A Murder at Honingham Hall

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 (Honingham Hall)2
The front of the former Honingham Hall. Image: National Trust.

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.

Sir-Eric-Teichman1
Sir Eric Teichman GCMG CIE (born Erik Teichmann; 16 January 1884 – 3 December 1944 in Norfolk, England. Photo: Wikipedia.

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.

Sir-Eric-Teichman (M-1 Carbine)
An example of an Americal WW2  M-1 Carbine. Photo: MJ Militaria.

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.”

Little Plumstead Hall Institution (Billy Smith)
Little Plumstead Hall Institution, Norwich. Photo: Billy Smith.

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?

Sir-Eric-Teichman (Shepton Mallet)
The entrance to Shepton Mallet Prison in Dorset. Photo: Wikipedia.
Sir-Eric-Teichman (Shepton Mallet)2
Inside perimater of Shepton Mallet Prison in Dorset. Photo: Mirror. Co.

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.

Sir-Eric-Teichman (Thomas Pierepoint)
Thomas William Pierrepoint – Hangman.

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.

Sir-Eric-Teichman (cemetery)2
The entrance to the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. Photo: Wikimedia.

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”.

Sir-Eric-Teichman (cemetery)
Plot E for the “dishonoured dead” is across the road on the outside of the main cemetery. Image: Google.

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!

Sir-Eric-Teichman (St Andrews)
St Andrew’s Church, Honingham, Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

THE END

Some Sources:
http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/sheptonm.html
http://thefifthfield.com/fifth-field/albert-pierrepoints-execution-logbook/

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Ber Street’s Two Lost Churches.

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.

City Medieval Towers (Illustration)
An artist’s impression of the complete Norwich City walls and gates in the 14th century. Ber Street (Berstrete) Gate is depicted centre at foot, with the two churches referred to in this post towards the Castle.
Image courtesy of Aviva Group Archive

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.

Two Ber Street Churches1
The outside of Ber Street Gate from the south by H Ninham from an early-18th century drawing by John Kirkpatrick.  Image: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.
Two Ber Street Churches2
The inside of Ber Street Gate from the north by H Ninham from an early-18th century drawing by John Kirkpatrick.  Image: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

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's (Church)1
The south side of the former church of St Michael at Thorn from Ber Street. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1938-03-18.

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.]”

St Michael's (South Door)
St Michael at Thorn south Norman doorway, later re-erected in nearby St Julian’s church. Image: (c) George Plunkett1938-03-18

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.

Reinstalled Doorway_Simon Knott)2
The former south doorway of St Michael at Thorn church as it appears in the nearby St Julian’s Church. Image: Siman Knott 2005.

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.

St Michael's (Interior East)
St Michael at Thorn’s 1869 interior east view, along with the then modern oak rood screen surmounted by a St Michael’s cross. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1937-08-12.

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.

St Michael's (Tower before Demolition)
The St Michael at Thorn tower before demolition It survived air raids in 1942 but the tower was demolished ten years later. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1952-07-31.

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.

Conesford

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.

St Barts (Diagram)
George Plunkett’s sketch of Claude Messent’s plan of St Bartholomew Church as it was in 1931. Image: (c) George Plunkett.

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).

St Bartholomew (Nave Blocked Window)
St Bartholomew’s Nave blocked window 
Secularised after the Reformation, the church nave and part of the chancel remained, largely hidden from view by slaughterhouses and other buildings. Brought to light in the 1930’s, it offered slight compensation for the loss of St Michael at Thorn. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1939-05-18
St Bartholomew (Nave South Wall)
A section of St Bartholomew’s Nave South Wall incorporated into a warehouse which once stood at rear of 82 Ber Street. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1937-08-07.
St Bartholomew (Gabled Wall)
St Bartholomew’s west side gabled wall which
divided the Nave from Chancel. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1939-05-18.
St Bartholomew (South Doorway)
St Bartholomew’s south doorway arch. Image: (c) George Plunkett 1965-05-01.

