On 22 November, 1940 Spitfire X4593 of 266 Squadron crashed near Holme Lode Farm, Holme in Cambridgeshire. At the controls for what was intended to be a routine training flight was Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh. During a battle climb to a high altitude with two other Spitfires, he was seen to break formation entering a dive from which unfortunately he failed to fully recover. Witnesses stated that his aircraft partially recovered at around 2000ft but immediately re-entered a dive and struck the ground vertically.
Pilot Officer Penketh was not able to use his parachute and was killed in the resulting crash. Although he was a new pilot with 266 Squadron, based nearby at Wittering, with only some 13 hours experience on Spitfires, his Station Commanding Officer stated that he could fly it quite well and was fully conversant with the oxygen system. It was assumed that his oxygen system was working as he had reached 28,000ft without any apparent problem. Investigation concluded that either a failure of the oxygen system or a physical failure had occurred.
Harold Penketh’s body was recovered from the wreck of his Spitfire and returned to his home town of Brighton where he had previously worked for the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation. His obituary in the staff magazine ended: “He was of a charming disposition and his loss was keenly felt by his family and those who knew him.” His name is recorded on a memorial at Brighton’s Woodvale Crematorium and Cemetery; he died aged only 20.
In 2016 the decision was taken to excavate Spitfire X4593. The dig was a collaboration between the Great Fen Project, Oxford Archaeology and Operation Nightingale. Personal items belonging to Mr Penketh, including his initialled cigarette case and watch, were found, along with some skeletal remains that had not been recovered in 1940.
The Plane: The Spitfire’s registration number was X4593; it was built at Eastleigh, Hants as a Mark 1A Spitfire with a Merlin III engine. The plane flew in the Battle of Britain and is credited with destroying at least one German plane, believed to be a Heinkel. It was a presentation Spitfire paid for/named by the Madras Mail (English language daily evening paper, published 1868-1981), the first in a trio of Mark 1s named by their readers. The plane was called ‘Kerala’ (after the SW Indian state) and allocated to 266 Squadron, a Rhodesian squadron. The other two planes were X4594 ANDHRADESA and X4595 TOMILAND.
No. 266 Squadron: Number 266 Squadron had been formed on 27 September 1918 from Nos 437 and 438 Flights at the seaplane station at Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos, for anti-submarine patrols over the Aegean. On 30 October 1939, the Squadron was reformed at Sutton Bridge Lincolnshire, intended to be a Blenheim squadron. None were received and after training with Battles, it began to receive Spitfires in January 1940. The Squadron became a Rhodesian fighter squadron within Fighter Command and went on to establish a fine reputation in the skies over Western Europe. The squadron moved to Martlesham Heath near Ipswich in March 1940, then to Wittering in May 1940, having been re-equipped with Spitfires. These planes went into action for the first time on 2 June over Dunkirk, and flew coastal patrols and convoy escorts until fighting in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940. During August they were based in south-east England and then returned to Wittering. Sqn 266 began an intensive operational training programme in September for the many new pilots, when patrols over the Thames Estuary permitted. The Squadron’s crest has a motto: Hlabezulu, meaning ‘The stabber of the sky’.
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The Norfolk writer, Bruce Robinson, died in 2016 at the age of 80 years. His wife, Cynthia, said in his obituary – published in The Guardian newspaper, on 14 July 2016 and modified on 28 November 2017 – that he was:
“Quietly spoken, unassuming, browns and beige on the outside but inside seething with ideas that tumbled over each other to reach the daylight; my husband, was a born writer; someone for whom the honing of a chapter was as natural as the squeezing of oranges he juiced each day for breakfast.”
Notable, after his retirement in 1993 Bruce Robinson wrote mainly for pleasure; focusing on local history, novels with a Norfolk connection, plus miscellanies. Included amongst these was his ‘flongster blogspot’, from which the following two extracts about the late James Stewart, famous film-actor, were taken – Enjoy!:
James Stewart’s visit to Tibenham in 1975:
“…….In early June, 1975, I took a phone call from a [Tibenham] gliding club member who told me that film star James Stewart was planning a private visit to the base – a members’ only job, apparently; very hush-hush; no fans; no Press! But if I didn’t let on how I knew, kept in the background, and didn’t wave a notebook about, then I might be able to pass muster as a club member.
However, Stewart’s visit was not a total surprise because during the Second World War he had been based at Tibenham (and elsewhere), from where he flew 20 bomber missions. He was a genuine war hero, and now, thirty years and many films later, he was appearing in the stage play ‘Harvey’ in London, and was simply taking advantage of a day off. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he had also planned to do a photoshoot with Terry Fincher for the Daily Express.
On the day in question I did my best to melt into the background and became a quiet bystander as James toured the base and the ruined control tower, and gazed at the runway. He clearly found it all very affecting. When they offered him a towed glider flight to RAF Coltishall and back, he jumped at the chance, and happily squeezed his lanky frame into the tiny cockpit. While he was away ….. I withdrew for a pub lunch.
Back at Tibenham again, Mr Stewart was ushered into the clubroom for sandwiches and coffee, where he looked at more memorabilia and chatted freely with everyone. Every so often his gentle drawl, ‘ahhh, well,’ and ‘kinda’ and ‘sorta’ could be heard across the crowded room. Relaxed and affable, he was in his element.
I was sitting in a corner munching sandwiches when Stewart’s agent came across. ‘He knows who you are,’ he said. ‘He knows you’re a local journalist.’ I envisaged a firing squad. ‘Would you like to meet him?’ Yes, please!
Then James Stewart came across and sat down beside me, balancing a cup and saucer on his knee, and we talked for ten minutes. Deliberately, I ignored my notebook and later on had to struggle to remember some of the quotes. But in a way I was glad. It was not an interview, it was a neighbourly chat, freely offered and entered into.
James Stewart was like that. Aimable, interested, and at ease. He talked about Tibenham and how tough he had found it to remember his way around the base. ‘The only thing I can really orientate on is the control tower,’ he said. He talked about his glider flight, and I asked if he had taken the controls. ‘Sure I flew it. Sure I did.’ And then he talked about Norfolk and Norwich and how he hoped one day to visit the city’s American Memorial Library. Then his agent came back, and Stewart rose, shook hands, and wandered back towards the sandwiches.
An Aside: In 2012, a Tibenham housing development was opened, and named “Stewart Close” in memory of James Stewart and his links with the village.
James Stewart visits Norwich and the Norwood Rooms:
“Having revisited his War-time Norfolk air base at Tibenham in 1975, Hollywood film star James Stewart kept his word and joined in with two or three of the subsequent 2nd Air Division reunions. But he did not come back to England as a visiting ‘celeb,’ but as an ordinary ex-flyer, one of the boys. He stayed with his mates in the same hotels, travelled with them by coach as they did the rounds of once-familiar locations, and remained as anonymous as possible within the group. They all liked him for that.
One of his more formal appearances was on the day he and his group went to see the former American Memorial Library – later severely damaged by fire, and replaced by a new Memorial tribute in the Forum – which at the time was housed at the old City library. Here he did pose for photographs, and behaved as a visiting dignitary would in a public role.
I have no doubt, however, that he had his ‘anonymous’ role firmly in mind when he and his colleagues, on another of their four-yearly visits, went to the former Norwood Rooms in Aylsham Road, Norwich – a popular dancing and dining venue at the time – for a veterans’ banquet. My wife and I were also invited, and we saw what happened.
First, he did not sit with the brass and bigwigs on the top table. He stayed at his table on the floor of the hall surrounded by his pals. And second, he was a very reluctant speaker.
When he was finally persuaded to clamber on to the band platform to say a few words, he thanked everyone, including the people of Norfolk, for the welcome they gave the Americans during the War, and he told the story of the powdered eggs. Apparently powdered eggs were the staple breakfast diet in the officers’ mess at Tibenham, and Stewart became heartily sick of them. On other days, however, they were fed fresh farm eggs straight from a local farm. Unfortunately, those were the days on which a bombing mission was scheduled. So that was how they knew what was happening. Dried eggs, and they had their feet on the ground a little longer. Fresh eggs, and it was bombs away!
Later the same evening there occurred one of those rare, unrehearsed and unexpected events that invariably stick in the memory. The band was playing some Glenn Miller favourites, which got the veterans whistling and cheering. It was particularly apt because the film, The Glenn Miller Story, starring Stewart as Miller, was still doing the rounds. The band leader beckoned to Stewart and invited him to take over the conducting role. Stewart shook his head. Then the audience started clapping and shouting, and he reluctantly clambered back on to the stage and led the band through an admittedly slowish version of Moonlight Serenade. It brought the house down.
Some years’ later, our local morning newspaper began a scheme promoting plaques to be fixed to buildings where famous people had appeared. Most of those erected, it seemed to me, related to 1960s and 1970s pop groups. There was nothing to remind passers-by, for example, that Count Basie and his band once appeared at the old Samson & Hercules dance hall in Tombland, Norwich. Or that at the old Norwood Rooms a famous Hollywood film star once clambered on to the stage, borrowed the resident band, and reprised a tiny piece of one of his best-known film roles.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
Walkers on Sheringham’s west end clifftop footpath, which leads up to the Coastguard Hut, may not know that this is an area of the cliffs which, during the Second World War was honeycombed with tunnels and heavily defended. What they may also not know is that this elevated position also overlooks the place where, in the early hours of 6 December, 1939, three enemy airmen lost their lives.
