The mysterious disappearance of West Ham’s Mary Flanagan - London’s oldest missing person case

Mary Flanagan when she went missing at the age of 16.

Mary Flanagan when she went missing at the age of 16. - Credit: Archant

Bubbly teenager Mary Flanagan was set to see in the swinging 60s in style at one of Tate & Lyle’s celebrated staff parties.

DCI Dave Rock reading an appeal made in the Newham Recorder in 2006.

DCI Dave Rock reading an appeal made in the Newham Recorder in 2006. - Credit: Archant

But the part-time Sugar Girl kissed her younger siblings goodbye as she left the family home in Wallace Road, West Ham, on New Year’s Eve 1959 and she was never seen again.

DCI Dave Rock in his office surrounded by files on the disappearance of Mary Flanagan.

DCI Dave Rock in his office surrounded by files on the disappearance of Mary Flanagan. - Credit: Archant

Mary, who disappeared when she was just 16-years-old, would have turned 70 on Sunday June 9 but she remains the longest-running missing person case in the Metropolitan Police’s history.

Described on police record as “a bright and friendly girl from an Irish Catholic family”, Mary spent the time she wasn’t at the Silvertown sugar factory working at Haymes Optical Frame shop in Stratford.

The Holbrook Road Secondary School student also volunteered with the Blind Association and was known to flirt with a young man called Tom McGinty, a fellow Irish immigrant believed to be in the Merchant Navy who has also never been traced.

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But her sister Brenda Harris, who now lives with her family in Peterborough, has never given up looking for her sister.

Convinced she was engaged, Brenda believes Mary is still alive and may have eloped with Tom although she never saw a ring.

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Brenda, who was only eight-years-old when her sister went missing, said: “She wished us all a Happy New Year and she kissed my sister, brother, and I goodbye, because she knew we would be in bed when she got home later.

“My mother and I watched her walk to West Ham station and she turned around and waved goodbye at us.

“That was the last time I saw Mary. She never came home.

“My brother Kevin, my sister Eileen, and I have never stopped looking for our sister.

“Although there was a police investigation at the time, nothing was ever found.

“We have done a lot of research and tried every possible avenue ourselves, from the Salvation Army to family history centres but we have never discovered what happened to her.

“We are thrilled that the Metropolitan Police Service is re-investigating Mary’s disappearance, and we fully support the enquiry.

“The family would just like to know what happened to our sister and we hope that the answer will finally bring us peace.”

Det Chf Insp Dave Rock, the investigating officer in the case at Newham’s Missing Persons Unit, described Mary’s case as “a complete one-off”.

He continued: “I think it is fair to say from speaking to those who knew her at the time that Mary was a confident young woman who knew her own mind.”

The methods used to track missing persons, or “mispers” as they are often shortened to, have advanced greatly over the years with technology.

Apart from interviewing Mary’s family, officers in the 60s would have relied on old-fashioned policing to find her including putting up posters around the community, speaking to her family and friends, and roaming the streets with her picture.

Mary’s case has seen a world of change since 1959 including the introduction of DNA, social media, and satellite navigation.

But some things remain the same such as the importance of information from members of the public and the police’s partnership with the Salvation Army’s tracing service.

Detectives are still searching for clues hidden within the original police file on Mary’s disappearance which is also eluding the police’s best efforts to find it.

The next step is to bring Mary’s case up to modern investigative standards by taking a DNA sample from Brenda to see if it matches that of any unidentified bodies that remain on police files.

There are many reasons people choose to run away, according to DCI Rock, and, if Mary is found alive and well but does not want to make contact with her family, Standard Operating Practice followed by all officers means they would have to respect her wishes.

But DCI Rock says he has acted as a middle-man in the past, reassuring the family their relative is safe by relaying messages between them.

He added: “I know it’s a cliche but I want to bring closure to the family. Brenda in particular has devoted 50 years of her life to looking for her sister - it’s been a life-long pursuit for her.

“We wanted to do an appeal to coincide with what would have been her 70th birthday to support them in their search and to resolve this case once and for all.”

If anyone has any information about Mary or her whereabouts, please call Newham police’s Missing Persons Unit on 020 82175728 or call the charity Missing People anonymously on 116 000.

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