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A murder case that gripped the nation
There is trouble in Paradise. I don’t mean Paradise in the hereafter that some of us hope to reach some day, but the one up river from Oxford near Kelmscott — the place that 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite design guru William Morris famously described as “Heaven on Earth”. The trouble centres on Brandy Island, now sitting undisturbed and tranquil in the River Thames near the lovely church of St Michael and All Angels at Eaton Hastings, a deserted medieval village, and St Mary the Virgin at Buscot.
The island was compulsorily purchased by Thames Water for £11 in 1949 for use as a pumping station, and sold in 2009 for £380,000 to someone who has applied for planning permission to turn it into a marina.
But Brandy Island has a tale to tell dating back further than its present-day difficulties. It was owned in the mid-18th century by Edward Loveden Loveden (1749-1822), who earned the nickname Old Father Thames because, as a prominent member of the Thames Commission — set up to increase navigability — he was self-serving enough to charge boats the largest tolls on the river for passing his land in either direction, instead of just on the upward journey, as was usual.
He was MP for Abingdon and the owner and builder of nearby Buscot Park — bequeathed in 1956 to the National Trust (an organisation now campaigning vigorously against the marina plan). He was born in Cirencester, the son of Thomas Townsend and Martha, née Loveden, but changed his name when his maternal uncle died and he inherited the Buscot and Eaton Hastings estates plus a huge fortune.
In 1860, his great grandson, Sir Prysse Prysse (name-doubling seems to have been a family habit), sold the estates to Tertius Campbell (1811-1887),who had made a huge amount of money from successful gold prospecting in Australia.
He set about farming his 4,000 Thames-side acres on a industrial scale, a plan that involved building a distillery on Brandy Island (hence the name). Here he employed French workers to turn his main crop, sugar beet, into alcohol for export to France for use in brandy-making. Transport on the estate was provided by a narrow gauge steam railway. Other innovations included a purpose-built wharf, gasworks, early concrete farm buildings, a tile and brick works, and a 20-acre reservoir near Buscot House fed by water wheels on the Thames.
A scandal concerning his elder daughter, Florence, caused his downfall, bringing him in sorrow to the grave he now occupies at Eaton Hastings churchyard. She was married to lawyer Charles Bravo, son of John Ricardo MP, in 1875. The following year Bravo died of antimony poisoning and, after two inquests, a verdict of wilful murder was returned. However, no one was ever charged.
The murder held Britain spellbound for years — and Florence was a major suspect; particularly as it was revealed that before her marriage she had had an affair with married society doctor James Gully, who had founded his ‘hydrotherapy’ clinic at Malvern that had been largely responsible for that town’s growing prosperity.
Two years after the murder, by then a social outcast, Florence died of alcohol poisoning aged 33 and was buried by night by the porch at Buscot Church. Her father’s business affairs then went into a decline.
William Morris moved into Kelmscott Manor in 1871. He must have been well aware of the industrialisation of his beloved Thames-side and of the scandal besetting his neighbour’s family. He wrote of a river journey from Oxford to Kelmscott: “The smallness of the scale is everything, the short reaches and the speedy change of the banks give one the feeling of going somewhere,of coming to something strange, a feeling of adventure which I have not felt in bigger waters.”
Subsequent purchaser of Buscot, financier Alexander Henderson, was certainly andadmirer of Pre-Raphaelites. Edward Burne-Jones’s mural, The Legend of the Briar Rose, now adorns the sitting room there, complete with verses from Morris’s