TitleMurder at Birch - Centenary Chronicles 13
AbstractMurder at Birch

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 13.

Published in Parish News - November 1998

Apart from the crash of the German aircraft in Layer Breton, which we mentioned in May, another event from the war years which is recalled by some is the murder at Birch airfield.

On the 8th December 1943 a Tiptree policeman found an abandoned taxi cab in Haynes Green Road, Layer Marney. There were signs of a struggle and it was parked on the wrong side of the road but with the lights still on. There was no sign of the driver. Police enquiries revealed that the driver, Harry C Hailstone, had called at his landlady's, in Colchester, at 11pm the previous evening saying that he would not be in for his supper as he had two coloured American servicemen who wished to go to Birch. This was the last time that he was seen alive. Two days after his disappearance his body was found in a ditch by Birch Rectory and Supt Totterdell of Essex CID took charge of the enquiries....

There were three motives for the murder - robbery; an argument over the fare or the passengers "bilking" on the fare altogether. The first was thought unlikely as the victim's wallet, with a considerable amount of money, was intact although it had been examined by whoever carried out the crime. An inquest was opened but the Coroner ruled that only evidence of identification and medical conditions would be taken before adjournment until a date in January. Dr Francis Camps, the Essex County pathologist (later to become the leading Home Office pathologist) gave evidence on the examination of the body at Birch and of the post-mortem carried out later. In answer to the Coroner's questions self strangulation or accidental death were ruled out and he found that it was due to violence by some other person or persons.

The Essex County Standard of 21 January 1944 reported that two coloured US soldiers had been accused of the murder at a court martial in Ipswich. It went on to say that the procedure was unique in that the two accused were tried by separate courts in adjoining rooms, witnesses having to give the same evidence twice. The accused were Private J C Leatherberry and Private George Fowler and, after just over a 12 hour sitting, Fowler, who was tried first, was found guilty of murder, robbery and larceny for which he was sentenced to "confinement to prison with hard labour for life." His trial had been interrupted so that he could give evidence in the trial of Leatherberry which was adjourned until the next day.

The newspaper reports contain a great amount of detail as to the evidence and sequence of events which, fortunately, have been condensed in "Country Copper" the biography of Supt Totterdell. In his account of the case he describes the examination of the taxi which showed clear signs of a struggle, plus traces of blood. The rear seat was removed and sent to Hendon Police Laboratory for further examination. He alerted the army authorities and arranged for searches to be made for the body. The day after the taxi had been found, a bloodstained civilian mackintosh was found in the gutter of the main road near Tollesbury, some six miles from Layer Marney. The coat had a Canadian maker's label and an owner's name near the collar band. Through the Canadian authorities a Canadian Captain was traced in Sussex and he was interviewed by the local police. It transpired that he had been stationed at the 18th Canadian General Hospital, Cherry Tree Camp, Colchester, on 5th December! On returning to camp from London he had met a coloured US sergeant at Liverpool Street Station and had invited him back to his camp for a drink. While the Canadian was absent from his room the American had left taking a bottle of whisky and the mackintosh with him. The mackintosh had contained five pounds in notes, a Rolex watch, a torch and pair of gloves!

What had started out as a, seemingly, straight forward case now took a twist as a US soldier informed the police that he had seen a soldier wearing a light raincoat making a telephone call outside the Crown Inn, Messing. He had also seen the cab only 200 yards from his camp. Attempts to corroborate this story were unsuccessful. Fortunately the Canadian Captain's story was supported by a mess orderly who recalled that the American sergeant had left a gas mask behind at Cherry Tree Camp. The police found a name in the case and the owner was traced to Birch. He said that he had loaned it to a fellow soldier, Fowler, who in turn said he had left it in London. There were discrepancies as to dates and what Fowler did in London and so his billet was searched. A soldier's blouse, with sergeant' stripes, plus blood stains was found together with a pawn ticket for a Rolex watch. Fowler denied ever having pawned a watch and he went on to make a statement as to the events between 3rd and 8th December together with what he knew of the items found in his kit bag and billet. He said that he had written certain details on an envelope found in his kit and was asked, by Supt. Totterdell, to write the same message on another piece of paper. He was unable to spell any of the words requested! By tracing the name on the envelope another soldier was interviewed and he admitted meeting two soldiers in London, one of whom was Fowler. He also said he had written the envelope.

This was all put to Fowler who decided to make another statement and as Totterdell says, "The strain of a guilty conscience was apparently beginning to tell." He admitted having the raincoat which had been a gift from the Canadian but claimed that the pockets had been empty. He had caught a bus back to Birch from Cherry Tree Camp, getting off at the White Horse. Meeting another soldier, and admitting that he was already two days overdue on his pass, they decided to return to London! The other soldier, Leatherberry, returned to Colchester with him a few days later, and although both drank heavily they were not drunk. Leatherberry suggested hiring a taxi to return to Birch. After calling at Hailstone's lodgings the cab continued to Birch when Fowler asked the driver to stop so that he could relieve himself. While he was doing so Leatherberry overpowered the driver and asked Fowler to assist him in dumping the body. They carried it across the road and slipped it under some wire. Leatherberry said he was feeling cold and Fowler handed him the raincoat. After some discussion they drove to Maldon intending to go back to London by train. They were too late for the last train however and so returned to camp where Fowler fell sound asleep.

When he woke next morning Leatherberry was gone. After taking this statement Totterdell interviewed Leatherberry who confirmed some parts of Fowler's story although he did not know his name. A search of his billet revealed more blood stained clothing and he was also arrested. At an identity parade Leatherberry was picked out by witnesses from London and evidence from the clothing, supplied by Hendon, tied them both into the murder. Fowler then made a further statement. Eventually after all the evidence was collected the men were handed over to the US authorities for trial. Leatherberry stuck to his alibi despite all the evidence, including the bloodstains. He was found guilty and sentenced to death and was executed at Shepton Mallet on 16th May 1944. Fowler was returned to the US to serve his sentence.

This tragedy was the third to strike the Hailstone family during the war as his mother had been the first victim of German bombing in Colchester and a brother had been killed in the RAF. The defendants were almost illiterate and in need of money which they thought would be easy pickings from the taxi driver, as was evident from Fowler's statement and police evidence. They clearly had money after the murder but just how much and where it came from was not established at the time. This must have been a tricky case for Supt Totterdell and his men in dealing with the US authorities, given the tensions known to exist between the coloured and white American servicemen. The naïve behaviour of the Canadian officer in inviting a US "sergeant" back to his mess must have surprised both the US and British authorities at the time to say nothing of the possible breaches of security which must have occurred.

So ended the most notorious "event" so far as the story of Birch airfield is concerned!

PublishedNovember 1998
SourceMersea Museum