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Footpath to Woodeaton

Footpath to Woodeaton

Photo: "Footpath to Woodeaton" by lunaman is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Murder of a Woodeaton Gamekeeper

22 March 2021 (Updated 8 September 2021)

The body of Thomas Cooper, gamekeeper on the Woodeaton estate of Richard Wayland MP, was found face down in the mud in the early hours of 4 November 1835.

Bludgeoned and shot

His head had been badly bludgeoned before being shot from behind at close range. Cooper's shotgun was later found discarded unfired in a nearby ditch.

His body was found by local shoemaker George Phillips, who noticed footsteps in the muddy ground leading away from the body. He followed these across a field and onto a nearby lane where the trail disappeared.

George Bossom, a constable from Oxford, was summoned and began to question locals. Cooper's employer Mr. Weyland recalled hearing a gunshot in the distance shortly after 5pm.

Suspicions fall on Thomas Clay

Another local man named Samuel Tolley recalled seeing a man enter the woods carrying a gun sometime before five. He identified this man as Thomas Clay, a man notorious locally as a poacher. Unsurprisingly Clay became George Bessom's chief suspect.

When questioned, another villager recalled a conversation with Clay about the punishments for poaching in which Clay had pointed to Cooper's house and remarked that if Cooper ever caught him poaching he would 'blow his brains out' before he was caught.

Bossom questioned Clay who admitted being in the woods the previous evening, having borrowed a gun from his brother but had broken the gun when getting over a ditch. Bossom borrowed Clay's shoes and, on comparing them to the footprints found leading away from the body, was convinced that Clay's shoes matched the marks.

Thomas Clay is brought to trial

This evidence was enough to bring Thomas Clay to trial, which happened at the Oxfordshire Assizes in March 1836.

Clay protested his innocence and even summoned the shoemaker who made his shoes to testify that he had made many similar pairs in the past and that they were not unique to Clay so could not be considered evidence for his presence at the scene of the crime.

The jury was not convinced by this and returned a verdict of 'guilty'.

Thomas Clay was executed by hanging at 8am the following Saturday at a scaffold erected outside the Country Gaol. He protested his innocence to the last.


  1. 'Oxfordshire Murders' by Len Woodley (The Wychwood Press, 2005, ISBN: 9781902279213)