On 4 November 1938 the West Bridgford Times and Echo, a Nottingham newspaper, carried an item about the diamond wedding celebrations of Mr and Mrs John George Shepherd. He came from a farming family near Spalding in Lincolnshire. In his early twenties he moved to Sheffield where he married and then founded a general drapery business. In his fifties he decided to return to farming, and rented a farm in Tackley. The article continues:
“While cultivating the land there, Mr Shepherd made a discovery of much historical interest, unearthing an old Roman settlement which contained a pond in which were found four small islands designed in the shape of the aces of diamonds, clubs, hearts and spades.”
Adverts in local Oxfordshire papers show that Mr Shepherd rented Court Farm from William Evetts from Michaelmas (29 September) 1909. He only stayed three years, selling his farm stock in September 1912, before going back to Sheffield and eventually living in Radcliffe-on-Trent.
What had he found, and where? There are several possibilities.
First, that this is a garbled reference to the Harborne fishponds with their geometrical shapes. Unlikely, since they were well-known, visible, and he could not have ‘unearthed’ them.
Second, that it is the description not of a pond but of a mosaic floor, whose geometric patterns could look like hearts, diamonds etc. If a couple of courses of stone wall surrounded it, a mosaic floor could certainly look like a pond. This would explain why he decided that the pond was Roman — how else would he have done so?
Third, that he had uncovered the Street Farm mosaics. Unlikely, since two of the three mosaics there were destroyed soon after the villa was abandoned; and the third that has partially survived does not show what could be designs of hearts, clubs, etc. In addition, the Street Farm villa was not on the land Mr Shepherd rented.
The fourth option is that it was a mosaic floor, but of a second villa. This is not impossible, since David Sanchez who directed the archaeological excavation of the Street Farm villa has often said he thought there was another large Roman building to the south or east — perhaps under the school, St John’s Road or the playing field and possibly connected to the bath house at the south-eastern corner of the site.
However, William Evetts – from whom Shepherd rented Court Farm – was an amateur archaeologist who had contacts with the Oxford archaeological community and had donated artefacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum. He and Shepherd knew each other socially; both were keen cricketers and were president and vice-president of Tackley Cricket Club. Evetts would surely have been told about such a discovery, but he has left no mention or memory of it. But, equally, if this was nothing more than a fanciful family story, why did the local paper mention it in a short article about a diamond wedding anniversary? That they did suggests that it was something important to Shepherd.
Research and text: John Perkins