insanity. Even so, the jury concluded that all three Perrys were guilty and were subsequently condemned to death.
The three Perrys were hanged together on a piece of ground called “No man’s Land”, (possibly on Broadway Hill now known as Fish Hill) which did not belong to any of the three adjacent parishes, and was in direct sight of Chipping Campden. The location was probably just across the main road from where Broadway Tower now stands, though the exact location remains unclear, but you may well walk over their graves on the way to Broadway Tower.
On the scaffold before their hanging, all three stated that they were completely innocent of murdering William Harrison.
Their mother, who was also suspected of being a witch, was executed first, just in case she’d cast a spell on her sons which was preventing them from telling their ‘confessions to murders’.
William Harrison Returns to Chipping Campden
In 1662, William Harrison returned to England aboard a ship that had departed from Lisbon.
He claimed that he had been kidnapped, wounded, had his pockets stuffed with money, and was “spirited away”, by 3 men dressed in white, on horseback to Deal, a port in Kent. He claimed he was then transferred to a ship bound for Virginia, where his skills were much in demand in the new colonies there.
The ship, he claimed, was later attacked by Barbary pirates, and he was sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire to a Turkish doctor.
Harrison said that after a year and three-quarters, his master died and he was able to escape and stow away on a Portuguese ship, bound for Dover via a visit to Lisbon.
This case was one of many that were cited as the reason for the introduction of the Act of Habeas Corpus in 1679.
However, Harrison’s tale is questionable on many counts, some of which were:-
- Why was a 70-year-old man carried off in this way?
- If his pockets were full of cash, why was he being sold for only £7 into the slave trade?
- How was he able to resume his former life, without question, in Chipping Campden High Street.
- He claimed that his attackers injured his right leg, and then supported him back to full health.
The Mystery and Spirits Live On
Were three souls lost needlessly or was there something more sinister at play?
There have been stories that the Perry’s still haunt the land where they were laid to rest, and that sometimes, late at night, when all is still, they are seen walking back towards Chipping Campden, their home.
To this day, it remains a Chipping Campden mystery which grows deeper as more time goes by.
This tale might make you look at Chipping Campden in a completely different way, and Old Campden House which has it’s own secrets to tell.
It remains one of the most enduring of Gloucestershire folk tales and of course, Gloucestershire ghost tales.
Modern Interpretations of The Campden Wonder
John Masefield, the author of the two plays “The Campden Wonder” and “Mrs Harrison”, wrote about the enduring popular myth that Harrison’s wife committed suicide after discovering that her husband was still alive.
The case is mentioned in E. C. Bentley’s detective novel Trent’s Last Case, as well as the Sandyford murder case of 1920. It is also mentioned (“The Camden Mystery”) in John Rhode’s detective novel In the Face of the Verdict (in the U.S., In the Face of the Verdict; 1936). Another novel by Victoria Bennett entitled The Poorest He (2005) features a fictional account of the case.
There is also a BBC Radio 4 play of the story dating from 1994, Roger Hume’s “The Campden Wonder.”
Buy the Book
You can purchase this fascinating history book in our online shop “Mr Harrison is Missing” by Jill Wilson for greater insight into what happened.