When her mother appeared next morning to ask why Keith had failed to turn up, Winnie Johnson checked at his school, panicked and called the police.
Her first concern was that her studious, short-sighted son had not been wearing his wire-framed NHS spectacles, having cracked one of the lenses at the local swimming baths. For many years afterwards she kept the broken glasses in his drawer in the back bedroom. “If I had known,” she said, “I would never have let him out of my sight.”
On four occasions over the next two years, police questioned her husband Jimmy Johnson, Keith’s stepfather, ripping out floorboards in the family house and digging up the concrete back yard.
When a wider search for bodies began following the arrest of Brady and Hindley in October 1965, Winnie Johnson realised that Keith and another missing youngster, 16-year-old Pauline Reade, might also have been among their victims and buried somewhere in the vast wilderness of Saddleworth Moor.
Police showed Winnie Johnson clothing belonging to a second 12-year-old, John Kilbride, one of Brady and Hindley’s known victims, because they thought at first that his body might be Keith’s. But confirmation that Keith had indeed been murdered came only in 1985 — 21 years after his disappearance — when Ian Brady confessed to a journalist.
Winnie Johnson spent five weeks laboriously writing an impassioned letter to his co-accused. “Dear Miss Hindley,” it began. “I am sure I am one of the last people you would have expected to receive a letter from…” It was, as Mrs Johnson was at pains to stress, no rant but a plea for help. “Please, I beg you, tell me what happened to Keith. My heart tells me you know and I am on bended knees begging you to end this torture and finally put my mind at rest…”
Winnie Johnson had not expected a positive response, or indeed any response at all. Hindley, however, not only admitted her complicity in Keith’s murder but also, in the words of Det Ch Supt Peter Topping, the officer heading the reinvestigation, “appealed to God that the bodies of the two missing youngsters should be found… ”
Hindley further agreed to help police locate the graves of Keith Bennett and Pauline Reade, and in December 1986 was taken by detectives on the first of two highly-publicised searches of Saddleworth Moor. But when finally, in July 1987, police found a body, Topping telephoned Winnie Johnson to tell her that it was that of Pauline Reade, not of her son. Winnie Johnson’s steadfast pugnacity deserted her and she broke down and wept.
Brady, too, confidently accompanied detectives to the moor, but apparently lost his bearings and was unable to find Keith’s grave; six weeks later, when Topping called off the search, a sobbing Winnie Johnson repeated over and over again that, while she did not blame the police, she felt life had “given her a raw deal”. As if to prolong the agony, six years of renewed police searches from 2003-09 were also to prove fruitless.
One of four children, Winifred Bennett was born on September 14 1933 in the Ardwick district of Manchester. Her father was a wholesale fruit dealer, her mother a domestic servant. When she was 10 she witnessed the death of her seven-year-old sister Margaret after her dress burst into flames on an electric fire. Leaving Mansfield Street school when she was 15 Winnie took a series of jobs, including working as a cinema usherette and at a rubber factory. She was 18 and unmarried when she gave birth to her first son, Keith, in June 1952. She subsequently had seven more children, including three with Jimmy Johnson, a joiner, to whom she was married from 1961 until his death 30 years later.
The family moved from Clayton to Eston Street, Longsight, in 1963, with Winnie Johnson working during the school holidays as a cleaner at the Electricity Board offices on Bax Road, five minutes’ walk from her house. Meanwhile, Keith and his siblings would spend hours at the Victoria Baths on High Street (now Hathersage Road).
Keith made strenuous attempts to teach his younger brother, Alan, to swim, but as Alan later explained “I spent most of the time gingerly sat on the edge of the pool with my feet in the water, squinting up at the sun coming through the glass roof. After Keith disappeared I rarely went there again.”
It was at the Victoria Baths that on June 15, three days after his 12th birthday, Keith broke a lens in his glasses during a swimming gala. He vanished the following day.
By the time she wrote to Myra Hindley in 1986 Winnie Johnson was working in the kitchens at the Christie Hospital, south Manchester.
When Hindley died in prison in 2002, Winnie Johnson turned her attention to Ian Brady, engaging with him in what some characterised as a series of mind games as he stalled on the question of the whereabouts of Keith Bennett’s body. Few doubted that Brady knew where to look; his persistent refusal to say was viewed as a particularly vindictive act of cruelty.
Winnie Johnson, who had long suffered from cancer, remained ignorant of the turn of events last week, when it was reported that Brady had written her a letter, to be opened only after his own death, perhaps identifying the location of Keith’s body, or perhaps merely taunting her further.
“I’ll do anything, go anywhere for him,” she said of her dead son earlier this year. “As long as I know one day, I’ll be grateful. I hope he’s found before I am dead. All I want out of life is to find him and bury him. I just wish he is found before I go.”
Despite the confessions of Hindley and Brady, no one was ever charged over her son’s disappearance, and officially the case remains unsolved. Keith Bennett would have been 60 this year.
Winnie Johnson, born September 14 1933, died August 18 2012