This War-time drama occurred during a night of hail and rain and brisk winds. Residents close to the seafront were awakened by the sound of an aircraft, flying very low and with engines spluttering, which went on to crash in the sea on the east side of the Lifeboat Shed. Despite an initial fear that ‘Jerries might be running around in the dark,’ people poured out of their houses in the pitch dark, and the lifeboat crew was ‘knocked up’ to launch the lifeboat into a heavy swell to search for survivors.
Ashore, flickering lights and torches picked out a parachute which was draped over the promenade, near the Whelk Copper. About 50 yards from high-water mark was the equally ominous sight of a swastika-adorned plane rolling in the sea. Despite the wind, hail, rain, topped with the stink of aviation fuel, some men bystanders waded into the sea with ropes and managed to secure the wreckage to the breakwater, to prevent from being driven away.
It was left for daylight to not only bring further detail, but also a flood of military guards, officials and aviation experts. They identified the aircraft as a Twin-Engine Heinkel HE 115 Float Plane, which may have been laying magnetic mines – who knows? Apparently, the story went round that the aircraft had been ‘downed’ by one of our ‘secret weapons’; subsequent opinion suggested that it had possibly clipped one of the Chain Home Radar Towers at West Beckham. The Press at the time sensationalised (what’s new!) the news with headlines such as “Nazi Plane Crashes into the Sea”. It was said that the Heinkel also boasted self-sealing fuel tanks, a system which would have been of interest to the on-the-spot officials who were poking around the wreck; but also of great interest to British boffins back at base who were working on their own version. Eventually, of course, the wreckage was cleared away, though one of the engines is said to be still there – lying in about 20 feet of water.
But what of the German crew of three? The body of the pilot was discovered immediately and subsequently buried, with military honours, at Bircham. The other two bodies were washed ashore several days later. They too were given military funerals, this time at Sheringham’s Weybourne Road cemetery. After the War, they were said to have been exhumed and re-buried in the German cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffs.
It is an odd fact that if the Heinkel had come down at low water, it might well have been recorded as the first German plane of World War Two to have crashed on British soil.
Footnote: RAF West Beckham, which had close links with the local fighter station RAF Matlask, was opened in 1938 and comprised a transmitter and receiver site, a generator site and underground reserves. It reported to the filter room at RAF Watnall which was the HQ to No. 12 Group RAF, and the station was originally parented to RAF Bircham Newton, followed later by RAF Wittering and finally RAF Coltishall.
The radar site was located at Bodham Hill and was known as A Site. During World War II the station was commanded by the famous dance band leader Marius B. Winter and because of his background the soldiers based at the camp were said to have been ‘very well entertained’. The Site closed in 1956.
There were also two other separate camps: B Site, near Baconsthorpe, provided accommodation for the WAAFs and airmen from 1939 to 1946. It was also known as “The Marlpit Camp”, due to its close proximity to a disused marl pit – which is now a fishing lake. The camp was closed down in 1958.
C Site was home to the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1940 and in 1941 was used by the Military Police, followed by an RAF regiment from 1942 until 1945. After the war the site went into care and maintenance. Today the station is privately owned and many of the buildings are still in existence.
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!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
Nearly four centuries separate the desecration, or violent disrespect, of two churches that once stood along Ber Street, in Norwich – namely the church of St Michael-at-Thorn and the church of St Batholomew. Read on:
Norwich’s ‘Berstrete’ was named after the Anglo-Saxon road which was the Northern Conesford sub-leet’s backbone. It ran along a ridge above a long slope which ran down to the river on the western side of the ridge; below, the Great Cockey ran through a natural valley. In time, the road became Ber Street, placing itself between present-day Queens Road and King Street. Ber Street formed one of two major routes into Norwich that ran through the Conesford area; the second was the Royal Conesford Way – the present-day King Street. Today, Ber Street is a fragmented mix of historical buildings and post-war WW2 industrial buildings; the result of a 1950/60’s slum clearance scheme which followed extensive war bomb damage.
Back in the Middle Ages, Norwich and Bristol were judged to be second to London in size. Consequently, Norwich still had 36 parish churches in its city centre when the Reformation took place; a couple were quickly demolished, but most lingered on into the 21st century. Over the centuries, the function of some parishes fell into disuse, but a surprising number were still parish churches of the Church of England within the minds of many Norwich people.
Any mention of Ber Street would be incomplete without mention of its medieval Gate, one of a series of gates that, together with an almost continuous wall, surrounded the city. Early references to Ber Street Gate, which was built on a corner of the city wall which runs southeast and southwest from the gate, are contained in documents from the reign of Henry III in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The gate itself was demolished in 1808 but the street remained busy and densely populated and was known locally as “Blood and Guts Street”, due to its many slaughterhouses and butcher shops; also, because cattle were driven down the road into the city.
1. The church of St Michael-at-Thorn:
St Michael at Thorn was once the most central of Norwich churches but was lost in the World-War-Two blitz of January 1942. When it did exist, it stood about 200 metres south of St John Timberhill at the edge of the Ber St ridge, and overlooking the Wensum valley. Next to the church, on its south side, Thorn Lane led steeply downhill into King Street, but since the area was redeveloped in the early 1960s it now terminates at Rouen Rd. From the 1840s onwards the whole area between Ber Street and King Street was densely populated and consisted of many yards and courts leading off from Ber Street. This whole area was known locally as the ‘Village on the Hill’ and the three roads of Mariners Lane, Horns Lane and Thorn Lane, led into the district. It became the settlement for a small Italian community.
St Michael at Thorn was described by Ian Hannah as being only ‘partly built in 1430 but largely modern’. Completed, it consisted of a square west tower, nave with north aisle, a south porch, and a chancel. The original tower collapsed in 1886 and was rebuilt the following year. Sillett’s ‘Norwich Churches’, published in 1828, showed that the style of the Victorian work followed very closely to that of the old.
The historian Francis Blomefield, writing of St Michael at Thorn, said that it: “was anciently a Rectory appendant to the Castle, until the Conqueror gave it to FitzWalter along with St Martin at the Bale.” The church of St Martins, also known as St Martin-in-Balliva, once stood on a triangular piece of ground close by the entrance to Golden Ball Street – near to, what once was, the principal entrance to the barbican of the Castle. The apparent strange title of this church stemmed from it having been built within the bailey, which once was the outer courtyard of the castle. St Martins church was demolished in 1562 when the parish was united to that of St Michael at Thorn; and in the latter’s church registers, which date from that year, are records of burials of many of the criminals who were executed on the Castle hill. In 1926 a chapel in St Michael’s was dedicated to the patron saint of the Bale to perpetuate this association with St Martin’s.
With regard to the dedication – or rather the “surname” – of St Michael’s church, Blomefield mentions that it is:
“called in antient evidences, St Michael in Ber Street, and ad Spinas or at the Thorns, and even to this day, a very large Thorn remains growing in the Churchyard. I find it also in the most ancient Deeds called St Michael Super Montem, or St Miles on the Hill from its situation”.
Prior to the church tower collapsing in 1886, it contained only one bell; but John L’Estrange noted in 1874 that: “There were three bells here until about 1838, when the two largest were sold, to help to build a hideous north aisle, recently replaced by a much comelier structure. They are now the ‘first’ and ‘second’ bells at Bale, near Holt”. [making up a ring of 4 bells there, the oldest of which was cast c. 1440. This is the ‘second’ bell from St Michaels, and bears the inscription ‘Nobis Succurre Michael Raphael Gabriel Quaesumus’, – ‘Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, help us’. On the ‘first’ bell from St Michael’s is the inscription “Pack and Chapman of London Fecit 1777. John Spratt and Henry Warns Ch. Wardens.]”
The main entrance to St Michael’s was through the porch and south doorway; the latter was Norman probably the oldest remaining part of the building. Following its survival of the WW2 blitz, the doorway was dismantled and re-erected in St Julian’s church nearby, forming the inner doorway to Mother Julian’s cell.
When the doorway was ‘in situ’ at the former St Michaels, it was described as having a shaft on either side supporting a round-headed arch with cable and zig-zag ornaments, with one of the billets of an outer moulding carved into a queer little animal; then, according to White’s Norfolk directory of 1833, the door was then still in possession of its ancient ironwork. As for interior fittings, only an ancient octagonal font with shields survived the centuries. All the Victorian reconstruction woodwork was modern, including a fine roodscreen surmounted with a St Michael’s cross.
The bombs that fell in that January of 1942 left only the tower of St Michael’s standing, but removing a section of the parapet and the spirelets; the church itself was gutted, leaving only the eastern gable and the other walls at a lower level. Up to the day the church was lost, thorn trees grew in the churchyard, though perhaps not the same ones to which Blomefield referred. It was said that by the time the war ended, the thorn bushes that gave the graveyard its character and the church its name had quickly regrown through the rubble. The name of Thorn Lane is comparatively modern, for two centuries previously it was known as Sandgate, and it is a matter of speculation whether or not it was named after the nature of the soil there; in time the Lane was probably named after the thorns then flourishing in the neighbouring St Michael’s.
