Tackley History Mysteries No. 2
Was There a Second Roman Villa in Tackley?
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’
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
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