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Vanished: Britain's five most famous missing persons cases

There’s an idea that exists which suggests that when someone goes missing for a significant period of time, it’s harder for that person’s friends and family to deal with the situation than if they’d died. It’s based on the reasonable premise that death brings with it a sense of finality and closure. 

Obviously, there’s no way of measuring grief or heartbreak. However, a loved one is lost it can incredibly traumatic and painful. Just ask any of the grieving contributors to When Missing Turns to Murder and they’ll tell you.

We hope that the families of those profiled in the show do indeed feel some sense of peace knowing the fate of their lost friend or relative. That knowledge, acceptance and opportunity to heal isn’t always afforded to people, though. 

Anyone connected to these high-profile missing people will know exactly what we mean. Here are five of the UK’s most infamous unsolved missing person cases…

Lord Lucan

Let’s start with what is easily the most notorious missing person case in British history, the story of Lord Lucan. The man was quite well known in his lifetime, yet it’s his mysterious disappearance that he’s known for. So much so that his very name has become synonymous with the idea of suddenly vanishing.

Unlike the other missing people here, there’s little suggestion that Richard John Bingham, the seventh Earl of Lucan, may have been killed. In fact, quite the opposite may have been true. It is generally believed that the peer disappeared by design after accidentally killing his nanny; it’s widely thought that he had intended, instead, to murder his estranged wife. 

The theories. Speculation around what happened to Lord Lucan ranges from quite simple explanations (he moved to Africa or drowned himself in Newhaven Harbour) to the far more extraordinary (he shot himself and had friends fed him to a tiger in a friend’s private zoo to leave no remains).

Mary Flanagan

180,000 people are reported missing every year in the United Kingdom. Many are found, some are not. Those people that are never located will likely have their case remain open for many years. The record for the oldest open missing persons case on the books of the Metropolitan Police dates all the way back to 1959. 

When 16-year-old factory girl Mary Flanagan left her home in East London for work on New Year’s Eve of ‘59, her family could never have imagined the prospect of never seeing her again. Let alone spending the next six decades completely in the dark about what happened to her.

The theories. At the time, many believed Mary to merely be a typical teen runaway, one who would re-emerge soon enough. When it became clear that that wasn’t to be the case, those close to the youngster devised a quite believable proposition that she was pregnant by her secret boyfriend, a young Irish immigrant thought to be in the merchant navy. 

An unmarried teenage Catholic falling pregnant would have had cause to panic at that time. It’s perfectly reasonable to imagine that young Mary eloped with her boyfriend and married under an assumed name.

That’s certainly the most positive scenario. And one we all hope played out.

Madeleine McCann

Rivalling Lord Lucan for the dubious crown of The UK’s Most Famous Ever Missing Person is young Madeleine McCann. Missing children often grab the headlines, but the press coverage and media sideshow that surrounds the disappearance of this particular young girl was unprecedented in this country. 

'Maddie' was just three years old when she disappeared from the McCanns’ villa in Praia da Luz, Portugal on May 3rd 2007. Instantly the story became a news item. Soon, it became the biggest, most headline-dominating story in years. Talking points ranged from why Gerry and Kate McCann had left their daughter unsupervised at the villa while they dined out, to the worrying incompetence of the Portuguese authorities.

Suspects were arrested and plastered all over tabloid newspapers and on television. Yet no one was ever charged with any crime.

The theories. Three main theories persist in this case. 

  1. Madeleine McCann was kidnapped and killed by a stranger.
  2. She was abducted by a network of paedophiles or a child sex trafficking gang.
  3. Her parents killed her - intentionally or accidentally - and played out an ongoing public charade in order to cover up their involvement.

Rebecca Coriam

Chester-born Rebecca Coriam was 24 years old when she disappeared back in March of 2011. Of all the people to have vanished on this list, Rebecca - sadly - is most likely to have died. She’s also the least likely to ever be found or recovered. The reason? She went missing aboard a cruise ship.

The Disney Wonder was sailing off the Coast of Mexico when Rebecca disappeared. She was last seen in the crew lounge by colleagues, but never glimpsed again. It seems almost guaranteed that she went overboard and drowned.

An investigation was launched but was soon abandoned due to a lack of evidence. Since then, criticisms of the enquiry ramped up with some rather convincing suggestions (not least of all by popular writer Jon Ronson in a lengthy and widely-read piece for The Guardian) that Disney may have covered up the death to avoid litigation and a slew of negative PR.

The theories. The main hypothesis is that Rebecca fell overboard accidentally. Either by tripping as she jogged around the ship’s perimeter or after a rogue wave pulled her into the water. Some people have suggested that a fractious relationship had caused her to commit suicide. Few people claim that Disney have been entirely open about the incident, however.

Richey Edwards

The other names appearing here on this list have reach some level of fame because of their disappearance, but Richey Edwards was already widely known before he seemingly vanished into thin air. A talented lyricist in the popular Welsh indie rock band Manic Street Preachers, Edwards was a god to many alternative music fans in the early nineties. On February 1st 1995, Edwards disappeared. Never to be seen again. He was, of course, 27 at the time (the age many deceased rock n’ rollers are known to die at). Technically, a line has been drawn under the former Manics’ rhythm guitarist’s case. At least legally, anyway. In November of 2008, he was declared dead in absentia - a 'declaration of presumed death if a person has been missing for at least seven years.'

The theories. Many dedicated and hopeful fans, of course, postulate that Richey Edwards is still alive and well. It seems rather unlikely that he could have gone two and a half decades without being identified, but some say he’s living under another name in The Canary Islands or the Caribbean. It is, if nothing else, a pleasing idea. More likely is that the man is simply dead. A depressive character, he was a known alcoholic, drug user, anorexic and self harmer. The most likely scenario is that Richey Edwards took his own life. He had, by all accounts, been acting strangely in the lead up to his going missing and his car was found near the Severn Bridge, a known suicide hotspot.

Sadly, it’s likely that the fates of these missing men and women will never be known; the final chapter of their stories will never be read.

The grim, blood-flecked last chapters of each case in When Missing Turns to Murder are known, however. This fascinating new documentary series starts with the disturbing case of murdered Liverpool woman Helen McCourt on Monday 4th March at 9pm.