Jean Sheppard and family
Category: Business and political leaders
Mrs Jean F. Sheppard was, at the time the observations were recorded, a widow with two children.
She was a descendant of Thomas Savery and the owner and managing director of Thomas Savery Pumps at Birmingham. Her son, Julian Westwood, despite being only 19, was a director and already playing an important part in the company's affairs, particularly in development of the export trade.
Alison Westwood, her daughter, (then aged 22) was at the time one of Britain's leading show-jumpers and she and her horse The Maverick VII were already well known, competing at Wembley in The Horse of the Year Show.
Thomas Savery and T A Savery & Company
Captain Thomas Savery was a military engineer with a passion for mechanics, mathematics and inventing and he became the inventor of a steam engine.
Savery recognised the need for a mechanism to stop mines and pits from flooding and on 2nd July 1698 he patented a design for the first engine "The Fire Engine" and it was this patent that led to the invention of The Newcomen Engine.
Although there were a number of detailed improvements in the Newcomen engine, there was no essential change to Savery’s design until James Watts developed the separate condenser and closed in the top of the cylinder in 1776. This was some 64 years after Newcomen's first success by which time over 600 engines had already been built in Britain.
In 1904, William Edward Savery an engineer and inventor and direct descendant of Thomas Savery set up a company in Tipton with his brother who designed and manufactured marine steam engines and boilers for use in canal barges, tugs and launches. The company moved to Bracebridge Street in Birmingham and in 1906 became a limited company known as T A Savery and Co. Limited.
It was this company that Mrs Sheppard owned and managed. T A Savery & Company is still an established engineering company, though it has changed hands. Thus although Mrs Sheppard was made of stern stuff, being able to run the family business, she also came from a very inventive and innovative family.
At the time of the observations, Mrs Sheppard was living with her daughter, Alison and her son, Julian in a house called Prior’s Court. Mrs Sheppard was visited by Dr Owens and Victor Sims [more details below] on 1st August 1966, with a view to finding out more about ‘the hauntings’ there and the experiences of the family.
The ghosts of Prior’s Court
The family had come to live at Prior's Court about ten years before the interviews, having purchased it from Earl Beauchamp. They told Owen and Sims that they found it “a very happy place to live in”. Owens noted that “this may be due in part to the active, practical and outward-looking temperaments of the family”.
The local villagers had, by the time Owens interviewed them, managed to concoct a whole range of stories about the goings on at Prior’s Court. One story said that a lady sheltering from a storm was murdered and her body disposed of in the Severn, which is only about 200 yards from the garden. Among the other stories current were that a ghostly coach and four was sometimes heard clattering up to the house in winter, which left no marks in the snow.
But there were some more unfortunate ghostly goings on which were not the result of vivid imagination. The wartime Home Guard, for example, initially used the house as their headquarters, but ‘preferred to move elsewhere when unexplained incidents’ were reported on night duty.
It appears that there were thus reasons why Mrs Sheppard allowed the two investigators in. Its reputation with the villagers made it difficult to find servants, and almost impossible to induce them to sleep in. Furthermore, it had started to dawn on Mrs Sheppard that a haunted house might be quite difficult to market if she needed to move and that she might have paid a bit over the odds for a property which might not be so easy to sell.
She told Owens and Sims that when she became interested in buying the house, it was in process of sale to Sir Gerald Nabarro, then M.P. for Kidderminster, who finally decided not to live there because of its alleged uncanniness. Mrs Sheppard dismissed this at the time as local superstition. Nabarro had in fact almost completed the purchase, being himself also indifferent to the alleged haunting, but in the event thought it best not to make it his home, “in case Lady Nabarro should find it too eerie during the times when I would be away at Westminster”.
When both her son and daughter experienced these eerie goings on at first hand, she decided that something had to be done.
The Malvern Hills are not far away
Prior’s Court, Callow End, a village between Upton-on-Severn and Worcester is these days an equestrian centre. The Riding Establishment was started in 1995 and has grown to being one of the largest yards in the area covering both teaching and livery. This has meant that a great number of new buildings have been erected and alterations to the landscape effected. This is the main reason we have no photograph of the house itself, as the current house appears to be nothing like its former self. Furthermore, the effects of climate change have made this area subject to flooding lower down the lane. This means that the house is no longer as it was when the observations were made and we believe that it was its position near an area of high telluric currents that made it special.
Telluric hot spot - The house is situated near the tiny hamlet of Pixham, somewhat out of Callow End. At the time that Jean Sheppard and her children lived in it, it had a beautiful garden with lawns and trim yew hedges and stood just above a meadow which sloped down to the river Severn.
A lane wound its way down to a ferry at Pixham, the same ferry by which Simon de Montfort crossed the river in 1265 on his way to his last battle at Evesham. Pixham Ferry crossed to Kempsey on the east bank. Here there was a small boat for passengers, and a long flat-bottomed barge for vehicles and animals. “In 1930, they charged threepence for a bicycle and a shilling for a motor vehicle, foot passengers paid two pence”. Despite the fact the lane to the house is still called Ferry Lane, operation ceased in 1947. A stream also ran along another boundary, making the house into a semi-island.
