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Miscellaneous Isleham History

The day Isleham escaped mass destruction

Published in the Newmarket Journal 10:44 Thursday 22 October 2009

Sixty years ago this month, when the flaming fuselage of the world's heaviest bomber streaked across a foggy October sky, residents of Isleham had no idea just how close they had come to destruction or how much they owed to the "noble actions" of its American pilot. Every member of the 12-man crew of the B-50 Strato bomber which was out on a practice bombing mission and crashed in Beck Road, was killed, but the consequences could have been considerably worse for hundreds of others as the 16 500lb bombs it was carrying had been designed for mass destruction. The B-50 had taken off from RAF Lakenheath at 9.25am on October 13. It had been checked the day before and immediately before take off. It was carrying enough fuel for 10 hours in the air but had got into difficulties shortly after leaving the airfield. Knowing that he and all those aboard were doomed, the pilot, Major George Ingham managed to steer the burning plane away from the village below, knowing the explosive power of the weaponry would have spelt certain disaster for hundreds of residents below. At an inquest into the death of Signaller David Garrett, the only British crew member on board the doomed bomber, held two days after the crash, witnesses to the tragedy told their stories. One of the first at the scene was a reporter from the Newmarket Journal who had followed fire crews to the crash site. described the chaos which followed the crash. "It seemed unbelievable," he wrote, "that the biggest bomber in the world could be reduced to small pieces of debris in such a short space of time. "When I arrived a search was being made for bodies which still lay where they had been thrown. "Wherever you walked there was evidence of a terrific explosion, either the pieces of the bomber itself or the gruesome reminders of the mutilation of some of the crew." Farm worker Joseph Leonard, of Beck Road, Isleham, told the inquest he could not see the plane because of the thick low fog, but he had heard a "spluttering sort of noise". Turning round he saw the bomber emerge from the clouds with its fuselage on fire. James Goodchild, a farmer of the White Lion, East End, Isleham said he had seen a plane coming from the Mildenhall direction at a very low height. Flames were streaking from its fuselage, its tail was crumpled up and the plane nose-dived towards the ground. Mr Leonard fell off his tractor and and lay flat on his face after hearing a large crack and seeing the engine of the mighty aircraft fall off. Housewife Vera Fenn of Croft Road, Isleham said she ran outside her house and saw the bomber, the starboard engines of which were on fire, losing height rapidly. She lost sight of it as it passed behind some houses and the next thing she saw was a brilliant yellow flash followed by a loud explosion. Another witness, police constable M Audley, said that when he arrived on the scene he found some villagers moving the body of an American to the edge of the field. He told the inquest that in a part of the plane which was not burning were two more bodies and in the fuselage, which was blazing fiercely, were a further four. Two messages had been initially received from the plane describing weather conditions, but the inquest heard of a third transmission received when the pilot was transmitting to another plane in his flight and unintentionally pressed the transmission button on his microphone, thus wirelessing back to base. The text of that message which stated that the bomber was in trouble was not disclosed but was written on a piece of paper and passed to the coroner. Recording a verdict of accidental death on behalf Signaller Garrett, Mr V Cade, the coroner paid his own tribute to the bravery of the pilot and his crew. "Although nothing has come out in this inquest, it would appear that the pilot took every step he could to avoid and save the damage to this village and we regard this as a noble action on his part. "If he had landed on this village, we do not know what the death toll and damage would have been but we do know it would have been colossal. "When we think of this tragedy in the future we should remember the gallant act of the pilot and the crew of this craft." And the villagers of Isleham remembered the crew and recorded their thanks in prayers when a large congregation gathered for a memorial service at St Andrew's Church on October 16 to pay tribute to all those aboard who had lost their lives.

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St Andrews Church Tower

At 5.30 pm on Tuesday 22 July, 1862, the tower of 14th century Isleham church collapsed upon itself and fell perpendicularly onto its site. Workmen were working on the tower from scaffolding when one of them saw a mullion fall from the west window and he raised the alarm. They were all able to flee from the tower before it collapsed and no loss of lost or broken limbs were incurred. The tower was reduced to a pile of clunch rubble. The 5 bells were not broken.


The Mill fire

On Tuesday 28 February, 1860, there was a tremendous gale in the area. The post windmill on the Isleham to Fordham Road had been stopped, the sails unclothed and the wheel chained. Despite these precautions a sudden gust of wind started the mill off at a fearful rate. A young man, Henry Westley, rushed to the upper part where he found that the shaft had become loose in the wheel and neither the brake nor the chain were of any use. The sails continued to turn with such rapidity that the friction between the shaft and the wheel caused the machinery to fire and ignite the structure. The flames were visible to hundreds of people in surrounding villages and many arrived to watch. The mill was burnt to ashes in less than an hour. The owner of the mill was Mr. W. Reynolds of Chippenham.