In the 1950’s, with redevelopment plans well formulated in the minds of the authorities, there was no way that St Michael was going to be rebuilt – or its tower kept as a landmark. St Michael’s was too close to other working churches to be needed, and was set in an area earmarked for industrial and commercial building. As things turned out, the site was completely erased with the church ruins, tower and thorn trees completely removed for the laying out of a car park for Archant House, the Eastern Daily Press building.
Simon Knott said in 2005: “It gives an idea of the ferocity of the blitz, as well as of the completeness of post-war Norwich planning, when I tell you that the two images below were taken from exactly the same spot. Robert Ladbrooke made his leisurely sketch in the 1820s. Some 180 years later, I risked my life and limbs to stand in the middle of Ber Street to take the same view of the site as it is today. I am obviously closer in time to the destruction of St Michael at Thorn than Mr Ladbrooke, but not a single building in this modern view, apart from perhaps those on the far horizon, was here when the church was”.
The Church of St Bartholomew: Southern Conesford was the long, straggly suburb to the south of Northern Conesford and the Norwich medieval city within the walls, but with an independent life of its own. The two Conesford sub-leets were amalgamated by mid-14th century, the likely result of a reduced population (and therefore the number of tithings) in the area. Subsequently, large areas of land were acquired by the Augustinians and Franciscans for their friary precincts. Conesford, as a whole, had nine medieval parish churches, as well as several monasteries, and was home to important merchants – the Pastons’ Norwich house was in Conesford, down on the the ‘Royal Conesford Way’ (King Street), the main road to London. Parallel to it, but high on the ridge to the west, sat Ber Street, leading out of the city centre to the Berstrete Gate in the city walls.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, this part of Norwich became home to warehouses and factories, a slum area of workshops and back-to-back terraces. As if in anticipation of this future development, St Bartholomew was desecrated in 1549 and abandoned; its two bells transferred to St John de Sepulchre – situated at the junction of Ber Street and Finkelgate. St Bartholomew itself once sat barely 100 metres south of St Michael at Thorn, its advowson belonging to the prior of Wymondham.
The church was to be used as a factory; then gradually, other buildings were built on to it, until almost nothing at all of the medieval exterior showed, and few would have ever known that the former church was there. All that was visible was part of the south wall of the nave. It was about this time when George Plunkett sketched, in his own hand, Claude Messent’s plan of the building as it was in 1931. Nineteenth-century houses had been built into the west end; the nave and chancel were part of Snellings factory, and against the north wall was a slaughterhouse.
George Plunkett’s fascination with Norwich churches led him to be ‘on the spot’ when the Norwich City Corporation began to clear the site in the summer of 1939. They really need not have bothered – and would have saved some money had they known that, two or three years later, the Luftwaffe would have done the job for them. As it was, the ramshackle lean-to buildings were torn away by the Corporation and the heart of a medieval church revealed – the blocked-up chancel arch, the Tudor arched interior window splays, and a brick south doorway. But now everything has gone and all that survived from the clearance is the rump of the tower which sits beside the Ber Street pavement. Unlike St Michael at Thorn, it was not a victim of war time bombing. Today, modern sheltered housing occupies the area where the St Bartholomew, the factory and the slaughterhouse once stood.
(The remains of St Bartholomew’s Church).
A few yards south along Ber Street from the site of St Michaels at Thorn a portion of St Bartholomew’s 15th century church tower still stands, its flint, brick and some stone dressings preserved among a block of new dwellings. To think that it was only brought to light in the 1930’s; in a sense, its preservation offers slight compensation for the total loss and disapperance of St Michael’s.
Finally, Simon Knott again adds: “St Bartholomew should not be confused with Norwich’s other medieval church of the same name. The other one was the parish church for Heigham, the area to the west of Pottergate and St Benedict, and is also a ruin today – but unlike the long-suffering St Bartholomew of Ber Street, the Heigham church really was gutted in the blitz”.
Had World War Two not happened then we may never have heard of him. But it did happen and for a short while his name hit the headlines thanks to the investigative skills of the local newspapers. The local press built a story on the unselfish nature, courage and deeds of this lad and the award that he sunsequently received from a King.
The lad’s name was John Grix, was born in 1927 and living with his parents at 79 City Road, Norwich at the time of the conflict. As an aside, his grandfather was William Grix who once ran a restaurant in the city. John was one of five children and when of age attended St Mark’s Senior Boys School on Hall Road in Lakenham. This was a 19th century-built school, erected in 1897 at a cost of £3,000; its main benefactor and instigator at the time was the Vicar of St Marks, the Reverend Prior Whalley. The Reverend was said to have contributed £1,000 of his own money to the building fund and also provided the entire cost of the school furnishings, estimated to have been £130. He apparently died a poor man but helped establish a school where the ethos prepared many of its pupils who later went on to fight in the First World War of 1914-18; plaques dedicated to some of them in the local church bear witness. Amongst those heroes, and with his own memorial in the city centre, was a Sidney Day who won the Victorious Cross.
From St Mark’s, John Grix moved on to the Technical School, whilst also a chorister at St Peter Mancroft Church and a scout leader attached to that church. Additionally, he applied to join the Civil Defence Messenger Service (SDMS), operational because of the War. John’s application in this respect may well have come about because, during World War II, Boy Scouts in Britain were called upon to serve as volunteers in civil defence. It was believed at the time that Scouts, due to their training and qualifications, would be ideal, stressing that during an emergency, means of communications could be disrupted and that written messages might be the only means of communication.
It has been said that the boys in the Civil Defence Messenger Service never received the credit that they undoubtedly deserved, at a time when they risked their young lives, racing across the city and suburbs on their cycles, past burning buildings and falling masonry to deliver vital messages. These riders had to operate with two-wheeled machines which often had to function with flat tyres, caused by strewn glass and debris; as bombs rained down, such riders were regularly thrown off. Those on the front line, such as the firemen and police officers who fought to put the fires and control the civil population, often relied and acted upon the vital information which was delivered to them by the members of the messenger service.
Then there was the feeling that no-one would ever know the exact number of lives the CDMS helped save during the Baedeker raids of April 1942, but it was established that more than 200 men, women and children died over two nights in that April and that many more lost their homes. As the movement grew, women also played their part, motor-cycles arrived and its headquarters were relocated at Chapel Field East. In total, there was said to be around 200 boys and 30 girls who were members of the Civil Defence Messenger Service in Norwich. It was an organisation where officialdom had decreed that the lads so employed must be aged between 16 and 18; but, for the quiet and modest John Grix, clearly keen to join and ‘do his bit’, he quickly invented another birthday which placed him in the 16-year-old bracket – he was readily accepted!
Pamela Brooks wrote in her book ‘Heroes, Villains and Victims of Norwich’ about John Grix:
“His actions in Norwich during the Blitz were incredibly brave, particularly as he had fibbed about his age so that he could become a member of the Civil Defence; he was only 15 at the time. As a member, as the air-raid sirens sounded and people took cover, Grix rode off on his bicycle to the report centre to await orders. He took messages to the firemen, even though the incendiary bombs were falling around him. On one occasion he was passing a factory when acid was sprayed from the windows and burned his hands; he didn’t tell anyone he was hurt and continued taking messages instead. And, he didn’t stop when the air raid was over; he helped rescuers among the ruins. He slept overnight at the report centre and was out again on the second night of the raid – he kept taking messages, even though he was blown off his bike five times.”
Whether one should believe that it was the local newspaper which told John Grix that he was in line to receive an award, or whether it was by way of a formal letter telling him that he was going to received the British Empire Medal (BEM), is not important. What was important was the fact that by being told by the Regional Commissioner, Will Spens, that he, John Grix, had acted ‘with courage and determination’ the way was being cleared for King George VI, during his surprise visit to Norwich in October 1942 when he referred to the feeling that ‘all these messengers should be remembered and applauded’. In particular, he spoke to John Grix and added his own congratulations, plus the comment “I understand you are only 15”. The wool had not been pulled over the eyes of the authorities!
John Grix could not serve his country in the armed services for several reasons, they included his true age, the injuries he received while serving in the CDMS, plus the unfortunate circumstances of losing one of his lungs. Instead, he went on to work at Laurence Scott & Electromotors for most of his remaining life, interrupted only by a period when he and his brother ran the Lings hardware shop in White Lion Street of the city. He married, and with his wife had two sons, Stephen and Ian. John Grix died in 1990 at the age of just 63 years.
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When well-known Devon writer Henry Williamson (already famous for Tarka the Otter) announced in 1936 that he had bought a farm on the north coast of Norfolk and intended to farm it himself, the universal response was:
‘Don’t do it. Don’t take up farming, old chap. Farming is dead.’
Farming was in deep depression: and although that meant land was supposedly cheap Henry had no capital to draw on – everyone thought he was crazy! The farm he actually bought, Old Hall Farm in the coastal village of Stiffkey, was even more rundown than most and the current farmer, Mr Stratton (whom HW aptly called ’Sidney Strawless’ in subsequent books), was declared bankrupt before the sale was finalised. The over-riding impression is that the only crop grown there was thistles.
