Emotional final return for evicted villager
Dominic Chessum He was forced to leave his ancestral home along with his family and nearly 1,000 others at the height of the second world war, but a Breckland man's final wishes have been fulfilled after he was buried in the churchyard of the village where he was born.
He was forced to leave his ancestral home along with his family and nearly 1,000 others at the height of the second world war, but a Breckland man's final wishes have been fulfilled after he was buried in the churchyard of the village where he was born.
All military activity in the Thetford Battle Area was suspended for several hours yesterday as William Hancock, known to many as Billy, was interred at the parish church in the deserted village of Tottington.
He is the first person to be laid to rest in the churchyard for more than half a century after villagers from Tottington, and several other villages nearby, were forcibly evicted from their homes in 1942 to make way for a 1,700 acre military training area.
Though promises were made that those evicted would be allowed to return after the war, they were never fulfilled and throughout his life Mr Hancock, who died at the age of 85, was an ardent campaigner for people to be allowed more access to their former homes and return to them for good.
His son Andrew said Mr Hancock would have seen being buried in Tottington churchyard as a small victory in his battle for greater access.
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He said: “Over the years he tried to keep the issue in the headlines.
“If he had ever won the lottery he would have taken the MOD to court over it.
“There is a house in the village called Hancock's Cottage and he saw it as the family home and wanted to move back there.
“He believed the military had broken their promise.”
The breaking apart of several close knit communities and the forcible eviction of hundreds of families from the houses they had called home - in many cases for generations - stands as a small footnote to the innumerable personal tragedies suffered in wartime.
However, for those who were removed from Tottington and the other villages the action was a defining moment in their lives.
While some went on to find jobs elsewhere in Breckland, others were forced to move away altogether to find work. For a few, the wrench of having to leave was too much and in one case the suicide of woman some years after her eviction was blamed by many on her being unable to cope with the loss of her farm.
Mr Hancock's wife Barbara said: “It was in his will that my husband wanted to be buried at Tottington.
“It has taken a lot of work to get permission to do it and we are thankful to the MOD for allowing us to.”
An afternoon funeral service at St Peter's Church in Merton was attended by nearly 100 mourners and saw members of the British Legion perform a guard of honour outside the church. The coffin was brought in behind the legion's flag.
During a moving service, Mr Hancock's son-in-law Adrian Stephens gave an address which brought both tears and laughter to the faces of many.
He said: “The number of people in this room shows how much he was loved.”
Mr Stephens described Mr Hancock as a “recycled teenager” who “played a lot of jokes and had a young outlook”.
“Until recently he had been mowing lawns and doing shopping for 'old people' most of who were younger than him,” he continued.
“He will be sadly missed, but he will not be forgotten.”
Following the funeral, members of Mr Hancock's family and some close friends travelled in convoy to Tottington along the single track roads of the battle zone.
A military official observed from a distance and helicopters whirred overhead as Mr Hancock was buried near to his grandparents, Walter and Caroline Hancock.
Born on May 11, 1924, Mr Hancock joined the Navy at 16, a year younger than the official joining age.
While in the forces he married his first wife Lilly and upon being demobbed the couple returned to live in Shipdham where Mr Hancock began a long and varied career.
At various times he was landlord of the Woolpack at Yaxham, the White Horse at Saham and for more than a decade he ran the East Wretham Social Club.
Sadly, while working as landlord of the White Horse his first wife died suddenly.
He married his second wife, Barbara, in 1968.
Mr Hancock's time in the hospitality industry was interspaced with stints as a farmer and shepherd. He was also heavily involved in country pursuits and ran fox hunts around Saham.
From 1984, Mr Hancock was a popular face at auctions in Watton where he worked as a porter up until his 85th birthday.
He died on September 17.