The White House Farm Murders

In the early hours of 5th August, 1985, a horrible gunshot massacre took place at White House Farm in Essex. The killer apparently planned to despatch householders June and Nevill Bamber, and their six-year-old twin grandsons Nicholas and Daniel Caffell, asleep in their beds. As a precaution, the kitchen phone was left off the hook to disable the upstairs extensions and prevent calls for help. Then, using a ten-shot rifle fitted with a sound-moderator, (‘silencer’), a single close-range shot was fired into the head of each child. Both died without waking. The remaining eight rounds were emptied into their grandparents. Both initially survived, obliging the assailant to run downstairs to reload, pursued by a badly injured Nevill Bamber. While June, shocked and bleeding, struggled to reach the telephone on her husband’s bedside table, he was in the kitchen, fighting desperately for possession of the gun. Struck repeatedly with the barrel, he tripped and fell awkwardly by the Aga, where he was executed by four shots to the head. Rifle fully re-loaded, the murderer returned to the master bedroom and killed June Bamber with three shots to the head and neck, then pumped another six bullets into the twins. The rifle was subsequently found lying on the body of Sheila Caffell, the Bambers’ adopted daughter and mother of the boys, who had died from two shots to the throat.     

Local police were called to the scene by Sheila’s adoptive brother, Jeremy Bamber – according to whom Nevill had phoned around 3 am to say that she was ‘going mad with a gun.’ Officers arrived braced for an armed siege, only to find an apparent murder-suicide. The resulting investigation was biased towards supporting the senior officer’s unshakeable belief that Sheila Caffell was responsible – notwithstanding her unusual double wound, the absence of trace evidence/blood other than her own on her nightdress, the paucity of her fingerprints on the weapon, and complete lack thereof on the bullets. Opportunities were therefore missed to seek vital evidence, such as blood- and gunshot residue-spattered garments worn to commit the murders, or signs that she had ‘ritually cleansed’ herself after shooting her family. Furthermore, the question of whether it was physically possible for her wounds to have been self-inflicted was – and never could be – convincingly answered, because the bodies of Sheila and her parents were cremated soon after the inquest.  However, forensic evidence suggests otherwise, since the rifle had to be re-loaded again, and the sound-muffler removed, to inflict her second, fatal wound.

Today, matters would be handled very differently – partly as a result of the painful lessons learned by police after the debacle of White House Farm. Firearms involvement would mean an automatic presumption of homicide, and the victims’ bodies would be retained accordingly. A thorough search of the crime scene would reveal clues overlooked at the time, including the bloodstained sound-moderator put away in a downstairs cupboard, and Nevill’s bedside telephone hidden under a pile of papers in the kitchen. Ballistics, forensics and blood-spatter experts would minutely reconstruct the course of the shootings. Jeremy Bamber, as the last person to see his parents, sister and nephews alive, face-to-face, and having ample means, motive and opportunity, would be the prime suspect. His clothing and body would be examined for trace evidence and signs of injury from fighting with Nevill. His car, cottage, (where June’s bicycle was found), and the likely routes between his home and the farm, would all be searched; as would the home of his then girlfriend Julie Mugford, who might have told the full truth from the outset rather than risk being charged as an accessory. DNA analysis of the sound-muffler might conclusively show the presence of Sheila’s blood, thus (since it was not found with her body) proving that she was murdered. Conceivably, faced with such a strong prosecution case, Jeremy Bamber might have pleaded guilty (and would probably be time-served, rehabilitated and free by now); otherwise, the weight of evidence would likely have ensured a unanimous verdict from the jury, and provided better closure for the bereaved families and friends.  

As it was, a month later and following the break-up of their relationship, Julie Mugford cracked under the strain of a terrible secret. In a shocking statement to police, she revealed how her ex had discussed plans to kill his family, and had long known a way to enter and leave the apparently secure farmhouse. Her information, combined with additional physical evidence, led to further investigations by a new, more rigorous team and the subsequent arrest of Jeremy Bamber; tried and convicted of all five murders by a majority 10:2 verdict in 1986, he was duly sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bamber has stayed in the public eye ever since, protesting his innocence, backed by many supporters who believe he has suffered a gross miscarriage of justice. However, his defence has yet to supply any fresh concrete proof, relying instead on nit-picking irrelevances, (like the play of light on a window which caused a twitchy officer to briefly believe he’d seen movement – ‘evidence of life’ – inside the farmhouse), searching for legal loopholes, accusing the police of everything from incompetence (valid, up to a point) to corruption and evidence-tampering, and the prosecution witnesses of being mistaken, if not lying outright.