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.

St Bartholomew1
The ruined tower of St Bartholomew’s church, Norwich.
A short stump of the tower is all that remains today and it is so overgrown that one could walk past it without noticing what it is – were it not for the plaque attached to its wall. Image:© Copyright Evelyn Simak.

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”.

THE END

Sources:
www.georgeplunkett.co.uk/Norwich/ber.htm
https://www.norwich.gov.uk/site/custom_scripts/citywalls/29/report.php
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/norwichmichaelthorn/norwichmichaelthorn.htm
www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/norwichbartholomew/norwichbartholomew.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ber_Street,_Norwich

All George Plunkett images are by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.

Norwich’s Young Hero!

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.

John Grix (St Marks)
St Mark’s Senior Boys School on Hall Road in Lakenham, Norwich

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.

John Grix3
Soldiers lend a hand to the N. F. S. in the biggest of the many fires they had to fight in the Norwich blitz. Here is shown Debenhams shopping centre on 28 April 1942. Photo from Archant Library

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.

John Grix5
Oak Street bomb damage. April 27, 1942. Photo from Archant Library.

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.

John Grix2
Bonds Store, now John Lewis, from Ber Street. June 28, 1942. Photo from Archant Library.

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!

John Grix6
Civil Defence Messenger Service, Angel Road School, Norwich. Date: 1943. Picture: unknown source but supplied to Archant.

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.”

 

John Grix1
King George VI talking to young award-winning Norwich hero John Grix (centre): “I understand you are only 15.” Photo: Archant Library

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 Grix7

 

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.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.edp24.co.uk/features/15-year-old-norwich-boy-john-grix-awarded-the-british-empire-medal-after-ww2-1-4990026
https://www.eveningnews24.co.uk/views/remembering-norwich-s-blitz-kids-1-5120407

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Don’t Take Up Farming, Old Chap!

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.

1_ early days_Loetitia and HW survey the thistles2
Early Days: Loetitia and Henry Williamson survey the 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.

2_map of the farm on the endpapers of The Story of a Norfolk Farm, drawn by C. F. Tunnicliffe.jpg2
A Map of Old Hall Farm as it appears on the endpapers of Henry Williamson’s book ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’. Drawn by C.F. Tunnicliffe.

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.’).

3_Bugg Cottages before renovation2
Bugg Cottages before renovation.

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.

4_HW's owl and initials set in brick in the yard2
Henry’s owl and initials set in brick in the yard.

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.

5_Bob & Jimmy Sutton examining head of barley2
Bob and Jimmy Sutton examining a head of barley.

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).

6_Young Bill driving the Ferguson tractor2
Young Bill driving the Ferguson tractor.

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”.

7_ Farm Survey, classed as 'A'
Farm Survey – classed as ‘A’.

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.

8_Threshing time2
Threshing time.

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.

9_Picture Post cover, 4 November 19431
Picture Post cover for 4 November 1943.

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.

10_Auction catalogue, 19452
Auction Catalogue, 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.

11_ cover of The Phasian Bird, 19482
Cover of The Phasian Bird, 1948.

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.

POSTCRIPT:

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

THE END

Sources:
The above text is copyright © of Anne Williamson 2020 and all images copyright © of the Henry Williamson Literary Estate.

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).

https://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/
https://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/bibliography/a-lifes-work/the-story-of-a-norfolk-farm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Williamson

 

Norfolk: A Hidden & Forgotten Railway.

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.

Scole Railway (Frenze Beck)
The Ford across the stream leading to Frenze Hall. Photo: © Copyright John Walton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

Scole Railway (St Andrews)
The ancient church of St Andrew at Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. More info here: www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/frenze/frenze.htm. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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!