Henry had no experience of farming although he claimed farming ancestry. So why did he take this rather perverse step? He tended to say that he had written himself out of Devon, its animals, its characters, its countryside, and needed a new stimulus, and with twenty-one books on the area already published, this was no doubt to some extent true but it was not the full reason. Immediately after Christmas 1935 Henry drove up to London in his Alvis Silver Eagle sports car and went to see his publisher and great friend, Richard (Dick) de la Mare, son of the writer and poet Walter de la Mare. Henry was in a state of considerable turmoil. Dick invited him to spend the New Year with him and his wife at their home in East Runton on the North Norfolk coast.
It is obvious that Henry unburdened his troubled thoughts to his friends into the small hours. It tends to be taken for granted that this turmoil was about problems with a girlfriend. (Although married and with a family, Henry constantly fell for a succession of admiring young women.) But Dick’s suggestion that he should take up farming to solve things seems a little radical for the failure of a current love affair.
Henry had recently returned from a visit to Germany at the invitation of another close friend, John Heygate (heir to a baronetcy and an estate in Ireland), who worked for the German film company UFA. Heygate was far more involved with German politics than was apparent and he arranged with the authorities that Henry should be shown the best of the current achievements: the new autobahn roads, the fast Auto-Union cars, the ‘happy spirit’ of the extensive youth movement, and topping the list, tickets for that year’s Rally at Nürnberg, staged to impress and awe those present.
Henry was indeed impressed. Everything he was shown was efficient and prosperous. He actually had German ancestry through his paternal grandmother. But mainly he had fought throughout the 1914-18 war. His traumatic experiences, and his deep sympathy for soldiers of both sides, made him resolve to do all he could to prevent war ever happening again. He was convinced that Hitler – also an old soldier from the Great War – must surely think the same and so would never start another conflict. But despite that apparent naivety, he was also astute. A staunch patriot, he would have been aware that all was not as it should have been: that possibly the threat of war underlay the panoply. That was what was troubling him and surely what the two men discussed into the small hours. And that makes sense of Dick de la Mare’s suggestion to take up farming. It was an honourable occupation, and one that would be very necessary if war should break out. Henry would be doing his bit for his country. It would also be a haven for his family, especially his eldest son, as farming would be a ‘reserved occupation’ in time of war. Henry had seen far too many of the fine youth of Britain fall in battle.
The very next day they went to look at a nearby farm for sale – Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey. At first hesitant, a second viewing convinced Henry and he returned to Devon to put the project to his wife. The decision was made and a provisional agreement was signed on 6 March 1936. Henry then set about preparing himself for the new venture, reading books and magazines, The Farmer and Stockbreeder being prominent. Knowing he would need help he asked his brother-in-law, Robin Hibbert, who with his brothers had emigrated to Australia not long before, to return to this country and help manage the farm. Robin (‘Sam’ in The Story of a Norfolk Farm) duly arrived in December.
The legal side was far more complicated and frustrating than Henry had envisaged: valuations, dilapidations, tithes, schedules, and taxes all had to be dealt with. Meetings with the various officials went on for several months. However, the Deed of Conveyance and Mortgage was duly signed in mid-August 1936. The cost of 240 acres of farm land and its cottages (Walnut Tree Cottages) was £2,240, way beyond Henry’s means, but his wife Loetitia had recently inherited a little money on the death of her father, and this was used for the initial payments. He intended to subsidise the farm with earnings from writing articles and books, but this was to mean using a tremendous amount of energy and long hours, physical and mental, in meeting the deadlines of both demands.
Henry had only bought the land (not liking the huge Elizabethan manor house, Stiffkey Old Hall, which went with it – which was then sold separately) and, as the farm cottages were occupied, he needed somewhere to live with his family. On a visit in early December 1936 he found that three condemned cottages were for sale in the village, which he bought for £190, planning to do them up for the family home. These ‘Chapel Yard Cottages’ (called ‘Bugg Cottages’ after the previous owner) became Fox, Owl, and South Cottages (today these cottages are very expensive ‘des. res.’).
In January 1937 Henry attended the annual Agricultural Conference at Oxford, enjoying it very much and gaining some confidence that he would be able to cope. In March he resolved that he and Robin should go and camp on the farm and start some basic work on making up the farm roads and the cottages, so that all would be done by the time he actually took over the farm at Michaelmas. To this end he bought a caravan, lorry and trailer, having arranged to lease the use of a gravel pit for the raw material for making up the roads.
On 20 May, after a very difficult time loading the vehicles with all the necessary equipment the two men would need, a little convoy, Alvis Silver Eagle and caravan, lorry and trailer, set off from Devon for the Norfolk Coast. The Shallowford home was vacated: the family were to stay with their former housekeeper, Annie Rawle, until such time as the Norfolk accommodation was ready for them. The journey was as fraught as the packing had been: everything seemed to go wrong and Henry was in a state of extreme nervous tension. All the details can be found in The Story of A Norfolk Farm, published in 1941 and in the farming volumes of the later Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (see the Henry Williamson Society’s website). Henry’s fictional names for local places, and often people, are very easily worked out: ‘Whelk’ being Wells, for example.
As soon as they arrived and had set up the caravan and a tent at Pine Tree Copse (now known as Pine Tree Camp) they started work on the task of making up the farm roads. This was very hard manual labour, shifting gravel from the leased pit, spreading it and firming it all down (and eventually topping off with a chalk layer from their own quarry). The work was slow and exhausting but production increased when ‘One-eyed Jarvis’ (William Jarvis) offered his services and soon after ‘young red-haired [Norman] Jordan’ was also employed. Later Jimmy Sutton, who had worked for ‘Strawless’, was taken on, and his son Bob. Work also began on the rebuilding of the three condemned cottages, an undertaking beset with every difficulty one could imagine. Everything that could go wrong, did so, including Henry’s secretary/mistress Ann Thomas (daughter of the poet Edward Thomas) going down with mumps, causing Henry yet further angst. Two or three difficult journeys were made back to Devon to collect furniture and this was stored in the capacious Old Granary. When the weather got too cold for the caravan they moved down to camp in the Granary where they established a stove to keep the place warm. The main problem was that Henry and his brother-in-law did not get on. Robin was slow and not terribly methodical: Henry impatient, nervous, quick of mind and body. Inevitably, he blamed Robin for all the problems, and by the end of October Robin had left, to take up a job in electrical engineering.
Henry officially took over the farm on old Michaelmas Day – 11 October – recording in his diary: ‘The farm is mine as occupier noon today.’ Bob Sutton was appointed ‘head-man’. Henry was by then attending all the local auctions in order to buy equipment. He also bought two horses, Blossom and Gilbert. But his pride and joy was a new Ferguson tractor, known as ‘the little grey donkey’.
It wasn’t long before problems arose over the way the men worked. They were all good local farm-workers, who had farmed in the same way all their lives. Henry was a newcomer and had new – to them very odd – ideas about how to do things. He had been a soldier in the 1914–18 war, and as a Transport Officer had particularly been trained how to deal with, and care for, horses and attendant machinery. He had had to be meticulously organised and efficient in his dealings with armaments, provisions, and the men under him. He was of course used to instant obedience to his commands. Taking on the farm seems to have thrown him back into that mode: fighting the difficulties on the farm was fighting a war. A diary entry states: ‘Here were the fruits of years of neglect. I felt like a soldier before zero hour.’ He had never (and never did) get over the trauma of his experiences in the First World War. He was always in a state of nervous energy – and exhaustion. None of this was understood by the local people. He was ‘hare’ to their ‘tortoise’. The men listened to what he had to say – then went off to do things their own old way.
In October 1937 Henry was visited on several occasions by Lady Downe, who had read his articles and heard his broadcasts. Lady Downe lived near King’s Lynn and her mission was to enlist him into the local group of the BUF of which she was organiser. A lot of nonsense has been written over the years about Henry and fascism. He was not a ‘fascist’ as interpreted in modern parlance. Henry was attracted by the agricultural policy proposed by Oswald Mosley. Mosley was also a soldier from the Great War (as it was still then called) who knew that another war would be disastrous.
The family duly arrived on 16 December and after a night or two camping in the Granary were in residence in the Chapel cottages in time for Christmas. After initial difficulties, alleviated by the kindness of the Cafferatas, new owners of the Old Hall, who invited them for Christmas lunch and baths, things settled down. Then with the New Year the hard work on the farm continued with no let up. Henry at the wheel of his ‘little grey donkey’ to prove its worth to the reluctant men, successfully plowed (he always used the old-fashioned spelling) Hilly Piece. He records Bob, finally won over, as saying: ‘Blast, I like that patent.’ But a visit to Norwich Corn Hall to buy barley seed was a sharp learning curve. Everyone had (conflicting) advice to give. Everyone knew Henry was a novice. Chickens had been bought in the autumn, and now he bought in a few turkeys as well – four hens and a stag. It was Loetitia’s task to look after them. Bullocks got sick. The horses were not looked after in the military way he adhered to. After plowing there was drilling, of barley and oats. Bob harrowed in the seed with Blossom and Gilbert. For once Henry felt things were going well – except he was constantly worried about his overdraft, which was mounting up, and had to write articles into the early hours to earn some money to counteract the situation.