Dr Owen described the whole house as ‘extremely beautiful’ but noted that its most remarkable feature was the ground plan, as at the time it was built round a central unroofed courtyard entered from a lobby behind the ‘noble and imposing oaken front door’. In effect it was already a telluric hot spot, but it had a courtyard that would have served to concentrate the energy even more.
Sacred site - The Elizabethan-style timbered mansion takes its name from an earlier building which was a country residence belonging to the Priory of Malvern and built about 1200. In other words it was a religious sacred building. There is some speculation as to what it was used for, but one suggestion was that it was a place of retreat.
Mrs Sheppard told Owens and Sims that buried human bones had been dug up in the garden, and a search was still going on for a cellar or cells reputedly hidden in the grounds. It is possible that the cells were indeed used for retreat, but they might also have been used as sensory deprivation chambers and used to provoke the more extreme forms of spiritual experiences – rebirth being one, which if it goes wrong can indeed result in death.
At the dissolution of the monasteries Prior’s Court passed into private hands. It was burnt down and rebuilt in Tudor or Jacobean times.
Site of Fear and Violent deaths - It came into the possession of Colonel Sir Richard Lane, whose sister Jane Lane helped Charles II to escape from Cromwell after the disastrous battle of Worcester in 1652. It was also at Prior's Court that King Charles I found shelter after his defeat at Naseby. The tradition that Charles II lodged in hiding at Prior's Court is “unlikely to be true and doubtless arose by confusion with Charles I”. The family, as you can see were staunch Royalists and the young Charles II, disguised as the son of a tenant farmer, rode with Jane Lane from Bentley Hall, north of Worcester via Stratford-on-Avon and Cirencester down to Trent in Dorset.
A skeleton in "Royalist dress" (i.e. seventeenth century "cavalier" attire) was found up in one of the great chimneys in a room that later became Lady Monckton's bedroom when the house belonged to Sir Walter (later Lord) Monckton. “No historical record is available to explain the tragedy evidenced by these remains.”
Site used by Magicians - In the 1890s, Prior's Court was in the possession of Mr and Mrs Butt. It is said that they found, secreted in a hole in the rafters, a trunk or chest containing a book on black magic, a knife with an ivory handle and a bag of "spade" guineas.
The guinea was a coin of approximately one quarter ounce of gold that was minted in Great Britain between 1663 and 1814. The George III Spade Guinea formed the basis of gold coinage under King George III. Struck in 22 Carat Gold, it was the last guinea to be issued for general circulation and played a significant part in British Coinage History.
It is known as the 'Spade' Guinea because of the shovel shaped shield on the reverse. It was only minted for 12 years between 1787 and 1799, which makes it hugely popular with collectors given its relatively short lifespan compared to other gold coins of the era.
This find shows that – assuming the story is correct – that knowledge of the site’s special power had continued after the time of Catholic rule, but that the house was likely being used by magicians – or worse sorcerers.
Overall - Although the house had changed hands several times, at the time the observations were recorded, it remained a completely unspoilt and, indeed, almost unique example of Tudor or Jacobean domestic architecture, being modified “only by a few and elegant eighteenth century touches”.
If we thus summarise, Prior’s court at the time was a house probably situated at a telluric hot spot, a former sacred site that was desecrated, a place where some of the more extreme forms of spiritual experience were sought, a site where Royalists hiding in the house appeared to have died of unnatural causes, a house used for black magic and to cap it all, the place where Mr Sheppard had died.
A distant view of the house today
The observations come from the rather unfortunately titled Science and the Spook by George Owen and Victor Sims. Dr A R G Owen was a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and a Geneticist, Biologist and Mathematician, his scientific papers having been published in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society and also in Nature. But he was also very interested in phenomena which had not yet been explained by science - poltergeists, healing, and apparitions.
Hence the title of the book. In 1964, Dr Owen was awarded the Duke University prize for his ‘distinguished work’ in the field of scientific analysis of the ‘unexplained’.
Victor Sims is most notable for being [ironically] the ghost writer for people like Honor Blackman [the Avengers and the Bond films] but also Donald Hume the murderer, and he specialised in investigative reporting.
In the 1960s, Dr Owen, who was a member of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research), decided to undertake a detailed survey with Victor Sims of some of the cases that had come to light as a consequence of the work of the SPR. It was through a feature article about Alison in the Sunday Times Supplement that the SPR learned of the haunted reputation of Prior's Court. So Sims and Owen visited the Sheppard family at Prior’s Court to find out more.
Owens openly admitted he was not subject to spiritual experiences himself, but even he noted that Prior's Court was a building with ‘great potentiality for producing powerful impressions on visitors or residents, and generating "atmospheric" effects’.
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