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The Mystery of Joan

May 5, 2012

I met her just once, the poet and children’s writer Joan Millington.  This was at the Book Fair held at Northwich Memorial Hall on Saturday 26th November 1988.

She sat across a table from me as I leafed through books from the piles before her – a lady in her late-60s, slight of build and quietly dressed with a sweet smile behind spectacles.  Joan was easy to talk to and the bustle of the fair seemed to fade away as we chatted.

Recently, trawling old files, I came across my note of our conversation hand-written on printer paper with sprocket holes down either side.  After a few minutes of internet research I discovered that Joan, who lived in the Cheshire village of Comberbach, had died on 6th October 2010, aged 90.  I then spent a frustrating hour or two surfing in vain for anything on her life and work.

It was incredible.  I knew from snippets in the local press years ago that Joan had been writing most of her life and by 1995 had produced around 900 poems and over a thousand children’s stories with at least four books of her own out – One Hundred Poems, Children’s Tales of Enchantment, Fantasy Tales for Children and Pudsey Pussycat – as well as work in magazines and anthologies.  How was it possible she’d left virtually no trace online?

With green fields and pockets of woodland all around, Comberbach is a charming village close to Marbury Park on the north side of Northwich.  A large buzzard swept low as I approached the village on the second Tuesday of April wishing to absorb something of the atmosphere of Joan’s home environment.  I parked by the Victorian red brick Chapel (still with an Easter cross of daffodils outside), strolled up to Robin’s Green, where Joan lived with her tailless tabby cat Polly, then bought a chocolate bar at the whitewashed, cottagey Post Office and Store, where she used to post her stories and poems.

The morning was pleasant but with masses of low puffy cloud that would later bring rain and hail.  There was blossom everywhere, doves calling and the intermittent cry of a pheasant.  A local gent I spoke to remembered Joan well.  She wasn’t seen around much except when walking up to the Post Office, a little old lady in headscarf and coat, carrying a bag.  She was very modest and it was hard to credit she was such a prolific writer.  She went to America to collect an award, he said.  And she wrote two poems for the millennium celebrations in the village.

Turning to the note of my conversation with Joan in 1988, I find I asked her that perennial question put to writers – where do you get your ideas?

“I find ideas everywhere,” she said.  “My mind is always teeming with ideas.  Often I notice mistakes people make when speaking on radio – not real mistakes but ambiguous choices of words.  And these will set me thinking.”

Joan went on to say she didn’t plot her stories in detail; she’d just let them grow in the telling.  Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon she’d write two stories, one after the other.

“Don’t you feel creatively drained after the first?” I asked.

“No, not at all.”

She wrote straight out, without rewriting or revision.  “I do it the way I want to do it,” she said, “and if others don’t like it, that’s their hard luck!”

Joan told me she’d written two full-length adult novels, but these were unpublished.

I commented on how many children’s writers also wrote poetry.  Perhaps this arose from a particular sensitivity to the music of language?”

“Perhaps so, though I don’t think about it whilst writing,” she said.

I’m glad I met Joan Millington that time, nearly a quarter century ago.  I remember the twinkle behind her dark-rimmed specs.  I had the impression that in her own quiet way, here was a woman of spirit and determination, a talented writer with a strong sense of direction.  Why she isn’t more widely remembered today is a bit of a mystery.  I should like to know more…




© Copyright Paul Beech 2012

From → Biographical

  1. Ian Cunliffe permalink

    Though a generation older than me, Joan was my second cousin – and we exchanged a lot of letters from about 1990 until her death, mostly on the subject of family history and north Cheshire life. She also sent me dozens of her poems. Like you, I only met her once, but she came across as a remarkable person in many ways. Incapable of writing a dull letter, she always managed to inject an element of mystery and magic into her descriptions of local life. Some of the information above is new to me – for example I’d no idea that she’d written two full-length novels – so I read your piece with great interest.

    Many thanks

    • Ian, delighted to hear from you. I wrote the piece in the hope of just such a response as I was keen to learn more about Joan. So many thanks.

      Last summer I was lucky enough to be given a brief memoir of Joan written by an old friend, who also, very kindly, loaned me inscribed copies of ‘Children’s Stories of Enchantment’ and ‘Pudsey Pussycat’.

      Joan is described as “a true Comberbach girl” who had a happy childhood, during which “she formed her lifelong love of the village.” An animal lover too, she subscribed to many charities and had a succession of pet sheepdogs and blue-eyed Persian cats. I could see how she got the idea for Pudsey, a young Persian she-cat with beautiful white fur, who rode a magic red bicycle. Joan rode a bike too.

      Your comment throws new light and I should love to compare notes. Will email you.

      Best wishes,


      • Ian Cunliffe permalink


        Thank you for your reply. I’d be happy to throw what light I can on the “Mystery of Joan”.

        Best wishes


  2. Much appreciated, Ian. Joan and her writings deserve to be remembered. I’ve emailed you.



  3. Maureen Weldon permalink

    This is very interesting, I never really knew about Joan Millington’s work, but if I could , though I don’t think her work is easily available.

  4. Dear Maureen, thank you so much. Yes, it’s a shame Joan’s books are not easily come by these days. I was very lucky last year to have the temporary loan of her ‘Children’s Stories of Enchantment’ (published 1961 by Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe) and ‘Pudsey Pussycat’ (illustrated by Julie Valentine and self-published by the author 1993). Both books, although dated, have an undeniable charm. I’m also lucky to have been provided with information about her life from two sources, though the picture is far from complete.

    I should certainly like to post further about Joan and her work at a future date.

    Yours always,


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