An Unreliable Witness?

Fred Handford, Ball Beard Farm
Ploughing at Ball Beard Farm Fred Handford

30 March 2010

I call the number I have for Arthur Binns again. This is the person who, I’ve been told, once owned the newsagents, next to the chemist in New Mills and who might have some information regarding the pamphlet I’ve been trying to track down.

This is the self-published pamphlet that Catherine, the librarian at New Mills library mentioned to me in the course of my research and Derek Brumhead, chair of the local history society, was so wary of discussing with me, saying it was practically libellous.

At the second time of trying to get through on the phone, someone picks up. It is June Binns, Arthur’s wife and she is very forthcoming, to say the least.

June’s mother is 93-year-old Margaret, or Mags, and it is Mags who wrote the booklet five or six years ago. June also tells me that Mags is very much alive. Mags Naylor (nee Handford) is Fred’s sister and the book tells of her memories growing up at Ball Beard Farm.

“We used to visit Uncle Fred on the farm when we were younger,” says June. “This was before he married Aunty Martha and he was farming the land on his own. Arthur used to go up there to borrow his horse, Midnight Star, for our children to ride. He’d go up to Ball Beard, fetch the horse, bring it down to New Mills for the afternoon then take it back up in the evening.

“Fred eventually married Martha and they had a little girl, Katrina, but Martha fell ill after the baby’s birth. I suppose you’d call it post-natal depression today. At the time, they didn’t know what it was but she had to go into a nursing home for quite a while. I don’t think she ever really recovered. When she came out she went to live with her mother at Kinder View and the marriage eventually broke down. Martha never remarried and neither did Fred – and that’s when she took her chance.” June pauses for breath.

“Arthur and I used to have a milk round in the area, delivering to the local farmers and we warned him against her; but she managed to ‘get in with Fred’; he was lonely and she made a beeline for him. And of course, Fred fell for her.”

I say nothing but I assume that June is talking about Janet, although she doesn’t actually say her name.

June then asks me did I know she’d been in prison.

By now we’ve ascertained that ‘she’ is in fact Janet and I tell June that Janet has contacted me and, yes, I do know that Janet has been in prison, 20 years ago. In fact Janet was very open about the fact. June is horrified and warns me in no uncertain terms to beware of ‘that woman’.

We go back to talking of Fred and Ball Beard Farm and I ask June if she felt that Fred was in love with Janet. “Oh yes, he wanted to marry her.” Again, this is not what Janet has told me. Janet made it very clear to me that her relationship with Fred was business only.

June then tells me that the case is still open and I tell her that I am aware of that.

They (the police) visited my mother only last year,” she says.

I wonder what on earth the police would want to ask a 93-year-old about her brother – a man who went missing over 30 years ago?

There are one or two other things I find interesting about what June tells me which might indicate that she has a different grasp on reality to Janet.

“Fred was not a hermit,” she says (I don’t recall suggesting that he was – but perhaps June is aware of what everyone else seems to think of him.)  “We all used to visit him – often. There was always one of his cousins up there helping him on the farm. (Not according to Janet there wasn’t.)

“That farm has been passed down from generation to generation; Fred’s father farmed there and his father before him…”

By now I can hear June’s husband in the background but I can’t actually hear the words. He comes to the phone and sounds calmer than June but quite firm: June has said too much and they are not prepared to say anything more. June also tells me that she will have to pass on details of our conversation to her mother, Mags Naylor – Fred Handford’s sister.

From what I’ve heard about Mags so far – and her indomitable character – I wouldn’t be surprised if Mags tries to contact me with her own views about Janet.

And she does.

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