Most recently, the case came to renewed, wide public attention thanks to a major TV series, White House Farm, starring Freddie Fox as Jeremy Bamber. It fired my own interest to such an extent that I bought Carol Ann Lee’s book on the case to find out what had really happened, and whether the drama had portrayed events accurately (it had).

Having previously read One of Your Own, Lee’s biography of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, I was not disappointed by The Murders at White House Farm. Just as meticulously researched, scrupulously referenced, and narrated in the same lucid prose, it sets the scene with a prologue describing Colin Caffell’s ominous journey to take Sheila and their sons on what would be their last visit to his former parents-in-law. The main narrative then opens with a family history which goes some way to explain why either of the young Bambers could have been driven to murder: a troubled background of well-intentioned but inadequate parenting, emotional repression, recurrent mental illness, and excessive, controlling religiosity. On the face of it, Nevill and June should have been ideal parents. An attractive, intelligent couple, each had a distinguished war service record and devout Christian faith, and enjoyed a prosperous business, a comfortable home and a well-off middle-class lifestyle. But at the time of their marriage, post-war society was extremely conservative, with any deviation from the norm disapproved of, or even – like homosexuality – illegal. Divorce was frowned upon, as were pre- and extra-marital sex, and illegitimacy was considered so disgraceful that many single women were forced to procure illicit abortions or give up their babies for adoption. Even infertility was a stigma, with childless women the objects of pity, suspicion and scorn, and a pain deeply felt by June when the longed-for babies failed to arrive.

She received medical treatment for the resulting severe depression, which was in some ways exacerbated rather than cured by the adoption of two new-born babies. Although the children were desperately wanted and loved, the Bambers remained painfully conscious that they were not biological parents; and while they enjoyed relaxed, natural relationships with their nieces and nephews, (of which Sheila and Jeremy were deeply jealous), June remained insecure and awkward as a mother. Ever fearful of censure by the adoption agency, she may have raised her daughter and son literally by the book – the notorious Dr Spock method of strictly regimented routines – explaining Sheila’s early memories of being left to cry for hours in her pram in the garden, watched over only by the family dog. And ever anxious to give their children every possible advantage, she and Nevill packed them both off to boarding school at a relatively young age – another baffling rejection to compound the abandonment by their blood-parents. Predictably, both suffered; Jeremy was bullied by his schoolmates as ‘the bastard’ and by his cousins at home as ‘the cuckoo.’ The resulting low self-esteem arguably contributed to Jeremy’s psychopathy and Sheila’s mental breakdown, especially as June’s religiosity increased; dismayed by an increasingly permissive society, she was terrified of the male attention attracted by Sheila’s growing beauty, and applied every kind of pressure to control her daughter’s sexuality (and her son’s, to a lesser degree). Predictably, in their teens, both rebelled against parental strictures and expectations, and struggled to live their own lives – often with painful consequences all round, including an abortion for Sheila and problems thereafter with carrying a baby to term.

The second section examines the eight months from New Year 1985 to the night of the murders, by which time Sheila’s marriage to Colin Caffell had failed and her mental health become precarious, while Jeremy tried to reconcile himself to farm work and eventually succeeding Nevill in the family business. Meanwhile, finding Sheila’s mental state hard to handle, resenting the financial aid June gave to her and the Church, he began thinking, and talking to his girlfriend, about how he might become sole inheritor of the estate. Sheila’s arrival with her sons provided the opportunity he had planned and waited for, and the section closes with a description of the family’s final hours on the evening of 4th August: an argument, causing Nevill and June to sound tense and distracted when talking on the phone; and Jeremy roaring home in his car at 9.30 pm, then phoning Julie to tell her words to the effect, ‘It’s now or never’.

Part Three picks up with Jeremy’s report to police in the early hours of Wednesday 7th August. Allegedly woken by Nevill’s panicked phone-call, abruptly cut off, Bamber rang Julie Mugford at around 3.15 am before calling local police rather than dialling 999. He then drove so slowly that the police overtook him and arrived first at the scene. According to Jeremy, he’d been afraid of what he might find – thereby removing an automatic degree of suspicion, with police to witness that he did not enter the property, find the bodies or tamper with evidence.  Based on his story, the lead officer became so focussed on the murder-suicide scenario – despite peculiarities like the two shots needed to kill Sheila – that he failed to pursue the only other obvious line of enquiry. Luckily, others kept more open minds, working with relatives and uncovering further clues until Jeremy could be arrested and charged on all five counts of murder.