Scole Railway (Frenze Hall)
Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. Built in the early 17th century, the hall and it’s estate was purchased by William Betts in the 1860s and it’s 400 acres of land were converted into vast market gardens supplying London with fresh vegetables. To service the estate, Betts built a standard gauge railway which connected to the mainline at Diss and ran eastwards to Scole and north above Frenze hall, covering around 7 miles in total, with branches leading off in several directions to cover the whole estate. William Betts also owned two brick fields in the area and, in the 1880s, added the brick facade to Frenze Hall using his own wares. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (lost-scole-railway-line)2
This track across the fields near Diss, in South Norfolk was once part of the Scole Railway, built by William Betts in the 1860s to service his vast market gardens at the Frenze Hall Estate. The standard gauge rail line ran between the main station at Diss and the Scole Inn to the east, and above Frenze hall to the north. This part of the track ran between Dark Lane, along Millers lane to towards Scole. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Map_ Carol Gingell)
Map of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts to service the Frenze Estate in South Norfolk. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Great Barn)
More evidence of the vast market gardens and the Scole railway established at Frenze Hall  in the 1860s by William Betts. This is marked on contemporary maps as being the “Great Barn” and the rail line ran directly behind it. Given the huge arched doorways, one wonders whether this could possibly have been used as an engine or maintenance shed for the locos? A large water storage tank was housed at the barn, fed by underground pipes which led from a pumping station that Betts built near to the river. Nearby stood the large Lay’s Barn, also built by Betts, and used for sorting and packing of produce from the market gardens. Lay’s Barn is no more, the site on which it stood is now occupied by a handful of 1960s built houses. The Great Barn has been renovated as small office units as Diss Business Centre, run by South Norfolk District Council.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Farm)
When William Betts purchased the Frenxe Hall estate in the 1860s, he expanded the farm at the hall. This range of barns looks to be contemporary with that expansion and are certainly marked on maps of the time. These were no doubt used in connection with the 400 acres of market gardens established here by Betts. In the background is the small church of St Andrew’s – no longer used regularly but still consecrated and under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Derelic Building)
Another legacy of William Betts ownership of the Frenze Hall Estate in the late 1800s. A sadly derelict barn on the farm. One map of the railway which Betts built to service his market gardens shows that a section of railtrack led directly into this building. The track certainly ran along the rear of the farm, over the river and on up to buffers near to the GER mainline above Diss. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Splasher Six)
A derelict building in the grounds of Frenze Hall which is believed to have been one of those built during WW2 when the hall was used as a Splasher Six Beacon site. Frenze Hall was one of a series of transmitting bases along the east coast which helped to guide returning aircraft back to base. The Thorpe Abbots airbase was just up the road. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Betts Grave)
The memorial stone over the grave of the Betts family at St Andrew’s Church at Frenze, Diss, in Norfolk. William Betts, born December 1810, died June 1885. Sadly, the memorial shows that William’s wife Julia Wildman Betts, and his two eldest sons, William and Edward, predeceased him. Census returns show that William and Julia also had six daughters and another son. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

THE END

Sources:
‘The Scole Railway’ by N.A. Brundell and K.J. Whittaker, published in The Railway Magazine April 1955; ‘Waveney Valley Studies’ by Eric Pursehouse, published by the Diss Publishing Company in 1969. Also, ‘Branches & Byways of East Anglia’ by John Brodribb.
Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/28466597@N04/albums/72157637874175125/
https://www.flickriver.com/photos/28466597@N04/sets/72157637874175125/
www.blennerhassettfamilytree.com/Frenze-Hall,-Norfolk.php

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

Rupert Brooke and Cley-Next-The-Sea

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.

Cley (Robert Brooke)
Rupert Chawner Brooke, aged 27 years. Photo: Wikipedia

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,
Magnificently unprepared
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.

There is a Rupert Brooke society based in Norwich at http://www.rupertbrooke.com

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.

Cley (Herrings)

THE END
(Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning)

Source:
https://www.stephenbrowningbooks.co.uk/rupert-brooke-and-cley/
Photos: Daniel Tink photos are by kind permission of Daniel Tink. All others acknowledged as stated.

