Murder and Madness on Blenheim Estate
7 April 2021 (Updated 8 September 2021)
Petty grievances can get out of hand among people who are forced to work together, as is shown by the case of the murder of William Beckley.
"I believe old Beckley lies dead"
Beckley was in his 60's and lived with his daughter at Water Gate Cottage in the grounds of Blenheim Park, where he worked as a blacksmith.
On Wednesday 12 August 1885 George Boddington, a man who worked with Beckley on the estate, called at the house of another estate worker named John Wilkins and startled him with the words 'I believe old Beckley lies dead up the road here under a tree'.
Boddington took Wilkins to show him what he had found. Beckley's body was lying face down. He had been bludgeoned to death.
Murder over a tarred shirt?
When police were called and started their investigation, suspicion immediately fell onto George Boddington. Boddington and Beckley were both in their 60's and worked closely together on the estate, but had a history of conflict.
Recently they had been threatened with the sack by the estate manager when an argument about a missing tar brush ended in a tussle in which Boddington had tarred Beckley's shirt with his brush.
A confession of murder
When questioned by police Boddington denied the murder but admitted they had argued on the morning of Beckley's murder. Boddington was arrested and sent to Oxford Prison to await trial. While in prison Boddington dictated a statement in which he explained what had happened.
Beckley and Boddington had again argued about the tar they were using to tar some posts. Beckley had called Boddington 'a vagabond and a scamp', at which Boddington had struck Beckley twice with the axe he was holding at the time, before throwing the axe away and leaving the area.
The bloodied axe was later discovered under a nearby tree.
Despite this confession, when Boddington's trial came around at the Oxford assizes in October 1885, Boddington pled 'not guilty'. His defence council presented evidence detailing his history of mental instability. As a younger man Boddington had been thrown out of the London police force for drunkenness.
After moving to Oxford he had suffered from delusions, memory loss and violent behaviour that saw him being committed to Littlemore Asylum in 1852. Boddington's mother had also spent time in Littlemore Asylum in 1862, which the defence council argued demonstrated 'hereditary insanity'.
Boddington's daughter also testified that her father suffered from delusions and often behaved erratically.
The jury deliberated for 30 minutes before returning a verdict of 'guilty'. Boddington was initially sentenced to death, but this was later changed to a custodial sentence. He died in prison two years later.
- 'Oxfordshire Murders' by Len Woodley (The Wychwood Press, 2005, ISBN: 9781902279213)