The fourth and final section, from 30th September 1985 to July 2015, covers the trial. Bamber’s defence maintained that Mugford, and other prosecution witnesses who gave evidence of Jeremy’s dislike of his family, were lying, and otherwise relied on some highly doubtful speculations: that Julie Mugford, while visiting White House Farm with Jeremy, had discovered for herself a faulty window which could be locked from the outside by banging the frame; that Sheila Caffell, (only known to have fired a gun once in her life), had developed a proficiency with the murder weapon to the extent of knowing how to fit the sound-moderator, clear a jammed cartridge, and reload repeatedly under stress; that despite the debilitating effects of her medication, she entered a homicidal frenzy so unstoppable that she could overcome the wounded Nevill Bamber in a physical fight, and execute her entire family by shooting them in the head; and finally shot herself not once, but twice, in order to take her own life. Defence witnesses were obliged to concede that none of these things were impossible, no matter how unlikely they seemed individually, or how ludicrously improbable when considered all together. The jury eventually reached a majority verdict of guilty, and the remainder of this short section gives an outline of the aftermath, Jeremy Bamber’s life in prison, and his ongoing campaign for release, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence as the only means of getting what he wanted from the start: family money.

The epilogue rounds off the story with a summary of what happened next to various people whose lives were deeply affected by the tragedy, including Julie Mugford and Colin Caffell (whose impassioned plea for Bamber to remain incarcerated appears as Appendix 2), while Appendix 1 gives the best reconstruction possible, based on all the evidence and expert opinion, of the murders as carried out by Jeremy Bamber.

What the book doesn’t – and has no reason to – do is examine the alternative scenario which Bamber and his defenders would have the world believe: that while her family were sleeping, a deranged Sheila Caffell rose in the small hours, stripped naked, (explaining the absence of high-velocity blood spatter or gunshot residue on her nightgown or any other clothing), went downstairs, loaded the rifle and fitted the sound-moderator – having first put on gloves, since none of her fingerprints were found on the cartridges, and none of her long nails were broken or unduly chipped. Leaving the kitchen phone off the hook, she then crept upstairs to remove her sons from June’s baleful interference, and save her parents from the misery she felt responsible for causing. After failing to kill the adults outright, she fled downstairs and was in the midst of re-loading when Nevill staggered into the kitchen. Shot twice in the mouth and jaw, he nonetheless managed to ring Jeremy, without getting blood on the phone, to say that she had ‘gone crazy’. With the gun partially re-loaded, Sheila (a slender 5’ 7”) then got into a violent fight with her father (a robust 6’ 4”), overturning furniture and taking a gouge out of the Aga surround as she beat him around head and shoulders with the gun-barrel – all without sustaining a single detectable injury herself.

After executing Nevill then fully re-loading, she cleared a jammed cartridge on her way back upstairs, finished off June, and fired six more ‘overkill’ shots into the bodies of Nicholas and Daniel. For some unaccountable reason she then hid Nevill’s bedside phone in the kitchen, ‘ritually cleansed’ and dried herself thoroughly, put her nightwear on, and returned to her parents’ bedroom. Lying on the floor with June’s Bible beside her, she shot herself in the throat with the last bullet. The clumsy shot was not immediately fatal. Sheila recovered, removed the moderator and put it away downstairs, loaded another bullet, returned to the master bedroom, shot herself again under the chin, and died.

It seems incredible that a woman sufficiently disturbed to murder her whole family could be, at the same time, so coldly calculating – and an amazingly good shot under high-stress conditions, hitting a target with all but one bullet. Jeremy Bamber, on the other hand, had learned to shoot at school and was a proficient, experienced marksman, familiar with/having access to a murder weapon purchased at his instigation; he stood to inherit an estate worth more than £1.5 million in today’s money; and knew how to get inside the locked and bolted farmhouse at a time when all the people standing between him and a fortune were together under its roof. He therefore had more cause to lie than any witness, could easily have provoked a family argument to cause tension on the eve of the murders, and fabricated ‘Nevill’s phone-call’ to add plausibility to his account and place the blame on Sheila.