NOTICE: Wherever possible, we endeavour to obtain permission to use other copyright owners material on this site. Please note, no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intended.

 

 

Norfolk: HMS Umpire Sleeps.

Today, Wells-next-the-Sea is at peace and a magnet for holidaymakers, day-trippers, sailors and bird-watchers. But that was not always so, particularly during the Second World War, when a somewhat unfortunate incident occurred just off its shores in this part of the North Norfolk coast. But only a handful of people ever knew about it at the time.

During the Second World War the waters just off the East coast of Britain were some of the most dangerous anywhere in the world and often protected by mines. Sadly therefore, the legacy from that time is a seabed littered with wartime wrecks and some incredible tales of heroism. Allied shipping was being decimated by German torpedo boats (or E-boats) which would often race across from occupied Europe, quickly attack and hastily retreat. So, for protection, convoys would huddle together in a narrow channel of water often protected by mines.

HMS Umpire (German E-Boat)
Typical WW2 German E-Boat

In June 1941, HMS Umpire (N82) a newly built Royal Navy U-class submarine was sailing from Chatham Dockyard in Kent, to Scotland. She was on her way up the East coast for sea trials in Scotland and fearing attack, joined a convoy of ships also heading northward along what was known as E-boat alley. Her eventual destination was Dunoon where she would join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. From there she was to carry out a single working-up patrol in the North Sea before heading off to the Mediterranean. After leaving Chatham, she made an overnight stop at Sheerness on the Ise of Sheppey, to wait for assembly of a north-bound merchant convoy leaving the Thames and gathering off Southend. The following day, she duly joined the convoy and headed North.

HMS Umpire (Convoy under attack)2
A WW2 British convoy under attack (Photo: via Belfast Telegraph)

As early as the first night with the convoy a German Heinkel attacked the convoy and Umpire took evasive action by crash diving to well below the surface. However, on surfacing, one of its diesels developed a fault and had to be shut down. The propellers had to be driven purely by electric motors on the surface and when submerged, the submarine had no mechanical linkage to the diesel-powered units. This, inevitably, reduced the Umpire’s speed and a radio message was sent to the Commodore of the convoy, reporting this. A Motor Launch was sent back as escort but lost Umpire in the gathering darkness.

HMS UMPIRE1
HMS Umpire

The Northbound convoy, of which Umpire was now a part, passed the Southbound convoy FS44 around midnight on the 19th June 1941, about 12 nautical miles off Blakeney. Both passed starboard to starboard which was unusual, since ships and convoys normally passed port to port. No vessel was lit because of the risk of attack from German E-boats, nevertheless and despite having dropped back from its convoy, Umpire spotted the southbound convoy and altered course to port to avoid a collision. Then suddenly, as if nothing more could go wrong, her steering faltered and she veered sharply into the path of an armed escort trawler named the ‘Peter H. Hendriks’, which was part of the southbound Convoy. Unavoidably, the trawler struck the Umpire near its bow, flooding the forward torpedo-room and rapidly sinking her in about 18 metres of water. The 180ft, 540-ton HMS Umpire settled on the seabed with a 30-degree list to starboard.

HMS Umpire (HMTrawler_Peter Hendricks)
An Illustration of the armed trawler HMT Peter Hendricks. iT was a Type. ASW Trawler (Pennant FY260) and built in 1935; her displacement was 266 tons and speed 12 knots. She was requisitioned in November 1939 for anti-submarine WW2 War Service and was returned to owners in February 1946.

According to a Kendall McDonald – “The two vessels clung together for less than a minute before the HMS Umpire heeled to port and went down. Four of Umpire’s crew members were on the bridge at the time of impact – the Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, the navigator, Tony Godden, and two lookouts. Only the CO survived the cold water and was rescued by the trawler; both lookouts sank before help reached them. ………… Four men in her control room had managed to seal the compartment. They knew from the depth gauge near the periscopes that they were at 24m, and though they had no Davis escape gear they decided to make a free ascent from the conning-tower hatch without delay. They made a good exit and all four reached the surface, but two had held their breath and, though picked up, died later from ruptured lungs………

Due to the list, the bulkhead door of the engine-room would not close properly and the compartment was slowly but steadily flooding. Twenty men had taken refuge here and prepared to escape using the Davis escape trunk. Only 17 had Davis escape gear, so three of those went first, with the three without escape lungs clinging to their legs. Two of the latter did not make it to the surface, as they were knocked unconscious after hitting gear outside the escape hatch – and let go.

