The mysterious death at Shipton Court

shiptoncourtoldprintOn 30th June 1843, a grim scene unfolded in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin at Shipton-under-Wychwood. A coffin was exhumed and carried inside the church, the lid was prised off, and the witnesses peered in to examine the body of Thomas Sinden, butler to Sir John Chandos Reade of Shipton Court.

Thomas had worked for Sir John for over twelve years by the time that the events took place, which changed forever the lives of three families. He was probably used to his master’s sudden rages. He and Sir John were generally on good terms but they were known occasionally to disagree, especially when drinking.

Sir John’s drinking was notorious. After dinner when he was High Sheriff of Oxfordshire, Sir John distinguished himself among High Sheriffs (so far as we know) by dancing on the table. His wife died in 1821, supposedly of grief. And his son Compton, who got into debt at Oxford owing to a similar weakness for drink, died unmarried in 1851. Two of Sir John’s three daughters also predeceased him and the youngest was disabled, so perhaps it is not surprising that he sought comfort in the bottle.

At 11.15 p.m. on Sunday 28th May the dining room bell rang and Thomas made his way upstairs. A heavy fall or knock was soon heard by the servants in the kitchen, and when Thomas reappeared he was bleeding profusely from his head. Asked how his injuries came about, Thomas would answer only that “one blow did it”. Thomas’s condition worsened and eventually on Thursday night he died, aged 39.

He was buried a week later, but his widow felt that justice had not been served. She believed that the irascible Sir John had pushed her husband down the stairs. She petitioned the coroner, and a warrant for disinterment was issued. At the inquest in the Shaven Crown Inn, the servants testified that Thomas was perfectly sober. But the footman Joseph Wakefield claimed Thomas had been drunk for an entire week, implying that any fall down the stairs was his own fault. Joseph insisted he saw nothing untoward so, as he was the only eyewitness, the jury returned a verdict of “natural death by the visitation of God”.

So why, if Sir John was innocent of any crime, did he re-write his will and leave his entire estate to Joseph Wakefield, disinheriting the Reade family? When he died in 1868, Shipton Court and all its contents went to Joseph who enjoyed the life of the country squire for the rest of his days, basing his family in Shipton Lodge and letting the Court out to various rich tenants. The fate of Mrs Sinden goes unrecorded.

Extract from Scandal in High Society Oxfordshire: twenty tales of toffs in trouble by Julie Ann Godson, available now on Amazon.com, £10.99

October – November 2017