Winnie Johnson was an ordinary mother whose life became defined by the tragic death of her son, 12-year-old Keith Bennett, who was murdered by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady in 1964. Despite her unrelenting quest to find him, she died not knowing where he had been buried – and not knowing about the existence of a letter that might reveal his whereabouts.
Winnie Johnson was born in 1933 in Ardwick, Manchester. Her mother was in service, her father a greengrocer. One of four children, she left school at the age of 15 and worked in a factory and as a cinema usherette. Her first son, Keith Bennett, was born in June 1952, when she was 18 and unmarried.
In an interview earlier this year, she spoke about this era of her life. "At first when I was pregnant, people criticised me, but I said 'it's me that's having the baby, I'm going to keep it'. I didn't give a damn; I said it's my own bloody life. I love kids, they keep you young." She married Jimmy Johnson in 1961 and moved to the Longsight area of Manchester.
Keith Bennett disappeared on the evening of 16 June 1964, whilst walking from home to his grandmother's nearby house, to meet his brother Alan and other siblings. Hindley enticed him into their van by asking if he could help with carrying some boxes. She drove to a lay-by on Saddleworth Moor, where Brady sexually assaulted, killed and buried him.
Brady and Hindley were jailed in 1966 for the murder of three children. The investigation into Bennett's disappearance continued for some 20 years, with Jimmy Johnson, his stepfather, brought in as a suspect for questioning by police on four occasions.
Brady did not confess to Bennett's murder until June 1985, when he revealed in an interview with a journalist that he had also killed Keith Bennett and Pauline Reade. Prompted by this confession, Johnson wrote to Myra Hindley, asking for assistance in finding Keith's burial place:
"I am a simple woman, I work in the kitchens of Christie's Hospital. It has taken me five weeks labour to write this letter because it is so important to me that it is understood by you for what it is, a plea for help. Please, Miss Hindley, help me."
Searches of Saddleworth Moor began in 1986, with Hindley present on two occasions, and resulted in the discovery of Pauline Reade's body. Keith Bennett thus became the "lost victim" of the Moors Murders, the only one whose remains are yet to be found.
On Hindley's death in 2002, Johnson remarked "I have no sympathy for her, even in death", and reiterated her determination to find her son's body. "Whatever happens," she said, "I'll never give up looking for Keith and I'll keep asking Brady." She remained true to her word and sent hundreds of letters to Brady asking him to help.
After the official Greater Manchester Police operation ended, a privately funded search began in 2010. At the memorial for Keith Bennett held at Manchester Cathedral in March that year, Johnson told the congregation, "I'm Keith's mother. He's there on the Moors; I want him back."
Johnson was to have been present at a mental-health tribunal hearing, which would decide whether Brady should remain in a psychiatric hospital or be moved to a prison. She said that she would not attend because of her health and that it would be "too traumatic". Her solicitor, John Ainley, commented: "Winnie has made it perfectly clear over the years that she considers Ian Brady should remain in a mental hospital for the remainder of his natural life and not be transferred to a prison either in England or Scotland."
At the time of Johnson's death, police were investigating claims that one of the letters in the possession of Jackie Powell, Brady's former mental-health advocate, may contain the location of Keith's grave. Alan Bennett, Keith's brother, said: "Until Keith is found, then he is still in the possession of Brady and Hindley. Our fear as a family is that now my mother is no longer with us, this may be seen by the police and the media as some sort of closure to the case. This must not be allowed to happen."
Her family said in tribute, "Winnie fought tirelessly for decades to find Keith and give him a Christian burial. Although this was not possible during her lifetime, we, her family, intend to continue this fight now for her and for Keith. We hope that the authorities and the public will support us in this."
Winifred Bennett (Winnie Johnson): born Manchester 14 September 1933; married 1961 Jimmy Johnson (died 1991, three children, four children from a previous relationship); died Manchester 18 August 2012.Reuse content