What happened to Mary Flanagan, Britain's longest ever missing person's case?

Mary Flanagan when she worked at Tate & Lyle as a teenager
Mary Flanagan when she worked at Tate & Lyle as a teenager

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Up and down the country tonight there’ll be merrymaking as Britain sees in the New Year. But Mary Flanagan’s family won’t partake. They haven’t celebrated New Year’s Eve since 1959, the year Mary set off for work and never returned.

The mystery of the missing East London teenager has remained unsolved ever since, and 58 years later, hers is the oldest case on the files of both the Metropolitan Police and the Missing People charity, which is backed by The Telegraph in this year’s Christmas Appeal. 

But her younger sister has never given up. For Brenda Harris, aged eight when her sibling vanished, many of the details are still clear as day. Mary, who at 16 shared a bedroom with Brenda and their other sister Eileen in the family’s fourth floor flat in West Ham, had slept in that morning. Although she had a job at the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery three miles away, she did not plan to go in. Then she had a change of heart: a New Year’s Eve party was to be thrown at her workplace later, and Mary was keen to attend. So she set off at 1pm after kissing her family goodbye. “She didn’t normally do that, but we thought nothing of it,” says Brenda. 

The latest age progression picture of Mary Flanagan, showing what she might look like today
The latest age progression picture of Mary Flanagan, showing what she might look like today

On New Year’s Day, the family realised she had not come home; as the morning wore on, her parents, Mary and Barry, grew anxious. Eventually they went to the factory where, to their shock, they were told she had not been to work for two weeks. This, despite the fact she’d been setting off each morning and returning home each night as if she’d been working. Alarm bells rang and her parents went to the police. 

“And here we are now, 58 years down the line, and we still don’t know where Mary is,” says Brenda, whose parents have since died without knowing what fate befell their eldest child.

All that Mary’s siblings, Brenda, 66, Eileen, 72, and Kevin, 69, have to go on is a few notable events leading up to Mary’s disappearance. The sister who Brenda remembers as “lively, bubbly [and] full of life,” had been engaged to an Irishman called Tom, who said he was a merchant seaman - the pair had been introduced by her father a year earlier.

“[Dad] was really strict with Mary,” recalls Brenda. “[But] he knew where she was when she was with Tom and he liked them being together.”

Mary Flanagan (right) with her sister Eileen
Mary Flanagan (right) with her sister Eileen

By December 30, the relationship had ended. According to Mary, Tom had told her he lived in lodgings with a landlady, but when she discovered he lived at home with his mother, she grew suspicious and broke up with him.

That evening, Eileen heard Mary arguing with her father, who was displeased by their split. Mary went to bed in tears, recalls Eileen.

For the first few months of 1960, Tom helped search for his former fiancee. Then suddenly, he stopped. 

“Unfortunately we couldn’t remember Tom’s last name,” says Brenda. “We don’t know Tom had any involvement [in Mary’s disappearance] but it seemed funny [his assistance with the search] just petered out.” 

In 1994, the case was reported to Missing People (then called the National Missing Persons Helpline), the only nationwide organisation supporting the families of vulnerable missing people. In the past year the charity has worked with 3,456 families across the country, among them Mary’s, for whom it recently produced a new age progression image.

Mary Flanagan (right) at holy communion with sister Eileen
Mary Flanagan (right) at holy communion with sister Eileen

The question of whether Mary could have been pregnant has been raised over the years, while another centres on an unnamed neighbour who Mary disliked. Apart from that, there’s been little to go on.

“It’s dominated our lives,” says Brenda. “It doesn’t get easier.”

In 2013, the year Mary would have turned 70, police reactivated the case. The renewed search was hampered, however, by a flood years earlier at Plaistow police station, in which the papers on Mary’s case are believed to have disappeared.

Yet Brenda will not give up. Investigators tested DNA samples against 100 unidentified bodies in England but none were Mary’s; there has been the odd reported sighting, but nothing has come of them. Then, last summer, Brenda received a phone call from police in Edinburgh. A woman had just walked into a police station resembling Mary’s most recent age progression picture. She denied all knowledge of the name Mary Flanagan and insisted, “I’m independent, I can look after myself.” Brenda says: “She got very evasive. When they went back the next day she’d gone.” 

All Mary’s family can do is carry on living in painful anticipation. 

“If you don’t have hope, what else have you got?,” says Brenda. “We can’t grieve because we don’t know if we should. We hope one day we will be all together again. But time’s running out for all of us.”

Missing People is a beneficiary of this year’s Telegraph’s Christmas Charity Appeal. To make a donation to this or one of the other charities supported in our appeal, please call 0151 284 1927, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity

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