In the summer of 1938 Army camps began to appear around the village and airfields began to be built. The local men had the opportunity to earn ‘good money’. The building standing in the western corner of the old chapel yard was a fish and chip shop and the soldiers and locals threw the used newspaper wrapping into Henry’s garden – to his great annoyance. Litter was always one of his greatest bugbears. He spent a great deal of time cleaning years of rubbish out of the little River Stiffkey, hoping it would once again be occupied by trout. He wanted everything to be clean, tidy, ordered. The farm buildings were done up and whitewashed, the yards, a muddy mire when he arrived, were concreted over and with great pride he set his initials in bricks within the concrete.
In August 1938 Henry garnered, with various difficulties, his first harvest. But the stacks got infested with rats and mice. At the end of his first year he made up the accounts: depressingly, liabilities seem to far outweigh assets. But considering all the complications that had arisen, there was actually evidence of a big improvement. Henry’s methods were working, although he did not realise that himself.
He finally was able to persuade the occupiers of Walnut Tree Cottage (Mr Francis, whom Henry called ‘Napoleon’, and his rather hilariously mad wife) to move and so, once they had got rid of the swarms of fleas living there, the house could be done up and the family moved in, making that the farmhouse.
In optimistic mood, he decided to hold a celebratory party. This took place in the Granary on Saturday, 19 November 1938. The long family oak refectory table was polished, and packing cases put around for seating. Henry records setting out 51 candles around the room. His guests were Loetitia’s vivacious cousin Mary, who had been bridesmaid at their wedding, his friend John Heygate, John Raynor (Features Editor of the Daily Express), Robert Donat, the film actor, then in the middle of making Goodbye, Mr Chips, his most famous role, and another great friend, the artist best known for his horse paintings, Alfred Munnings, currently staying at Brancaster. John Coast, who came to work on the farm for a short while, was also present. Two of the children, John and Margaret, were allowed to stay up (the eldest boy, Bill, was at boarding school). It was a very jolly affair. Henry had a case of Algerian wine and food came from the farm produce, butter, pheasant, and hams being particularly noted. Everyone wore one of Henry’s large selection of what the children called ‘Horkey’ hats, several of which were ‘cotton-pickers’ that he had brought back from an extended visit to Georgia, USA, in 1934. Munnings was in great form as always, and sang a selection of his well-known bawdy songs.
Party over, farm work continued. The barley market crashed, mainly due to cheap imports, and there was a lot of unrest but little came of it. Business interests came first. The winter brought a great storm but the farm survived without anything untoward. Henry’s drainage system and various improvements saved the day. May 1939 brought the second anniversary of the commencement of the hard work on the farm. Things had greatly improved. But by autumn war was looming and Henry was greatly troubled. With his usual quixotic impulse he went to London to see Mosley to see if there was anything he could do to help prevent it; to be told that it was too late. The curtain was down. Henry was devastated by the advent of another war. He realised, as he was to write in the later Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, using the Morning Star as analogy, that Hitler was not the bringer of light he had hoped, but Lucifer, the fallen angel.
On his return to the farm he found Alfred Munnings by the barn painting a scene of the church and Old Hall. There had been an altercation between the artist and Henry’s son Bill, who had discovered Munnings had removed Henry’s trouser-press from the Granary to paint on! There are two versions of this painting currently housed at the Munnings Museum in Dedham.
With war declared, work on the farm continued apace. Henry’s diary records all the details of ploughing, muck-spreading, calves being born, buying of farm machinery etc. Bill did not return to school and began work on the farm (not yet fourteen years old but, as his headmaster stated, not interested in school learning).
New wartime regulations came into being and had to be strictly adhered to. The strain on Henry was immense and his relationship with his wife deteriorated. It was decided that she and the younger children should go and stay for a while with her brother, Robin, now working in Bedford. A couple known as the ‘Tranters’ – actually Freddy Tranter and Mrs Hurt – came to do farm-work and housekeep. They are portrayed as Teddy Pinnegar and Yipps Carfax in the Chronicle. They proved to be rather a disaster, and they left at the beginning of January 1940. There were others who came to work on the farm, usually at their own request; but these people were not prepared to do, neither were they suited for, the hard work necessary. Henry’s nerves being at breaking point, he had no patience with them. None of them stayed very long. Once the worst of the winter was over, his wife returned to the farm.
Although Henry had some good local friends, a faction of the locals was very suspicious of him. From the beginning he was a ‘furriner’. They did not like his ways or his opinions. This intensified in 1940 as the war worsened. He had supposedly improved his farm and made the roads up ready for the German invasion, while the skylight on the landing could only have been designed for signalling to the enemy. Local worthy Major Hammond got the village rag-and-bone man, ‘Goitre’ Gidney, to spy on Henry, and filed an official complaint. But stories that Henry was sent to prison are totally without foundation. On the afternoon of Friday, 14 June 1940 police arrived to search the farm premises. Nothing untoward was found, but Henry was taken to the police station at Wells and put into a cell. He recorded how civil they were, allowing him paper and pencil so that he could continue with his writing (of the Norfolk Farm book). When his wife came to visit, he was allowed to sit out in the yard with her. He could only be released on the order of the Chief Constable at Norwich, who was away for the weekend. On Monday morning he was taken by car to Norwich – and duly released without any charge being made. A complaint had been made: the police had had to respond. The Chief Constable warned him to be careful as he had enemies. Henry returned to the farm and continued with the haymaking. Life on the farm continued to be as difficult as ever: always there was some problem or other. The men still tended to do things ‘their way’ and Henry was often absent. Young Bill did not really carry either the experience or the authority to take charge as his father expected.
Problems also arose over the large amount of military activity in the area. Aerodromes were built all around which meant many of the local men were able to earn far more money than doing farm work. Soldiers were camped locally, some on the farm itself. They careered around in army vehicles ruining Henry’s precious farm roads made with such care and hard work. They knocked down walls and gateposts. Someone even shot one of the cows in the udder. Henry was upset and furious. There was supposed to be adequate compensation for such incidents but all that happened was cursory investigation, time-consuming form-filling and miniscule remuneration.
The Story of a Norfolk Farm was published in January 1941, receiving very good reviews that gave rise to brief optimism, but life on the farm was as difficult as ever. After haymaking that summer, Henry had arranged to make a visit to Devon to cut down a small wood he leased, to sell as firewood. He enlisted the help of Eric Perkins, a lorry driver from Wells. Eric’s girlfriend, Polly, accompanied them when they left on 14 July. The hard work involved in cutting and preparing the wood was unrewarded, for despite advertising locally little of it was sold: most of it was left in Henry’s Field, the retreat he had bought with the prize money from Tarka. Henry later wrote up the episode in a charming book, In the Woods.
In the spring of 1942 Henry came across the well-known artist Edward Seago, on leave from his military work (as a camouflage expert), painting a scene from the farm, and invited him back for tea. This began a close friendship between them. Seago’s parents lived just south of Norwich on the Bungay road. Seago painted a portrait of Henry with fishing rod in hand. This was published, together with a very percipient essay in his book Peace in War, where he states: ‘I have never met a man more so constantly sincere, nor so steadfast in his search for truth.’ The portrait is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Another friend was the farmer and writer Adrian Bell (father of the broadcaster & ex-MP Martin Bell), who lived near Beccles. Indeed, Mrs Bell and Loetitia (who eventually lived in near-by Bungay) remained friends throughout their lives. After a visit Henry noted how hard-pressed Adrian was – a fellow farmer and writer, with a tendency to dreadful migraines. Another farming friend was the pacifist critic and writer Middleton Murry, who lived near Diss and is perhaps best known for the book Community Farm based on his own farming activities. Henry visited the farm, finding it in a rather chaotic state, worked by conscientious objectors who did not really know (or care) what they were doing. Murry edited The Adelphi magazine, for which Henry wrote articles for many years and actually took over for a short time after the war was over.
When war broke out, farming had become of national importance. In order to optimise the potential an official National Farm Survey was set up, known with affectionate humour as ‘The Second Domesday Book’. When Henry took over Old Hall Farm it was of the lowest grade, ‘C’; by the time of the survey in 1941 it was given the top grade of ‘A’. Henry’s hard work and methods had paid off. Interestingly, the official recorder later added a more personal note to the report, and Henry’s whole entry was used as the example in the introductory explanation:
The author, Henry Williamson, farmed in Norfolk from 1937 and throughout the war years. He recounted his struggle to improve the condition of his farm in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, published in 1941. The farm and its inspection for the National Farm Survey is also described in his autobiographical novel ‘Lucifer Before Sunrise’. He was immensely proud of his “A” Classification accorded by “the New Domesday scribe”.
It is obvious that Henry was held in considerable esteem. And yes, he was, after initial fears that he had failed, very relieved and pleased at his top placing. Although life continued to be hard and difficult the harvest of 1942 was good and Henry recorded in his diary on 12 September:
‘Today we finished a long harvest … we have gathered fine crops, and in all have 7 stacks. It has been hard work, and much worry and strain for me . . . but I would not have missed it.’
In his various farm writings there are some superb descriptions of the events that mark the farm year, especially threshing, which was a major event in those days with the huge noisy machines going from farm to farm. Here it was Guy Dappling’s outfit with its Burrell engine pulling a drum and elevator. Henry was a good photographer so there is also a picture record of these events. A large selection of these can be found on the Henry Williamson Society’s website – see the page for The Story of a Norfolk Farm.