A seaman called Killan then took charge of those who were left in the engine-room. First, he ducked under water into the trunking and went up it to make sure it was all clear before returning to the engine-room. Then he sent the others up one by one. He was the last to leave and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.”

HMS Umpire (Edward Preston Young)
Edward Preston “Teddy” Young DSO, DSC & Bar (17 November 1913 – 28 January 2003) was a British graphic designer, submariner and publisher. In 1935 he joined the then new publishing firm of Penguin Books and was responsible for designing the cover scheme used by Penguin for many years as well as drawing the original penguin logo. Photo: Wikipedia

Edward Preston Young was a junior officer on board the HMS Umpire at the time, and who was to go on to have a distinguished career as a submarine commander himself. His story about his experience on the HMS Umpire comes from his classic memoir of British submarine warfare, ‘One of Our Submarines’. in which he wrote:

“The sea continued to pour in on us, with a terrible and relentless noise, and the water in the compartment grew deeper every minute. As the level crept up the starboard side, live electrical contacts began spitting venomously, with little lightning flashes. Vaguely I wondered if we were all going to be electrocuted.In the half-darkness the men had become anonymous groping figures, desperately coming and going. There was no panic, but most of us, I think, were suffering from a sort of mental concussion. I discovered one man trying to force open the water-tight door that I had shut earlier. “My pal’s in there,” he was moaning, “my pal’s in there.” “It’s no good,” I told him; “she’s filled right up for’ard and there’s no one left alive on the other side of that door.” He turned away, sobbing a little.

For some reason we decided it would be useful if we could find more torches. I knew there must be one or two others somewhere in the wardroom, so I made yet another expedition down the slope, wading through the pool that was now waist-deep and already covering the lowest tiers of drawers under our bunks. I spent some time in the wardroom, shivering with fear and cold, ransacking every drawer and cupboard, pushing aside the forsaken paraphernalia of personal belongings — under-clothes, razors, pipes, photographs of wives and girl-friends. But I could find only one torch that was still dry and working. Holding it clear of the water, I returned to the control-room. It was deserted.

The door into the engine-room was shut. Had I spent longer in the wardroom than I thought? Perhaps they had all escaped from the engine-room escape hatch, without realising that I had been left behind. Even if they had not yet left the submarine, they might already have started flooding the compartment in preparation for an escape, and if the flooding had gone beyond a certain point it would be impossible to get that door open again. I listened, but could hear nothing beyond the monotonous, pitiless sound of pouring water. In this terrible moment I must have come very near to panic.”

HMS Umpire (Book)
Written by Edward Preston Young, one-time crew member of HMS Umpire.

Young was not on duty at the time and after the collision found himself in a flooding boat resting on the bottom of the North Sea in 60 feet of water. Having tried to surface the boat using compressed air and having searched for other survivors, Young ended up in the conning tower with the First Lieutenant, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) and an able seaman. They estimated that as a result of the angle of the boat and the height of the conning tower there was only about 45 feet above them and that they should attempt to swim to the surface. Closing the hatch below them, they forced open the upper hatch and escaped. The ERA was never seen again and the First Lieutenant drowned after reaching the surface.

Young and the seaman were picked up, along with several men who had escaped through the engine room hatch. The Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, had already been rescued, having been on the bridge when the collision occurred. All told, 2 officers and 20 ratings died with only 2 officers, Young and Wingfield, and 14 ratings surviving.

