Wife of Wigan rugby league star was code-breaking war hero

Edna Mountford with her medal
Edna Mountford with her medal

Rugby league legend Ces Mountford is well known to many Wiganers but his wife is every bit as much a local hero.

That’s because Wigan-raised Edna Mountford carried out top secret work for the intelligence agencies during World War Two which only came to light a few years ago after the Kiwi sports star’s death.

Edna Mountford

Edna Mountford

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Edna, who received a Bletchley Park Medal and Certificate from then-prime minister Gordon Brown, was part of the famous team of code breakers listening for messages and interpreting them.

She worked through the night after a full day’s graft at a station in the grounds of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres’ estate, which was chosen because its rural location meant reception was clear.

Her role in defeating the Nazis remained utterly unknown until provision under the Official Secrets Act were lifted.

Son Kim, who lives on the Gold Coast in Australia, said: “She didn’t speak much about it at all.

“It first came up in the ‘90s. We were watching a programme on Bletchley Park and she said she knew about that but couldn’t tell us because she had signed the Official Secrets Act.

“That was the way it remained for a long time. I did a bit of research myself but even when she was released she didn’t say much. There was a fund-raising campaign for Bletchley Park and the media wanted to speak to everyone involved but she didn’t want to and gave very little away.

“She was basically listening for Morse code messages. She had to be totally accurate from the minute she was there.

“They were receiving messages from behind the lines from the resistance workers.

“It was pretty astonishing really. Poor old dad didn’t know anything about it at all. He was the famous one and mum stayed in the background and didn’t receive any recognition at all while he was alive.

“She did get the medal from the prime minister but I think she would have been quite happy if she had no recognition. She wasn’t a public person at all.”

The story emerged in Australia, where Edna was living until her death aged 93 in 2011, and New Zealand but is now being shared in the hemisphere where her husband pulled on the famous cherry and white jersey and became a hero to thousands of Wigan fans.

In an obituary published Down Under she was quoting saying: “You could take something down for two hours, then find what the crux was in the last bit you took down, which could be something like ‘potatoes for dinner’ or ‘see you later’.”

Her transcripts were then taken to Bletchley Park by bicycle, where the intelligence operation was based.

The station’s work is widely thought to have shortened the war considerably by cracking the code of the Nazis’ Enigma machine.

She also volunteered during the war for the local Red Cross infirmary, caring for bomb victims and injured military personnel.

She was recruited by Jack Tilley as she worked as his personal secretary.

He owned a radio station and parts manufacturing business but was also connected to the government’s code work.

Mr Mountford said he believed Mr Tilley’s role in the war effort should be better known.

He said: “If anyone deserves credit it’s him.”

Ces Mountford became an iconic figure at Central Park, sharing in one of the club’s finest moments when they won the 1949-50 Championship Final against Huddersfield at Maine Road.

He also became the first overseas player to win the Lance Todd Trophy for the man of the match in the Challenge Cup Final.