In January 1943 Henry employed seventeen-year-old Douglas Jordan, nephew of Norman who had worked on the farm from the start, to be cow-man. Douglas (‘Ackers’ in the Chronicle farm volumes) was a good worker, and immediately cleaned out and white-washed the cowsheds. Henry was greatly relieved.
Shooting has always been an integral part of most farms. Henry did not want to run his own shoot, preferring to wander around on his own to bag a bird or two for family meals. But he arranged to combine with his neighbouring farmer, Cyril Case, who had better resources for organising that side of farm life. In the autumn of 1943 it was arranged that the Picture Post (the prestigious photo-journalistic weekly magazine) would run a feature on a shoot on the farm. Features writer Macdonald Hastings (father of historian & TV personality Max Hastings) was sent to cover the event. The result was a magnificent spread of photographs and text.
Mr Cafferata died and his wife moved back to live with her sister in Yorkshire. The Old Hall was taken over by Father Bruno Scott James, who came to Norfolk to convalesce after a severe illness. His personality was almost as odd as that of an earlier rector of Stiffkey, the Reverend Harold Davidson, whose funeral in 1937 Henry had attended in the first months after buying the farm. He shot at, nearly always missing, everything he saw – including a doodle-bug, when out on the marsh. Henry wrote that story up in one of his weekly articles for the London Evening Standard – to the fury of Scott James and his London friends!
To relieve the shortage of labourers on the farm, Italian prisoners of war were used. Their contribution tended to be making a fire to cook up on and very cleverly setting hair snares for song-birds to provide themselves with a snack. Towards the end of the war, for the harvest of 1945 several soldiers were deployed as farm workers. Henry was rather at his wits’ end by then and (expecting otherwise) was very relieved to find they worked well and did a good job.
By the end of the war the strain of the years of constant struggle had taken its toll on his marriage and Henry and Loetitia decided to part; his raison d’être for farming had gone. The farm was put up for sale and there was a flurry of preparation for the auction on 24 October 1945.
The family, including Henry to begin with, moved to Bank House in Botesdale near Diss. Here he wrote a novel based on the farm years centred around the fate of a Reeves pheasant, entitled The Phasian Bird. It has some amazing descriptive passages of the wildlife encountered on the farm, and ranks alongside Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon.
Henry then returned to Devon where he lived for the rest of his life, where he continued writing, including his magnum opus, the 15-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, of which volumes 13 and 14 are based on the farm years. Interestingly, in a broadcast made soon after the end of the war in 1947 (which has only been discovered in February 2020), Henry stated, proving my own premise, that his reason for going into farming was because:
There was a slump in farming, which under conditions then prevailing, could only lead to war. . . . So I undertook, almost by instinct, a completely new life. . . . I thought I’d do my little bit on a piece of English land that was in a state of decadence.
Years later, in January 1970, he was approached by the well-known film director David Cobham about making a film for the BBC to be entitled The Vanishing Hedgerows. This was to use, as its basis, Henry’s experiences during his farming years in Norfolk, combined with the problems that modern farm practices (of that era) were causing for wildlife and the environment. This involved filming on the Norfolk farm, and so Henry returned, after many years absence, and met up again with his one-time cowman Douglas Jordan. The film is acclaimed today as a flagship film for conservation.
Henry Williamson died in August 1977, while David Cobham was actually filming the death scene of Tarka for the Rank film of Tarka the Otter. That seemed poignantly appropriate.
In the 1970s Old Hall Farm was bought by Lord Buxton, who in 1961 was one of the co-founders of the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund for Nature), and was also a co-founder and later chief executive and chairman of Anglia Television, being responsible for the long-running ITV natural history series Survival. The water meadows, so painstakingly drained by Henry to grow crops during the war, were returned to wetlands, and they are now a nature reserve. On the formation of the ‘Henry Williamson Society’ in 1980 he was invited to become Patron, and hosted several visits by the Society to the farm. In the Granary, lit by a spotlight, hung C. F. Tunnicliffe’s portrait of Henry, painted in 1934. On his death in September 2009 his role of Patron was taken over by his son James.
Anne Williamson is Henry’s daughter-in-law, married to his son Richard, and manages Henry Williamson’s Literary Estate. Brought up in Bungay, Anne was a librarian – working in the north Suffolk area, and then in Norwich City Library (at first in the original ‘Old’ Library).
Amongst the list of Victorian British railway pioneers you will not find the name of William Betts (1810-1885), principally because he was not a ‘major player’ – today’s terminology! But he was certainly important, around the mid-19th century, as far as the local community that lived and worked in the Scole Parish in Norfolk were concerned.
Betts was also the diving force behind the development of his 400-acre market garden business there, together with the design and construction of his very own railway system which serviced that business. His railway, built very much to his design of its route and its waggons, has been referred to as either the ‘Frenze Farm Railway’ and ‘The Scole Railway’ – whichever one prefers perhaps! Either way, we have here a story of William Betts, along with some detail of the geographic structure and layout of the parish community in which he once conducted his business.
The present-day Scole Parish is in the local government district of South Norfolk. To the south it is bordered by the River Waveney and the neighbouring County of Suffolk, with the town of Diss facing it from the west. This parish now contains not just the village of Scole, but also Billigford, Thelveton and Frenze – not forgetting the deserted village of Thorpe Parva. Indeed, in Betts’s time, the Parish was known as ‘Scole with Thorpe Parva and Frenze’, but reverted to simply ‘Scole’ when in 1935 the parishes of Billingford and Thelveton were abolished and were joined to Scole. The village of Frenze – in earlier times Frense, Frens or Frence and locally pronounced as ‘Fi-renze’ – stands in a picturesque spot on the banks of Frenze, a fast-flowing tributary of the larger river Waveney.
William Betts himself, was born in 1810 to parents Thomas Betts (1783-1847) and Sarah (nee’ Smith 1784-1855) who produced a total of eight children. William became a businessman and brick manufacturer and was married to Julia Wildman Sparling on 30 March 1843 at All Saints Church, Colchester. Then, in 1844, he became Lord of the Manor of Frenze, within the parish and patron of St Andrew’s Church and becoming, along with a Mr Browning, the chief landowners at Frenze. Betts also had extended family connections there – along with his dreams!
By around 1861, Betts was in the position to buy the Frenze Hall Estate from his uncle Sheldrake Smith – but, apparently, did not live in the Hall itself. Instead, in 1863, he bought ‘The Court’ (see Map, bottom L/H corner) from a William Ellis and this became his home. The Court, once stood between Vince’s Lane and the railway line, but has long been demolished. Concurrent with his property acquisitions ran his ‘master plan’ of transforming the Estate’s 400 acres from agricultural fields into a vast market garden.
Large barns and other ancillary buildings were to be built, in conjunction with the building of his railway, a system that would allow him to export his fresh vegetable produce direct to London by way of a connection to the Great Eastern Railway system at Diss station.
The railway would transport his produce to London daily, and to avoid empty runs back to Norfolk, the returning wagons would be filled with fresh manure from the City’s streets and stables; this would be spread on the land. But manure would not necessarily be the only commodity delivered back to the market garden; some train wagons returned filled with coal and delivered direct to the brickworks located just behind Diss station; these brickworks had been created by William Betts to both enhance the value of his line, but also to provide materials for the building of his workers’ houses in and around Scole. As owner of Frenze Hall, he also saw to it that his red bricks encased the 17th century timber-framed Hall with a façade, resulting in the present-day ‘late Victorian’ external appearance protecting its much older oak-framed structure more-or-less intact inside.
As for the railway track itself; this was of standard gauge, which allowed his trains to run straight on and off the Great Eastern line. In total, the length of the Frenze Farm/Scole Railway network reached approximately seven miles, including a number of sidings near the Great Barn on the Frenze Estate, where the produce was sorted and packed. According to Christopher Weston, the route of Betts’s railway began at Diss station, from behind the Jolly Porter’s Inn (closed 25th October, 1973) in Station Road. The line headed east to Dark Lane, where it branched east and north, via a turntable. Then the eastern branch continued to buffers behind the Scole Inn public house, with two more branches leading south to Betts’ brick fields, then north to Nab Barn and several sidings. Here, again was where the produce was sorted and packed. From Dark Lane, the northern branch went to Frenze Hall Farm, before crossing the river and ending at buffers near the Great Eastern line. Yet another branch below Frenze Hall continued to a field known as ‘Scotland’.
(Adove Photos) This girder rail bridge crosses the river at Frenze Hall. It was once part of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts. This northern branch of the railway, from Dark Lane, took the line up to Frenze Hall farm before crossing the river over this bridge and ending at buffers near to the GER line at Diss station. Photos: Carol Gingell.
William Betts owned the Frenze Hall Estate until his death in 1885 and, as his son had already pre-deceased him, the entire property was put under the management by the Court of Chancery while his affairs were sorted out. The manager was a Thomas W. Gaze, auctioneer and land agent who became the tenant of the Estate from 1886. Gaze not only took over the Frenze Estate but closed the market garden and railway, which was said to be under capitalised by then. He also arranged for the line to be pulled up before running the subsequent two-day auction of the entire estate’s equipment, horses, railway track and locomotives. The rail lines were sold for scrap to George Archer of Yarmouth, with some track syphoned off by thieves. The two locomotives, (one a 2-4-0 saddle tank, manufactured by Brotherhoods of Chippenham and the other, an 0-4-OT made by Hughes of Loughborough), raised £20 each and were shipped to India. In 1898 the Frenze Estate was eventually purchased by the neighbouring Thelveton Estate.