HMS Umpire (Wreck)
An Illustration of the present-day HMS Umpire wreck. For answers to the numbered keys go to the Archive Divernet site (here)

So, just nine days after being commissioned by the Royal Navy, their newest possession at 58 metres long and 730 tons displacement, had gone. The loss of HMS Umpire was not a direct result of any enemy action, but from an entirely and unfortunate accident. Today, the wreck is designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, although it is legally a war grave, it can be filmed, so long as nothing else is touched nor moved. The wreck lies on the seabed about 15 miles off the Norfolk coast between Blakeney and Wells in part of what is called today the ‘Sheringham Shoal’ – an eerie memorial to its brave crew and the horrors of war.

(For a tour of the wreckage site go to Archive Divernet (here)

HMS Umpire (Shoal Map)

THE END

Footnote: 
There seems to be some debate about the wreck of HMS Umpire being classified as a War Grave; some have pointed out that the wreck was reported as having been sold for scrap after the war and most of the damage to be seen today by divers was caused by the heavy use of explosives by the salvors.

Sources:
Christopher Weston
ww2today.com/19th-july-1941-trapped-in-the-sunken-hms-umpire
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Umpire_(N82)
archive.divernet.com/wreck-tours/p301658-wreck-tour:-55hms-umpire.html
https://www.northnorfolkdivers.co.uk/dive-sites-and-research-material/click-here-for-list-of-dive-sites/hms-umpire/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Preston_Young
www.harwichanddovercourt.co.uk/warships/trawlers/
historyreviewed.com/?p=8772
https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/archive/arctic-convoys-humbling-tales-of-brave-ulstermen-who-supplied-embattled-soviet-union-in-darkest-days-of-wwii-35276804.html
https://www.equinor.com/en/news/archive/2012/10/17/17OctDudgeon.html

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. 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.

Brancaster: The Fate of the SS Vina

Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.

Brancaster (Ramage & Ferguson)3
Ramage & Ferguson Employees, early 20th century. Photo: copyright owner unknown – see Notice below.

Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.

The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.

Brancaster (WW2 Yarmouth)2
Entrance to Great Yarmouth Harbour where the SSVina would have been used as a Block Ship had the enemy invaded. (Photo: copyright owner unknown)

 

Brancaster (WW2 Block Ship)1
What could have happened had the SS Vina been detonated. (Photo: copyright owner unknown)

In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.

Brancaster (SS Vina)4
The remains of SS Vina. Photo: Atlas Obscura

Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.

Brancaster (SS Vina)2
The remains of SS Vina. Photo: Atlas Obscura

The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.

Brancaster (SS Vina Warning Sign)

THE END

Reference Sources:
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ss-vina-wreck
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brancaster
https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/warning-over-wreck-of-the-ss-vina-at-brancaster-on-the-norfolk-coast-1-1485575
Feature Heading: Brancaster Beach – Getty Images.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

 

A Ghostly Tale: Thorpe Abbott’s ‘Eddie’!

Thorpe Abbotts is a village within the civil parish of Brockdish in the English county of Norfolk. The village is 6.5 miles east of Diss, and 20.8 miles south south west of Norwich.

Thorpe_Abbotts_45a

During the Second World War Thorpe Abbotts became home to the United States Army Air Forces and the base became operational in June 1943 when the 100th Bomb Group took up residency equipped with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The group became known as the ‘’Bloody 100th’’ because of the heavy losses incurred by the group on a number of their combat missions.

“Eddie the Ghost”, as the American personnel were to nickname him, began to appear on the Base after the first Berlin raids in 1942 when he was regularly reported walking through walls of the airmen’s quarters. Stories of Eddie persisted to the point where some of the men began to take their carbine rifles to bed with them. Fearing an accident, Colonel Jeffrey, the base commander, forbade all talk of Eddie on penalty of court martial.

The USAAF left the base in December 1945 but sightings of Eddie, although less frequent have still been recorded; occasionally he is seen when the restored control tower is locked at night – some say he appears at the first-floor window looking out as if to say good night!

