Honingham Hall – A Brief Background History:
The small village of Honingham, together with the site of its former Hall, is situated in the English county of Norfolk and located 8 miles to the west of Norwich, along the A47 trunk road. The Hall itself was originally commissioned by Sir Thomas Richardson, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1605. After passing down the Richardson family it was bought by Richard Baylie, President of St John’s College, Oxford, in about 1650 and was then acquired by William Townsend, Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth in about 1735, before passing down the Townsend family. In 1887 it was inherited by Ailwyn Fellowes, 1st Baron Ailwyn and in 1924 by Ronald Fellowes, 2nd Baron Ailwyn who sold it in 1935.
The Hall was then bought by Sir Eric Teichman, a diplomat who, at the age of 60 years, retired there. At some point during World War II he allowed a large section of the Hall to become a Barnardo’s home, retaining a substantial section of it for himself, his wife, their cook and a small retinue of staff. He must have anticipated a peaceful retirement but, ironically, after so many dangers and difficulties faced on his past travels, Sir Eric died in December 1944 from a bullet to the head. It was fired by an American soldier who was stationed at the nearby US Airforce base; he was caught, along with a fellow soldier, poaching on Sir Eric’s estate. Sir Eric was buried in the St Andrew’s Churchyard where his grave may still be seen. The house closed as a Barnardo’s home in December 1966 and was demolished shortly afterwards.
Sir Eric Teichman:
He, the victim of this unfortunate crime, had been a British diplomat and orientalist who was educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. At the time of his death, Sir Eric was serving as adviser to the British Embassy at Chungking.
Teichman had been described as “one of British diplomacy’s dashing characters”, flamboyantly enigmatic and explorer-cum-special agent some claimed; he had embarked on a number of “special missions” and “fact-finding journeys” throughout Central Asia, as early as before World War I. In 1943 he began on what would be his final foreign journey from Chongqing. After caravanning as far as Lanzhou, his truck continued along the outer Silk Road, across the Tarim basin, and over the Pamir Mountains to New Delhi. From there he flew back to England where, only a few days later he met his death.
The Perpetrators, Murder and its consequences :
It was on Sunday 3 December 1944 when Private George E. Smith, aged 28 years, of Pittsburgh and Private Leonard S. Wijpacha of Detroit, USA, took a pair of M-1 Carbines from the armoury on their base with the intention of ‘going hunting‘ as they would have described it. Hunting for what with such powerful rifles? The two soldiers were probably the last people on earth to have given this a thought as they set out. It was early afternoon as the two entered Sir Eric’s Teichman’s estate at Honingham and were to pass close by the house as they scanned the trees and undergrowth thereabouts fpr their prey.
It can only be imagined what Sir Eric Teichman was doing inside. Lunch was over and quiet would have descended on the big house. It was quite probable that he sat before a cosy fire, more than content with life. But all this certainly changed from the moment he heard the sound of shots outside. It is more than reasonable to suppose that this disturbance would have annoyed him and, being the sort of character he was, he would have gruffly risen from his armchair, mindful of going out to stop this “damned poaching.” As he left the Hall, he told his wife that he had heard some shots in the nearby wood and was going to investigate!
At the moment when Sir Eric was storming out of the Hall towards the sound of gunfire, Smith and Wijpacha were positioned behind two adjacent trees, taking pot shots at one particular squirrel which was jumping from branch to branch trying not to be the next casualty. The two poachers were almost facing each other when Smith noticed ‘this old man’ approaching from behind Wijpacha, calling out “Wait a minute… what are your names?” That was the moment when Smith shot Sir Eric through his right cheek, with the bullet exiting by way of the left shoulder-blade, shattering his jaw on the way through. If Sir Eric had been more upright, his height would have been nearer 6ft, but he was stooped at an angle of about 30 degrees as the result of an old injury caused long ago through a riding accident. Nevertheless, when he was shot, he fell on to one of his arms and seemingly died quickly through shock and a haemorrhage from the bullet wound. The next action of the two soldiers was telling – neither went over to the body but instead made a hasty departure back to base,
Being winter, night fell early and when Sir Eric had still not returned a worried Lady Ellen organised a search party to comb the grounds. It turned out to be a long search in the dark and quite late when they found the master, huddled in bracken some 300 yards from the house. Thereafter, events moved quickly, the police were called, the bullet extracted and confirmed as one fired from a .38 carbine; then the local American airfield was sealed off, and within a very short time Smith and Wijpacha were arrested. The swiftness of their arrest would not have been surprising when it was later revealed that Smith himself had been court-marshalled eight times previously; he must have been high on the list of suspects! He almost immediately confessed with the words “I shot him”, but then retracted this at his trial, arguing that it had been made under duress.
Both Smith and Wijpacha were subsequently court-martialled at USAAF Attlebridge, which commenced on 8 January 1945, and lasted five days due to the repeated hospitalisation of Smith. As part of the preparations for the trial, Smith had been subjected to an earlier psychiatric examination from Major Thomas March of the US Hospital at Wymondham College in Norfolk.