His guilt seems inescapable when Lee’s book is read in conjunction with one of her primary sources, Colin Caffell’s moving memoir In Search of the Rainbow’s End. Like Lee’s book, this is divided into chronological sections, although Caffell’s boundaries are looser and his narrative flows back and forth in time between chapters. In Search opens with forewords from the two editions, (1994 and 2020), and a prologue summarising his early life, meeting and love affair with ‘Bambs’, and impressions of her parents. Part One then begins on 7th August 1984 with the immediate aftermath of the murders, and Caffell’s painful recollections of the last time he saw his ex-wife and sons: Sheila medicated and monosyllabic, vegetarian Daniel afraid of being scolded for not eating his meat, both twins anxious about being forced to kneel and pray – and both so desperate not to be left at White House Farm that they seem to have had premonitions of disaster. A second short section covering the lead-up to Bamber’s arrest describes Jeremy’s grossly inappropriate behaviour, sniggering over (then trying to sell to a tabloid) explicit nude photographs of his late sister, and stripping out the twins’ room in her flat/dumping the contents into bin-bags instead of offering their father the chance to carry out such a sensitive task. Caffell endured the further pain of seeing Sheila’s name dragged through the gutter press with wild and lurid speculation, then the sickening discovery that he had been deceived and bereaved by Jeremy, the brother-in-law who once callously referred to his beloved boys as ‘millstones round his neck.’ The third section continues the story of Colin’s life with and without Sheila, as he strove to come to terms with his overwhelming loss and gradually reached a place of spiritual calm and deep philosophical acceptance. Reserved, ladylike June Bamber emerges as a terrifying ‘house monster’ in a series of disturbing drawings – only described by Lee, but reproduced here – by Daniel Caffell, to illustrate a (sadly forgotten) story. The twins loved, but were also clearly frightened of their grandmother, disliked her preaching and forcing them to pray, and were upset by her distorted mind-set which perceived their naked bodies as ‘dirty’, and the innocent fun of their bathing together as ‘sinful.’ Colin Caffell’s observations flesh out his son’s portrait of a repressed, unhappy woman feverishly pursuing good works to the detriment of her family and health, to atone for her own sterility and the sins of her adopted children; furiously puritanical and beset by harsh concepts of sin and punishment; frequently cruel and manipulative towards Sheila; and unhealthily preoccupied, to the point of obsession, with controlling the sexuality of others while Nevill stood by, a hapless pig-in-the-middle. The toxic emotions Caffell experienced within this ostensibly ‘normal’ middle-class family make it easier to understand why White House Farm became the breeding-ground for a psychosis which resulted in such appalling tragedy. The last two brief sections tie up loose ends, and conclude on a positive note with Colin Caffell, having come through his traumatic ordeal as a stronger, wiser, more deeply enlightened and compassionate person, now happily remarried and established in Cornwall as a successful sculptor and ceramic artist.

Because Caffell writes from personal knowledge rather than objective journalism, his book fills in gaps and answers questions left by Lee. Two highly significant revelations are the reason for Nevill Bamber’s uncharacteristically low mood towards the end of his life, and why he began putting his affairs in order: he feared that Jeremy planned to kill him in a ‘hunting accident’, and may have been compiling a dossier of supporting evidence to present to police; and an anecdote from someone who saw Jeremy trying (and failing) to persuade Sheila to load the new rifle, presumably to get her fingerprints on the ammunition, a clear indication of pre-meditated, first-degree murder (subjects omitted from the trial as hearsay or too prejudicial). Subsequent spiritual revelations suggest that Nevill feared only for himself, not suspecting that other family members were also in danger of death; and whether or not one believes in communication with the spirit world, this is entirely consistent with Nevill’s reported actions and state of mind during his last months.

The combined effect of these two fine publications leaves me firmly convinced that Jeremy Bamber is guilty of the murders at White House Farm. I find it impossible to believe that Sheila Caffell was mentally or physically capable of doing half the extraordinary things she must have done in the murder-suicide scenario – and given the way it was staged, there is only one other viable suspect. However, I’m equally convinced that Bamber has suppressed the memory of his crimes to such an extent that he genuinely believes himself innocent – the comforting fantasy to which he must cling in the hope of release and recompense for thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. In this respect he is like Myra Hindley, unable to accept that the only path to rehabilitation and release is full confession, co-operation, demonstrable remorse, and efforts to atone; and I trust that as long as he persists in this futile denial, he will stay locked up where he belongs.   

REFERENCES:

Caffell, Colin, In Search of the Rainbow’s End, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020

Lee, Carol Ann, The Murders at White House Farm, Pan Books, 2020