Thorpe_Abbotts_(Art UK)
Art UK. 

Today, it is tempting to ask if the strange apparitions surrounding Eddie are in danger of being ‘embellished’ with some visitors to the fully restored museum even reporting an overpowering presence within the control tower, occasionally accompanied by the brief glimpse of an airman dressed in full flying gear. sometimes along with the sound of VHF chatter and the sound of aircraft.

THE END

Sources:
Wikipedia
Feature Heading: The Phantom Airman
Other Photos: Google Images

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.

 

 

Hyam Plutzik Comes to Shipdham

Shipdham lies approximately 3 miles south-west of East Dereham, Norfolk. The name derives from the Old English word for sheep – ‘sceap’ – hence ‘homestead with a flock of sheep’. Shipdham is sometimes confused with Shipden – the drowned village off the North Norfolk coast near Cromer. Shipdham was the first US heavy bomber base in Norfolk during World War II and was home to the famous B-24 Liberator bombers.

Shipdham (Bomber)1
Shipdham – WWII home to the famous B-24 Liberator bombers. Photo: Copyright owner unknown.

Hyam Plutzik was born in Brooklyn on July 13, 1911, the son of recent immigrants from what is now Belarus. He spoke only Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian until the age of seven, when he enrolled in grammar school near Southbury, Connecticut, where his parents owned a farm. Plutzik graduated from Trinity College in 1932, where he studied under Professor Odell Shepard. He continued graduate studies at Yale University, becoming one of the first Jewish students there. His poem “The Three” won the Cooke Prize at Yale in 1933.

Shipdham (Hyam Plutzik)
Hyam Plutzik was stationed at Shipdham. Photo c.1944-5. Photo: Sourced by Literary Norfolk .

After working briefly in Brooklyn, where he wrote features for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Plutzik spent a Thoreauvian year in the Connecticut countryside, writing his long poem, “Death at The Purple Rim”, which earned him another Cooke Prize in 1941, the only student to have won the award twice. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Force throughout the Amerian South and in Norwich, England, experiences that inspired many of his poems.

In 1942, Hyam Plutzik enlisted in the U.S. Army, becoming first a drill sergeant then first and second lieutenant. During the war, he married Tanya Roth, who worked for the War Information Bureau in New York City. Numerous moves—twelve different cities and twenty different houses before going overseas—and the lack of private time in army life made it difficult for Plutzik to continue to write poetry. The only poem he was able to complete was “Elegy.” But he did create an outline for and composed the first twenty lines of the long poem, Horatio, that was finally published to much acclaim in 1961.

Before going abroad, he was stationed at many bases throughout the American South, where he witnessed first-hand the institutional racism of segregation and Jim Crow. His experiences in Louisiana and Mississippi inspired him to write a number of poems that expressed his disgust for the way the Negro was being treated, such as “To Abraham Lincoln, That He Walk By Day,” and “The Road.” After his deployment in the South, he was stationed at Shipdham c.1944-5 and became the Ordinance, Information and Education Officer for the 44th Bombardment Group of the USAAF. Even in wartime Britain, Plutzik found time to attend Shakespearean plays and visit literary landmarks. He also collected impressions that later led to the composition of some of his notable “war poems” such as “Bomber Base,” “The Airfield at Shipdham,” and “The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’s England.” Like many servicemen, he wrote letters to his wife, parents, siblings and friends nearly every day, in which he described the experiences of wartime and the lives of ordinary soldiers. He also kept a journal; an entry dated June 5, 1944, the eve of D-Day, describes the uncertainty felt by men who were fighting a war as the English tried to carry on their everyday activities:

Shipdham (Air Drop)1
Copyright owner unknown.

“The invasion of France began after all the years of preparation and all the wrongs suffered at the hand of the evil one…How cold it must be in the sky now, and on the coasts of France…On a bomber base in England, with a farmer harrowing an adjacent field behind a plodding horse, I pass the D-day of this war.”

