Hundreds attend Winnie Johnson's funeral in Manchester

Mourners pay tribute to mother of Moors murders victim Keith Bennett at church where her son attended Sunday school

Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of Winnie Johnson, the mother of Moors murders victim Keith Bennett.

Johnson, 78, spent nearly half a century searching for the final resting place of her 12-year-old son, the only one of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley's five young victims whose body has never been found. Her lifelong wish was to find his makeshift grave on Saddleworth Moor and give him a Christian burial.

At Thursday's service at St Chrysostom's church, in Victoria Park, Manchester, where Johnson, a widow, attended regularly, family, friends and members of the local community heard how a "practical, forthright and even formidable woman" carried a "sense of joy in her heart" despite her terrible sorrow.

Canon Ian Gomersall, rector of St Chrysostom's, knew Johnson well. He refused to name the two people who had brought such torment to his friend's life.

He told mourners: "I will not go into the detail of this, nor will I name here the perpetrators of that evil. What I will do is pay tribute to this remarkable woman. I know my words of tribute will be shared by so many people. I pay tribute to Winnie's courage and determination to bring her son back to her family. I pay tribute to Winnie and her family's resolve to give Keith a final resting place, which has been an inspiration to so many over the years, and we thank God for this encouraging example."

Johnson's hunt for her missing son gained a renewed sense of urgency when she was diagnosed with the cancer which finally took her life on 18 August. But Brady, 74, who with Hindley abducted and murdered Keith in 1964, refused to divulge any information. Brady, who is currently held in a high-security mental health unit on Merseyside, ignored countless letters from Johnson begging him for help.

Johnson's funeral cortege arrived at St Chrysostom's just before 11am. Floral tributes spelled out "Gran" and "Mam". Inside the church where Keith attended Sunday school, the congregation heard from Elizabeth Bond, a family friend. She said: "Winnie … stood fast against all that life could throw at her and kept a sense of humour along the way. She lived by her values – to do what we believe is right even in the hardest time; to not let ourselves be beaten and always call it how it is."

Johnson lived in Manchester all of her life. A former cleaner in hospital kitchens, she never gave up hope that her son's body would be found. Gomersall said Johnson had shown "that we everyday people, can have courage, strength, hope and determination, whatever assails us". He added that "even in the midst of her grief", she could find hope and joy.

Prayers were said for Johnson and mourners sang her favourite hymns, Lord of All Hopefulness, The Lord's My Shepherd and The Old Rugged Cross.

Johnson's grandson, Stephen Prescott, described how his grandmother was the centre of the family and, although she had a life of "struggle and hardship", she was an "unabashed character" who always had a smile on her face and was a "shining example" to all.

A book of condolence has been opened at the church and a fundraising initiative has been launched to establish a memorial garden. There is already a tribute to Keith in the church.

Greater Manchester police said in July 2009 that the search for Keith's remains was over, barring any major new evidence.


Helen Nugent

The GuardianTramp

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