As an aside, the Frenze Hall estate was a RAF Bomber Command ‘Splasher Six’ site during World War II; its transmissions guiding aircraft missions. Radio equipment was installed inside a collection of single-deck buses and huts in one of the fields. The transmissions frequently interfered with local BBC radio, resulting in complaints from the populace. During the war bombs did fall at Frenze but the Hall and St Andrew’s Church were undamaged. Finally, ‘Splashers’, operated by the RAF in the East Anglia area during this period were: Splasher 4 – Louth; Splasher 5 – Mundesley (near Cromer); Splasher 6 – Scole (S of Norwich); Splasher 7 – Braintree; Splasher 10 – Windlesham and Splasher 16 – Brampton Grange.
Today, you would be hard pushed to trace the once busy Scole Railway – unless, of course, you were an archaeologist! Again, according to Christopher Weston, it was back in 2015, that work was scheduled to begin on the construction of a new care home in Diss; however, ahead of this an archaeological dig was permitted, with unbelievable results. As digging progressed, floors, ovens, brick kilns and even traces of railways sidings were found. Then, not too far from today’s Diss mainline station, hidden railway sidings were located. These did not, initially, seem unusual but opinion soon changed when further research revealed that this was only part of something much bigger and it was just the brick kilns, which were thought to have been used for the 19th century’s housing in Diss. The railway sidings discovered were eventually confirmed as being part of the 7-mile private railway network built by William Betts.
So, Dr Beeching of the 20th century could not be blamed for the closure of the Scole Railway; although he was certainly responsible for Norfolk losing numerous miles of its railway track and dozens of stations during the early 1960’s. Neither did he have his hand in the closure of numerous ’Light’ or ‘Narrow-Gauge” railways in Norfolk, built to commercially transport goods across estates, through private land, for RAF use and for other industrial purposes. Finding these could be a project for someone interested in discovering evidence of pioneering engineering some of which, like the Scole railway, have long been hidden in the Norfolk landscape.
William the Conqueror managed it in 1066 but since then no foreign power has ever managed to invade these islands. There has been no shortage of attempts and plans from the Spanish Armada, to Napoleon, to Hitler but, by courage or fortuitous circumstance, the threat has never been carried out. However, there was a time 100 years ago when invasion was seen as highly likely and it was believed that the Norfolk Coast was where it would begin.
It is August 1914. Much like this summer it is very hot and a large section of Norfolk people has decamped to the seaside. Hotel bookings at Cromer and Sheringham are at record levels. Most did not believe that Great Britain would be affected by the events in Belgium, Germany and France or that we need be involved at all should fighting begin. However, on Tuesday 4th August the late-night edition of the Eastern Daily Press announced that we were indeed at war.
The Coast Prepares: It was on the Norfolk coast that defensive measures were first introduced. Settlements such as Happisburgh and Weybourne were considered prime sites for a hostile landing as the sea here was deep enough to allow ships to closely approach the shoreline and land men and machines. Immediate action was taken to defend them. In Happisburgh, for example, a division of what were known as ‘Rough Riders’ – cavalry hastily drafted in from all over the country – were billeted in private houses. Trenches were dug along the cliff tops and the beaches shut to the public completely between sunset and sunrise: at all other times special permission needed to be obtained from the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of defences. Many local women of coastal settlements were also formed into groups to make clothing and bandages for troops.
Fears of Invasion: In 1914 there was a school of thought that saw invasion as highly likely. There were literally dozens of graphic full length novels published in the early 1900s giving no-holds-barred and horrifying accounts of life under a foreign conqueror. A best seller was William Le Quex’s The Invasion of 1910 which sold over a million copies. In this book, the Germans landed at Lowestoft. In another, Swoop of the Vulture, Lowestoft and Yarmouth were invaded helped by previously unknown German sympathisers. In another, the Japanese landed at Liverpool. Erskine Childers, a future war hero, even got into the act with his famous novel The Riddle of the Sands.
There was also what is known as the Blue Water School of thought which believed that as long as Britain commanded the seas there was no possibility of invasion. According to this theory, championed by the Admiralty, if Britain surrendered command of the seas, the army would be ineffective anyway in the case of a multiple assault. The enemy would land on the Norfolk coast or maybe south of Lowestoft and sweep into London. The sinking within 90 minutes of the Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy by a single German U-boat dealt the Navy a huge psychological blow, at least temporarily, and did little to reassure the concerns of people living on the coast.
The Fishermen: Protection of the Norfolk coast relied not just on the British Navy but also on North Sea fishermen many of whom were enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve Trawler Section. They were to use their own vessels in a variety of war work – patrolling, minesweeping and anti submarine operations. Some smacks, commanded by skippers such as Thomas Crisp and Charles Fryatt, whose heroic exploits have previously been featured in this magazine, played an active part as combatants and created instant legends which greatly helped morale. The Germans were under no illusions as to fishermen’s value and sank 26 boats within the first four weeks of hostilities. Over 500 herring drifters from Yarmouth and Lowestoft were hired by the Royal Navy during the course of the war. In addition, in 1914, four of the largest Yarmouth steam drifters were used to install heavy steel anti-submarine mesh in what was called the Swin anchorage off Maplin Sands. This proved a vital anchorage for battleships of the 3rd Battle Squadron.
At the beginning of the war German ships which happened to be in British ports were captured. The Fiducia was taken at Great Yarmouth and several at the major ports such as Kings Lynn and Ipswich.
Put Those Lights Out!:
The Eastern Daily Press ran this letter:
Sirs, In accordance with the Defence of the Realm Act, I hereby give notice that all lights on the coast of Norfolk showing to seaward from all buildings are to be screened from sunset to sunrise. Every person infringing this regulation will be liable to arrest. Also that any unauthorised person showing a light on the seashore (or on the cliffs adjoining thereto) will be liable to arrest. Any person signaling with any lamp or otherwise will be liable to be shot without further warning. I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant. A.A .Ellison, Captain in Charge, Lowestoft and Yarmouth.
Anti-German Feeling and Spies: Germans in Britain were subject to suspicion, although the press in Norfolk said that relations between the county’s citizens and those of German nationality were more friendly than elsewhere. Some, however, believed that all Germans should not merely be registered but sent to an (unspecified) colony and a letter in the local paper suggested that anything reminding the good people of the county with anything Germanic, should be banned, including sausage dogs.
Many hotel and guest house owners found that those people who had registered for a holiday failed to show up. One high profile case involved a German guest house owner in Sheringham, Jacob Lichter, who brought a case against some guests who had failed to appear after war broke out. Judge Mulligan of North Walsham Crown County Court threw the case out adding some remarks about the absurdity of allowing Germans to own guest houses on the vulnerable coast.
Spies were everywhere, some believed. One such was the MP for Kings Lynn, Holcombe Ingleby, who believed that Zeppelins were being assisted by car owners who were using their headlights to signal from coastal roads. One man was arrested for sketching on Sheringham sea front. So febrile was the atmosphere that there were those who believed any light showing in a house on the coast had an ulterior purpose. Major Egbert Napier, Chief Constable of the Norfolk County Constabulary, spent much of his time hunting spies on the Norfolk coastline. He subsequently signed up for the Royal Garrison Artillery and was killed in October 1917.
The Diss Express for Fri Sept 11, 1914 carried this item, one of many showing the nervousness of some folk:
ENEMIES IN OUR MIDST
A large number of German and Austrian subjects liable to military service have been handed over to the military authorities… A few days ago there appeared in the press a circumstantial report of a midnight attack by two men on a signalman. On enquiry it was found that the signalman was suffering from nervous breakdown, and there was no truth in the story. There have been reports of attacks on police constables by armed motor-cyclists, but in no case was the report substantiated. Reports of the discovery of secret arsenals are untrue.
In early 1915, the Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, reported a successful prosecution: FLASHES TOWARDS THE SEA .Sentence of six months hard labour was passed at Spilsby, Lincs on Monday on Bertie Whydale, cycle repairer, for having, Feb 14 1915, contrary to the regulations made under the Defence of the Realm Act, displayed a light ‘in such a manner as could serve as a signal, guide or landmark’ …At 11.20 on the night of 14th ‘he was seen flashing an acetylene lamp from a hill, 250 feet above sea level towards the sea’.
Less Selfish? As the war progressed, the Bishop of Norwich saw an uplift in people’s ethics. He is reported in the Norfolk Chronicle of December 15 1915 as saying in an address entitled VICTORY AND REACTION:
‘I can foresee that the very time of victory itself will be a time of excitement and danger. There will then be the risk that our men may fall into easy paths. How dreadful once more to drop down into that flat, unimaginative, unentertaining life, petty, small, self-pleasing, self-seeking from which, through the war, we are now being raised to something better’.