Plutzik continued his tour of duty in England for several months after the cessation of hostilities in the summer of 1945. He helped establish a library in Norwich and regularly gave informal lectures on American life and culture to local residents. Though his superiors encouraged him to re-enlist, Plutzik, like millions of other G.I.’s, was eager to resume his stateside life and career that had been interrupted by World War II. He rejoined his wife, Tanya, in New York. Soon afterwards, he was hired by the University of Rochester to teach in its English department.

Plutzik wrote two poems which were directly inspired by Shipdham – the first is ‘On the Airfield at Shipdham’ which concerns a skylark that he saw above the runway and which he connects to the bombers:

There is the lark, you said. And for the first time
I saw, far up in the fast darkening air,
The small lonely singer beating its wings
Against the pull of the old and evil earth.
It is too late, I said, to praise its song ….
Praise instead (because they bring our deaths
And thus another cycle of this bird’s praises)
The beasts with guts of metal groaning on the line
Or in the higher sky solemnly muttering.

© by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved.

Shipdham (Mottram)1
R.H.Mottram ‘Man of Letters’ by Bassano, vintage print, 14 June 1939

This poem was dedicated to R.H. Mottram, the Norwich-based novelist, best known for his Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927). Plutzik met Mottram after he invited him to give a lecture at the Shipdham air base. In fact, Plutzik records the event in a fascinating letter to his wife:

 Dearest Tanya,

This evening Mr Mottram, well-known resident of the nearby city, came & lectured on our base, and I have just come back from taking him & his wife back to their home. Riding in the dark along the wet roads, with the forlorn landscape illuminated occasionally by the dimmed-out lights, I thought of you my wife, and I felt very lonely for you.

(Printed by permission of Rochester University archive.)

On the Sunday evening in question, Mottram and his wife were entertained in the officer’s mess and after the lecture were driven back to 4, Poplar Drive – just off the Newmarket Road in Norwich.

The second poem inspired by Shipdham is ‘Bomber Base’  which appeared in Plutzik’s 1949 collection  Aspects of Proteus. In this longer poem, the poet contemplates the bombers spread out on the airfield prior to take off but then shifts his attention to the surrounding East Anglian landscape where he notes the ‘thatched farmhouse sleeps in the dark’ or how the ‘bomb trucks move down the deserted perimeter/ Where the cold North wind stifles all.’

Shipdham (Airfield)2
Field Ambulances standby as B-24 Liberators of the 44th Bomb Group line up for takeoff at Shipdham. Image has been signed on reverse with an illegible signature. Handwritten caption on reverse: ‘281-66-76. Photo: American Air Museum in Britain .

Norfolk also features in his famous poem The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’ s England  where ‘pilgrims along the holy roads/To  Walsingham’ are mentioned. There is also a lesser known poem called The Old War which appeared in Apples of Shinar (1959) which was also set in the county. Plutzik’s long dramatic poem Horatio, although not set in the Norfolk, was drafted during his time here. The poem wasn’t published until 1961 – one year before Plutzik’s premature death from cancer. Plutzik was only 50 years old when he died.

Shipdham (Plutzik Headstone)
Hyam Plutzik is buried in the large Jewish Cemetery at Old Montefiore in the Borough of Queens, New York City, USA. Photo: Photograves

Already there is no one to call to.
The body of Edward is not Edward,
Nor the ashes of Gregory Gregory.
Alexander is no longer Alexander in the earth.

Nothing can be done but something can be said at least.

(From Requiem for Edward Carrigh)

Copyright by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved

Ted Hughes was a big fan of Plutzik’s work and said: ‘Plutzik’s poems have haunted me for twenty-five years. His visions are authentic and piercing, and the song in them is strange – dense and harrowing, with unforgettable tones.’

Shipdham (Barrack Block)1
Today the airfield has been turned into an industrial estate – but a few derelict buildings still survive. Photo: 1976 (© Robin Taylor).

 Sources:

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.