These are the answers to the questions I put to Derbyshire Constabulary. They make interesting reading – particularly towards the end.
1. Is it possible that Fred Handford went missing before 19 March?
Fred’s actual date of disappearance from Ball Beard Farm was never established definitively. Janet stated she saw him on 18 March. A neighbouring farmer saw him on 16 March. His disappearance was reported on 19 March. The police spoke to relatives, neighbours and business contacts who all described him as a recluse. A statement was also taken from Mr Thornley at the next farm.
2. Was there any evidence to indicate he intended to kill himself?
There was no positive evidence found that he intended to kill himself or do himself any harm. There was no suicide note found and no-one was aware of a suicide note. Janet did say that if he wasn’t in the farmhouse he would usually leave a note indicating his whereabouts but again, there was no note. Fred’s dog was locked in the farmhouse. Officers let the dog out, hoping perhaps that it would lead them to Fred, but it merely ran round in circles, confused and distressed.
3. What was Fred’s state of mind before he disappeared?
What I really want to know here is did Fred’s earlier accident with the young horse have a bearing on his state of mind, making him feel suicidal? His sister Mags’ statement proves she rarely visited Fred as she said he “fell off a horse a couple of years back but recovered very quickly.” Which was not the case at all, according to Janet. Fred wasn’t riding the horse, he was leading it and the accident resulted in him having 42 stitches in a gaping head wound. Mags adds: “He didn’t appear to have any ill-effects but then we didn’t see a lot of him.” Stuart has no other evidence to offer on this point.
4. One mine shaft in particular was mentioned as the possible site of his suicide. Who told the police this?
The mine shaft was known as Thornley’s Pit and farmer Thornley was supposed to have listened to Fred telling him how ‘if things got so bad he would throw himself down the pit.’
Stuart hints that Thornley is significant (the man, not the pit) and waits for me to catch up with his own train of thought. He even says: “Come on Helen.” I realise he is hinting at some sort of ‘love triangle’ with Fred and Thornley vying for Janet’s attentions.
Stuart gives me a very good description of the mine shaft, making clear that the police did everything they could in searching for a body and how unlikely it was that anyone would survive the fall. The shaft was ventilation for Yard Mine, last worked by Ollerset Colliery Company in 1897.
In the 1970s the shaft and others like it were owned by the National Coal Board. It was a 366ft drop to the water level, it was 6ft in diameter and had an 8ft stone wall surround topped with broken glass set into concrete to stop anyone climbing up or falling in. The inside of the shaft was stone clad and open to seepage from the surrounding hills which resulted in an almost constant flow of water running down the inside like a waterfall. At the bottom of the shaft the water was 24ft deep and flowing constantly into the mine workings. The NCB refused access to the mine saying it was too dangerous. Stuart tells me the police lowered high intensity lighting down the shaft on a rope instead, using pullies and high powered binoculars. There was no sign of anything, adding that the torrents of water would have ‘washed’ the sides and made sure there was no evidence remaining if someone had thrown themselves off the top.
The police then lowered grappling hooks down the shaft, in order to drag the bottom – presumably for human remains. Again, nothing was picked up.
After six weeks officers returned to see if a body would have risen to the surface. Nothing.
I ask Stuart again: “Why this particular shaft?” recalling Janet’s statement in her manuscript of ‘evidence of disturbance’ in the vicinity. Stuart describes a two foot stretch of broken glass on the top of the wall as if someone had been walking along the top but then just as I’m noting this down he adds: “But children were known to have played in the area so that didn’t really prove anything either.”
Fred had obviously picked the perfect spot to do away with himself if he hadn’t wanted to be found.
5. Who was interviewed in relation to Fred’s disappearance?
Stuart says every relative, every neighbour and every business acquaintance was interviewed with the only conclusion made at the end of it all the fact that no-one really knew Fred. He then says that there were ‘intimations made about Janet and other people’. These sort of accusations keep cropping up. Martha (Fred’s ex-wife), June, his cousin, and Mags all seem to be saying the same thing: Janet is at the very least a flirt, at the most a Jezebel. But there is no evidence to back this up; it’s all conjecture.
After interviewing all these people the police were still no nearer to discovering if or why Fred had committed suicide. Money worries were dismissed: Fred and Janet had borrowed £5,000 when his mother died but were only paying £379 every six months in repayments. While they weren’t rich, it didn’t look as if money was the key to taking his life. Again, there was speculation (according to Stuart) about financial and personal matters but again, there were no facts to support this.
6. Was there a suicide note?
None was found.
7. Did anyone questioned by police give any reason why Fred would have committed suicide?
8. Was Fred’s daughter, Katrina, his next of kin?
Yes. In August 1979 Derbyshire Constabulary was contacted by Goulden’s Solicitors of 40-43 Chancery Lane, London. They had been engaged by a client, name not given – but presumably Katrina – to institute an application to swear death to the probate court letters of administration.
9. What is the procedure when there is no body found but a death is presumed?
Stuart tells me there is no presumption of suicide as there is no body. The case is still classed as Missing Person. With death or a serious crime the police have to make an assessment as to whether a case is closed and if so, when.
Stuart says: “In this particular investigation there are some aspects which could in due course provide opportunities to further investigate a possible location of a missing person.” Stuart is referring to the technical capabilities available should the body/remains be found at a later date (perhaps if the land was developed for housing or industrial use) determining both the location and subsequent cause of death. This would in turn provide a new impetus to a re-opening of the investigation.
He then tells the poignant story of a young child in 1978 who wandered off in the Derbyshire area. Hundreds of officers searched for him, combing the moors for any evidence of his body. They used bamboo canes, pushing them into the ground, pulling them out and reinserting them in a different part of the moor. Apparently if the cane hits a body it leaves a smell on the wood.
The young boy’s body was eventually found although not in the ground, the poor lad had fallen into a sewerage vat.
10. Why is the case not closed?
11. Have police ever been approached by anyone with a suggestion that Fred did not commit suicide but that he died by other means?
Yes, but none of the suggestions have ever been backed up by any facts.
Stuart then refers me to back copies of the Manchester Evening News of 22 March 1976 for a full newspaper report. He gives me a copy of Janet’s statement which I don’t have time to read as I have to dash off and it looks like he’s in a rush too. I don’t actually tell Stuart but I am meeting Janet for lunch.
Janet looks more tired than I remember. It could be because she has had two sessions with Dr Belinda Browne-Thomas and the strain is beginning to show. But for now, we settle down for lunch as I go over the answers Stuart Barlow has given to me – and I discuss the answers with Janet.