The Campden Wonder: How history can bring a place to life

Old Cotswold Cottage, Stanton

As so often happens, the comments section of my recent post looking at what inspires us to choose our travel destinations has proved to be more interesting than my original entry. Both Maxine Sheppard and Pam Mandel highlighted the role that the history of a place can play in enticing us to visit; I was reminded of their comments on our return from a short break in Chipping Campden, a lovely market town in the heart of Cotswolds.

Chipping Campden has many things in its favour and it serves as a very good base for a visit to the Cotswolds. I was immediately drawn to a story that has been linked with the town for 350 years; a murder case that involved a confession, three convictions but no actual crime. The story of the Campden Wonder is perhaps one of the most intriguing mysteries you’re likely to encounter and it is no surprise that it has stood the test of time and remains a celebrated part of the local history.

The story takes place at the end of the English Civil War and has been preserved from 17th century published records. It is told with all its twists and turns here. William Harrison, the elderly steward of a local landowner, had been visiting neighbouring villages collecting rent money when he failed to return home. A search party was sent that was initially led by his servant John Perry. No trace of his master was found and when blood-stained items of clothing were discovered along the roadside Harrison was presumed murdered. Perry was held in custody by local magistrate Thomas Overbury and was soon the prime suspect in the disappearance and likely murder of William Harrison. Telling a string of ever taller tales to the authorities, Perry eventually claimed it was not he who committed the murder, but his mother and brother.

Broadway Tower, Broadway Hill

All three were eventually tried, convicted of murder and hanged on nearby Broadway Hill overlooking Chipping Campden. It was in the following year that William Harrison walked back into Chipping Campden, very much alive and well. What happened to him for the two years when he disappeared from all contact remains the source of much speculation. Harrison himself claims that he was kidnapped and sold as a slave by Turkish pirates, working for most of the period in western Turkey for an elderly physician. He gave his account as a written testimony to Thomas Overbury, who kept what is considered the most reliable record of the entire story.

Harrison’s account is accepted by many although not all who have studied the Campden Wonder in the following years. Some claim he couldn’t have gone far from the town itself. At the time many presumed that Joan Perry, the mother of John Perry, was a witch and she had cast a spell that accounted for his sudden relocation to Turkey. Others still assumed the whole tale to be made up.

As the helpful staff in the Tourist Information Centre in Chipping Campden informed me, there are several versions of the Campden Wonder story in circulation today, each one providing a different explanation to the events of 1660-1662. I chose a book written by the local historical society as my takeaway research material and learned much more about this unusual mystery as a result.

We will never know which version of the Campden Wonder is in fact the truth, yet this lack of certainty does not in any way diminish the story. The words “Nobody knows for certain what actually happened” seem very much to be expected when relating to a 350 year old incident. Not only was it a long time ago but with a distinct lack of the tools we have at our disposal today to record and share such events, it is perhaps a wonder that we know anything about the case at all.

Market Hall, Chipping Campden

Wandering around Chipping Campden and along its many miles of surrounding paths it is easy to admire the spectacular views that stretch across the Cotswold Hills and beyond. Yet armed with a tiny bit of knowledge of the events that shook this market town 350 years ago, the place names and the landmarks take on an extra significance. In this way the preservation of local history achieves far more than merely giving local enthusiasts something to do. However impressive the scenery and local buildings may be (and in this part of the Cotwolds they certainly are impressive), it is the accounts of human behaviour in all their tainted splendour that truly bring a place to life.

For more information on this delightful part of the world I would recommend getting yourself a copy of the Rough Guide to the Cotswolds, written by Matthew Teller. It is a comprehensive guidebook for the region while managing to be light enough to keep in your day-pack.


Author Information

Freelance travel writer

One Response to “The Campden Wonder: How history can bring a place to life”

  1. As so often I wonder at how little I actually know about my own country. I’ve never been to the Cotswolds (well, I think I may have once but so long ago I can’t be sure), I really must put in on my list for the next time I have an extended stay in England. Trouble with living abroad is that a trip back becomes a frantic rush to get around to seeing everyone, and I really want to do a road trip and see those parts of my country I haven’t seen yet…….starting with the Cotswolds, then!

    January 17, 2012 at 9:46 pm