It was sometime close to 9 and 10 January 1945 when The Times newspaper reported on the arrests, Smith’s formal charge of the murder of Sir Eric Teichman and his ninth court-marshal! Amongst many other items of detail, the newspaper highlighted Smith’s statement in which it was revealed that he:
“was single and had joined the army in 1942; to date, he had been court-martialled eight times. With regard to the alleged shooting, Smith said that another soldier had asked him to go hunting through the woods. “Some of us had been drinking beer…. I drank about 15 coffee cups of beer; we saw a lot of blackbirds around and we shot some of them. We went up into the woods. I saw a squirrel, and fired one clip of 15 shots. One of us said ‘There’s an old man’. I think I saw him first and made that remark. I don’t remember the old man saying anything to me, nor do I remember saying anything to him. I raised my gun to my side, pointed it at the old man and fired one shot. I saw the man fall.”
By the 12 January 1945 The Times had again followed the story up with a report on Smith’s mental condition at the time, an examination which had been conducted by a Major L Alexander, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, attached to a United States Army hospital in England. Alexander said that Smith’s [mental] condition could not be successfully faked. In his opinion, [Smith] was suffering from:
“a constitutional psychopathic condition, emotional instability, and an explosive, primitive, sadistic aggressiveness…… His mental deficiency was border-line, and his mental age was about nine years…… His condition was a mentally defective homicidal degenerate…. and Smith acted almost on automatic impulse.”
The Times also reported, from within the report’s findings, a revealing set of statistics about the United States Army. In a reply to a question, Major Alexander said that:
“…….the average mental age of the Army in the last war [WWI] was 12 – That figure was artificial as it excluded Officers and N.C.O’s. The average age now [WW2] was between 13 and 14. The vast majority of enlisted men was in the 14 group.”
Major Alexander went on to say that Smith knew it was wrong to kill, and that:
“a psychopath such as he fell into the group which the law regarded as sane. In his opinion, Smith “should be removed from society” for the rest of his life! This apparently final remark was followed by a statement from a Dr John Vincent Morris, of the Little Plumstead Hall Institution, Norwich, a specialist in mental diseases. He said that Smith was an anti-social type, who deliberately refused to conform to army rules and orders……Smith showed no signs of emotion or regret about the shooting and spoke about it “as a man talked of killing a rabbit.” It was Dr Morris’s opinion that Smith fired the shot irrespective of consequences, because possibly “Sir Eric interfered with his [Smith] pleasure, and he acted under an uncontrollable impulse.”
The outcome was innevitable, Smith was convicted and received the ultimate death penalty; his companion, Private Wijpacha charged with being an accessory to murder, was not sentenced to death. It followed that Smith was imprisoned at Shepton Mallet Prison in Dorset to await execution. But why a British prison in the south of England?
Between mid-1942 and September 1945 part of Shepton Mallet Prison was taken over by the American government for use as a military prison and as the place of execution for American servicemen convicted under the provisions of the Visiting Forces Act (1942) which allowed for American Military justice to be enacted on British soil. It was staffed entirely by American military personnel during this period when a total of 18 American servicemen were executed at the prison – sixteen were hanged and two were shot by a firing squad. Of those executed, nine were convicted of murder, six of rape, and three of other crimes which carried the death penalty. To enable these executions to take place a new brick-built extension had been added to one of the prison’s wings; it was a structure that looked totally out of place against the weathered stone walls of the old prison building. Inside, a new British style gallows was installed on the first floor of the building and two cells within the main building converted into a condemned cell. Hangman Thomas William Pierrepoint conducted most of these executions, assisted by his nephew, Albert Pierrepoint.
It so happened that Private George Smith’s appeals against the death penalty were denied and he was hanged at within the ‘Execution Shed’ at Shepton Mallet Prison on 8 May 1945, (VE Day), despite requests for clemency, including one from Lady Teichman. It was Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris, who carried out this execution. It took 22 minutes of ‘suspension’ before Smith was pronounced dead.
(The former ‘execution shed’ at Shepton Mallet Prison where Private George Smith was hanged. Photos: Wikipedia.)
Afterwards, he was temporary buried at Brookwood American cemetery; that was until 1949 when his remains, along with every other WW2 executed American servicemen, was moved to Plot E in Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France; Smith’s grave is number 52 in row 3. At this point, a fuller explanation as to why executed American servicemen were buried in France is necessary.
Initially, the remains of American prisoners executed at Shepton Mallet were, as a matter of course, interred in unmarked graves at “Plot X” in Brookwood American Cemetery – also known as the London Necropolis. But in 1949 all eighteen bodies were exhumed. With the exception of the remains of David Cobb which were repatriated to his hometown, the remaining 17 were reburied in ‘Plot E’ at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in France – a private section intended for the “dishonoured dead”. The cemetery is home to the remains of 96 American military prisoners, all of whom were executed by hanging or firing squad. Significantly, no US flag is permitted to fly over the section of the cemetery where they lie, and those beneath the soil lie with their backs turned to the main cemetery on the other side of the road. Their final resting place has been described as a “house of shame” and a “perfect anti-memorial”.
As for Sir Eric Teichman, he was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church at Honingham; his grave being in the corner plot, directly in line with the now-demolished Honingham Hall. His widow, Lady Ellen Teichman, was buried in the same grave in 1969. The memorial there to the Teichman’s carries no mention to 3 December 1944 – or the murder!
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