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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

The Campden Wonder

Reproduced by permission of English Heritage. NMR Reference Number: CC72/00939

Reproduced by permission of English Heritage. NMR Reference Number: CC72/00939

Missing, presumed dead.

Its the 16th of August, 1660. In Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire a 70 year man vanishes. This septuagenarian is William Harrison, the rent collector for the estate that had previously been owned by Baptist Hicks. Several items which would have been on his person were found – his hat, comb and the removable collar of his shirt.

The Immediate Aftermath

Now, obviously no man in his right mind would be seen to wander the highways and by-ways of England without proper attire – even if the nation’s morals were loosened by the recent Restoration of the monarchy.

The next morning Mrs Harrison, sent out their son Edward, who enlisted the help of the Harrisons’ manservant John Perry, whom he met along his way. William Harrison had been collecting rents in Charingworth, so the search headed there.

Along the way they met locals in Ebrington, who said they had handed over their rent the previous night to Mr Harrison (Of course they said that, why wouldn’t they?). The trail went cold in the next town Paxford.

Showing the grim resolve and determination to leave no stone unturned that made Britain great, our intrepid duo called it a day and went home. On the way home their dinner was delayed by the discovery of the missing man’s items. They had been slashed and were bloody. No body was found.

Criminal Proceedings

The rumourmill began and soon after Perry was brought in for questioning by the authorities. A man of great convictions and firm character, Perry immediately made the suggestion that his mother and brother had killed and robbed William Harrison. But wait said Perry! He must have added that his mother was a witch as it was entered in the subsequent sentencing.

John sang any tune he was asked and even said his closest kin had also stolen £140 from Mr Harrison’s house a year previously. The first trial fell through. But John Perry soon found himself in the dock along with his, clearly beloved family members.

Forget what I said earlier your honour, complained Perry, I was mad you see. No matter was the judicial response, we’ll simply hang the lot of you and be done with it. Of course Joan Perry hung first due to the merest hint of a suggestion of her possibly being a witch.

Two Years Later

So what did happen to the elderly gent with the un-coiffed barnet and the daringly-exposed plunging neckline? Well, considering the case has been extensively written about, including by nineteenth century Poet Laureate John Masefield, it will come as no surprise that William Harrison was not murdered.

For one thing, murdered people don’t return corporeally to their old homes. Secondly, murder victims can’t recount swash-buckling tales, which are so far-fetched as to essentially unbelievable.


Well, eventually the gobshite returned with a tale of being captured by three horsemen, loaded onto a Turkish pirate ship, brought to Smyrna and sold into slavery.

Barbary pirates were a delicate international issue at the time but chipping Campden is quite a bit inland. Slim pickings indeed if the pirates had to charge across a foreign land and the only saleable booty was a partially clothed 70 year old. It would seem, according to William Harrison, that the Turks were only to happy to part with good money for aged rent collectors.

The Inquisition finds it hard to picture three pirates being sent out to rape, pillage and plunder, and being welcomed back with open arms to a horde overjoyed with the senior citizen strapped to the horses’s arse. It is true that the current use of the word booty is at quite a remove from the piratical canon, but this is just mad.

The most unbelievable part of the entire concoction is that the elderly gent outlived his oriental master and was able to make his return as a stowaway on a Portugese ship. Clearly, William Harrison had a very low opinion of his impressionable audience.


The case was never fully resolved and all but the most accepting and gullible would find cause for concern in the missing man’s tales of derring-do. Other questions include the exact nature of the basis for Perry’s claims, and whether William Harrison was suitably investigated for what would seem to be fairly duplicitous claims.

This case is often cited by opponents of capital punishment and torture. It does show that coerced testimony, or that which is given under duress, or indeed underwater, is inherently unreliable. It also raises the spectre of habeas corpus legal tenets as became prominent under Dubya.

The Wilson Almanac
The Inquisition hates referencing Wikipedia – but it is a necessary evil
The Cotwolds online
The Campden Wonder – a site dedicated to this story
A blog of ongoing research on this topic
Fantastic resource site on this story

This article was posted by on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009 at 03:59.
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