Coastal Defences: How They Developed During The War: When the war began, the coast had no defences to speak of – except for warnings from the Coastguard and boy scouts, and the latter were quickly and enthusiastically organized to make patrols. Kings Lynn boasted a small battery and, right around the coast, Southwold had some old canons. Harwich, of course, being the major naval centre for the region, had fortifications, including searchlights and a minefield as well as some new 9.2 inch guns.
It was widely believed that, if Germans invaded, the fleet would cut them off and that the enemy would soon surrender in inhospitable territory with no supplies. Thus, in 1914, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk had each only one Infantry Brigade, one mounted Yeomanry Brigade, a brigade of the Royal Field Artillery and two battalions of cyclists. Harwich had six battalions of infantry.
There was fevered discussion as to where the enemy was likely to land. The salt marshes at Weybourne were seen as unsuitable and the wide expanses of beaches between Cley and Sheringham, and possibly Lowestoft, were considered quite likely.
Home Defence, Trenches and Additional Guns: Initially, much reporting was of an optimistic nature. The Norwich Mercury of December 9 1914 reported: A HOPEFUL OUTLOOK. The latest war news from the Western Front appears to show that the Germans have abandoned the attempt to force their way to the coast. In the same edition it reports on Home Defence: ‘the new volunteer movement which has sprung out of the possibilities of an attempt at an invasion of our shores grows in force day by day…Today there are upwards of a million men, aged from about 35 upwards…In our own area, Yarmouth has done well, with over 500 men already enrolled. Lowestoft has followed suit with 250 and Norwich has begun its task with over 400 men in the first few days of the appeal…’
The Authorities were not keen to dig up beaches in 1914 so as not to alarm public but eventually began to do so, including on Sheringham Golf Links. Also, by 1915 there were six 4.7 inch guns moving on travelling carriages at Weybourne and two more at Cromer.
Harwich was made into strong fortress in 1914. In 1915 two 9.2 inch Mk X guns were brought from Ireland, the most powerful pieces ever to be put on the East Coast. They could fire a shell of 280 pounds up to 17,000 yards and reach any ship threatening the base and town.
In 1915 an armoured train was brought to Norfolk, [it was said to be the No. 2 Armoured train “Alice” and was to spend most of WWI in Norfolk] and it looked very impressive but was militarily useless as it was on fixed tracks and relied upon the enemy obligingly coming within range. Based in North Walsham, it comprised four carriages with a steel shell half an inch thick. At either end was a gun truck with a Maxim gun and 12 pounder naval gun. For the duration of the conflict it noisily banged up and down the track on the Mundesley line as far as Great Yarmouth and it never fired a shot.
Air threats led to two 75-mm guns being placed at Bacton and two more at Sandringham to protect the Queen. In addition the airbase at Pulham Market had 3 3-inch guns and Yarmouth two 18-pounders. In 1916, following the April bombardment of Lowestoft by the High Seas Fleet, which caused great panic and fear on invasion, trenches were dug along the cliffs at Pakefield and inspected by the King.
If we are invaded – This Is What We Shall Do: In 1916 it was decided by the Admiralty and War Office that an invasion by up to 160,000 men was quite possible and that half a million troops must always be stationed in the UK to counter the threat. The attack was deemed probable between the Wash and Dover. Consequently two command posts were set up, one at Bretford and one at Mundford. The defence plan was to hold the coast as long as possible and then, if German troops landed, seen as probable for exercise reasons, then they should be attacked by mobile units of cyclists and infantry. Thereafter it was pretty much harass and hopefully defeat the enemy on the way to London – it was assumed the enemy would make a beeline for the capital.
The government also sought the active help of the public in keeping vigilant. The Eastern Daily Press of Tuesday July 18, 1916 wrote: ‘The War Office request that the public will render assistance…by notifying…of any bomb or projectile or fragments thereof or any other article discharged, dropt or lost from any enemy aircraft or vessel’.
The defences never approached those of the Napoleonic wars but in 1917 more trenches were dug at Weybourne and Sheringham, Sea Palling and Great Yarmouth. South of Lowestoft was further strengthened by guns and men. Weybourne in particular became an important Army coastal defence base. Mobile guns included six 60-pounders at Weybourne, Mundesley and Pakefield: these would be useful against troops but were not really designed to pierce armour. Cromer also had two of the same guns in a permanent mount. Monitors operated 24/7 from Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
Pillboxes: Some 48 pillboxes, named, some say, because of their shape which resembled the boxes that pills could be obtained in from the local chemist, were built in Norfolk, the majority along the Norfolk coast. The picture is not entirely clear, especially as some were re-used and adapted in the Second World War. 24 remain today.
Often circular or hexagonal in shape and made of concrete, they were designed to protect British troops when firing at the enemy through the ‘loopholes’. Steel shutters could cover the openings when in defensive mode. They were often built in pairs to provide greater support and they ran from Cley to West Runton. It is possible that the pillbox at Stiffkey was also in this defensive line but experts even now are trying to work out whether it was built in the First or Second World War. It is unsually flat, thus making it difficult for troops to stand inside and the openings are wider than normal: possibly it was some kind of observation, rather than defensive, post. A second line reinforced these and ran just inland between Holt and Aylmerton. A line ran along the banks of the River Ant with other locations including Mundesley, Bacton, Sea Palling Hanworth, North Walsham and Great Yarmouth. Many were built by the Royal Engineers.
The Pillbox Trail: A Pillbox Trail was launched with great success in 2015. Fourteen are accessible and these are: Stiffkey, Weybourne, Beeston Regis, Aylmerton, Thorpe Market (2), Bradfield, (2), Little London (2), White Horse Common (2), Wayford Bridge and Sea Palling. Further information and leaflets are available from any north Norfolk information centre or online. http://www.visitnorthnorfolk.co.uk.
Sources: Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning via:
Photos: Daniel Tink photos are by kind permission of him. All others photos acknowledged as stated.
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I have written a fair amount in various publications about the effect of Norfolk and its coast on our most illustrious writers. Possibly the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes stories, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, was inspired by events at Cromer; Charles Dickens took to the area, enthusiastically featuring it in ‘David Copperfield’; Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was written in Norwich and has since sold over 50 million copies. Here is a peek at Rupert Brooke and his relationship with Cley Next the Sea.
‘He was a minor celebrity before he died and a monstrous one afterward, holding on, to this day, to his fame and a rather tattered glory’ The New Yorker, in an article dated April 23 2015, the hundredth anniversary of his death.
The poet Rupert Chawner Brooke was staying at Cley on the Norfolk coast when he heard of the outbreak of war. Frances Cornford, granddaughter of Charles Darwin, was with him at the time and wrote:
‘A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
For the long littleness of life’.
He reputedly did not speak for a day until Frances Cornford asked: ‘But Rupert, you won’t have to fight?’ to which he replied ‘We shall all have to fight’.
W.B. Yeats called him ‘the handsomest young man in England’ and he had an illustrious group of friends. He joined the navy and, following his death on April 23 1915 when his unit was sailing to Gallipoli, Winston Churchill wrote that he ‘was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable’. He died on 23 April on board a hospital ship moored off the Greek island of Skyros and was buried in an olive grove there later the same day as his unit was in a hurry to leave. He had been bitten by a mosquito and passed away from blood poisoning, although in his obituary Churchill claimed that he had died of sunstroke – an image to suit the times, one of a young English literary lion, dying in Greece like Byron. The well-known description by his friend, William Denis Browne, who sat with him to the last, of his end embellished the myth: Brooke passed away ‘with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door’.
Unlike his famous contemporaries Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke saw no fighting and he epitomized for many the youthful idealism and devotion to country felt during the first year of the war. In 1912 he had written The Old Vicarage, Granchester. He was in Berlin and longing for home and the poem presents a fervent, enchanted view of English rural life which caught the imagination of the period. It ends like this:
‘Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? And Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?’
His patriotic sonnet The Soldier was read from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral in April 1915.
‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven’.
Legacy Divided: Few poets have polarized thought so much. George Woodbury, in his introduction to Brooke’s Collected Poems (1916) wrote:
‘There is a grave in Scyros, amid the white and pinkish marble of the isle, the wild thyme and the poppies, near the green and blue waters. There Rupert Brooke was buried. Thither have gone the thoughts of his countrymen, and the hearts of the young especially. It will long be so. For a new star shines in the English heavens’.
Woodbury’s contemporary, poet Charles Sorley who was killed in 1915, had a rather more cynical view of all war poetry:
‘The voice of our poets and men of letters is finely trained and sweet to hear; it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie’.
Recently a bundle of papers has been opened by the British Library that details his love affair with the poet Phyllis Gardner and other loves.
Cley Today: Cley today earns its living from tourism. Apart from the famous windmill and church, it is a bird watching site of international importance, all the year round. Here you can see Grey Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits, Spoonbills and several types of waders.
It is also well known for smoked fish and meats. These go particularly well with the designer ales you can find in the pubs around here. Of particular fame is the ‘red herring’. If you are wondering what this is, it is a kipper that has been smoked for at least three weeks giving it a very, very strong taste which is not for the faint-hearted. However, sliced very thinly it can be perfect to have with a pint of fine ale.
Last century, Victorian villains hit upon the idea of throwing a few ‘red herrings’ onto the trail of pursuing police dogs as this completely covered up their own scent. Hence the saying in detective stories of a red herring being a wrong path to go down.
THE END (Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning)