ITV’s new factual drama White House Farm revolves around five murders that took place at an Essex farmhouse one night in August 1985, and the subsequent media storm and police blunders following the horrific killings.
Here’s everything you need know about the real-life events and true story behind the drama.
When were the White House Farm murders?
The White House Farm murders took place on the night of 6th-7th August 1985, when five members of the same family were gunned down inside a farmhouse in the quiet village Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Essex; Sheila Caffell (played in the drama by Cressida Bonas), her six-year-old twin sons, Daniel and Nicholas, and her adoptive parents, wealthy farmers Nevill and June Bamber.
It was Sheila’s adopted brother, Jeremy Bamber (played by Freddie Fox), who first called the police to the farm. Bamber, who lived a few miles from the farm, revealed that he had received a call from his frightened father on the night of the murders, during which Nevill supposedly told him to fetch help as Sheila (diagnosed with schizophrenia) had gone “beserk” and had in her possession a gun.
How did the police react to the White House Farm murders?
The police, and in particular the head investigating officer DCI Thomas ‘Taff’ Jones (played by Stephen Graham), initially believed that Sheila had killed her sons and parents before dying by suicide, with many crime scene details pointing towards that conclusion: the farm house was locked from the inside, while Sheila was found dead with her father’s semi-automatic rifle in her hands.
Because the police were so certain that Sheila had committed the murders, the initial investigation was botched: the crime scene wasn’t investigated thoroughly and errors were made; forensic evidence wasn’t collected or else it was destroyed (for example, bloodstained bedding was burnt), and the rifle wasn’t dusted for fingerprints until after an officer moved it without wearing gloves.
The tabloids also splashed the story across their front pages, sensationalising the events and focussing on Sheila’s former modelling career and on her mental health.
Speaking at the press screening of White House Farm, Colin Caffell, the real-life ex-husband of Sheila Caffell, revealed that the initial press coverage of the murders has long impacted the way Sheila is viewed.
“What I experienced after it all happened was, yes, everybody accepted that Jeremy was guilty. [But] they kept on saying to me, ‘But yes, Sheila was a drug addict wasn’t she?’, ‘She used to beat the children didn’t she?’ and I said ‘No that’s not true’,” he said.
“She was very heavily medicated for her psychosis and that would have affected everything. There’s no way she could have done any of the things they accused her of. But that idea stuck in the mind. And there’s the attitude that they read it in the newspapers so it must be true. Now it’s social media.”
When did the police suspect Jeremy Bamber?
But questions and discrepancies, followed up by dissenting police officer DS Stan Jones (Mark Addy), began to emerge. Several members of the extended Bamber refused to accept the police’s version of events, notably Ann Eaton (Jeremy’s cousin, played by Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan). Questions were asked about how a heavily medicated Sheila had managed overpower her six-foot-four father; how she repeatedly reload the rifle without chipping her nails; whether the silencer would have made the rifle too long for Sheila to shoot herself; or why the soles of her feet were clean when they should have been covered in blood.
Questions were also asked about Jeremy, then 24 years old, who acted strangely at the twin boys’ funeral, his behaviour veering between hysterical to smiling and joking around. He also began selling off his family’s possessions and booking holidays with friends.
Why did the police arrest Jeremy Bamber?
There were cumulative pieces of evidence against Bamber: a fingerprint of his found on the rifle, and a silencer found in the house with red paint and blood on it. If the silencer had been on the rifle at the time of the murders, forensic tests showed that it would have been too long for Sheila to kill herself.
However, the turning point was when his former girlfriend, Julie Mugford (Alexa Davies), changed her police statement and recounted how Jeremy had planned and executed the murders, revealing that he had previously spoken about his desire to “get rid of them all”. Bamber was arrested the next day.
Did Jeremy Bamber murder his family?
14 months after the initial crime, Sheila was vindicated and Jeremy Bamber was found guilty of the five murders, as the judge described him as “evil, almost beyond belief”.
He is currently serving life imprisonment with no possibility of parole at HM Prison Wakefield, but to this day Bamber maintains his innocence; he and his lawyers have made repeated attempts to have the case reviewed, and have appealed the conviction several times.
Was White House Farm demolished? Who owns it and does anyone live in it?
The Essex house and site of the 1985 murders wasn’t demolished, as one might expect – instead, it’s now the home of a classic car rental company.
The six-part drama White House Farm airs on ITV at 9pm on Wednesdays
If you’re interested in reading up on the real-life case Colin Caffell’s Inside the White House Farm Murders unpicks the true story.