For the past two decades the Daily Mail’s weekly Missing and Found column has been reuniting long lost friends, colleagues and family members. Unique in the world of print media, it has often succeeded where the internet giants have failed. The column’s writer MONICA PORTER celebrates its 20th anniversary this month by recalling some of its memorable reunion stories, and the intriguing way in which it all started…
Stories of old army buddies and childhood pals, fellow students and workmates, wartime evacuees and long-absent relatives, erstwhile chums from sports teams, clubs and pop groups – and a sprinkling of celebrity stardust. So much of our common social and cultural history is crammed into my little column, which might explain its popularity. It has now appeared well over a thousand times and it’s a fair guess that by now it has reunited at least 3,000 to 4,000 individuals.
Readers who have spent aeons combing online forums and social media sites for someone from their past, to no avail, have been reconnected with them through Missing and Found – sometimes in mere hours. And how gratifying that the once-mighty website Friends Reunited, launched a year after M & F, has already packed up, while we are still going strong. The power of the press, God bless it!
So it is rather fitting that the idea for the column originated with a towering figure of Fleet Street journalism, Sir David English. It all began one day in early 1998, when Sir David was Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail and its sister papers, and an interesting letter landed on his desk. It was from a reader in Somerset who explained that due to a family break-up many years earlier his wife had lost touch with her brother. She was getting old and yearned to find him again before it was too late. Now, to their great delight, the estranged siblings were back together again and it was all thanks to a woman called Gill Whitley, who lived in Anglesey.
Gill had previously traced her husband John’s mother, whom he hadn’t seen in decades, which led to an emotional reunion between them. This success had inspired Gill to help others reconnect with estranged relatives and friends. The Somerset man suggested that the Daily Mail might publish an article about Gill and her service.
Sir David had a keen instinct for the kind of moving human interest story that appealed to Mail readers, so he passed the letter on to the paper’s features department, instructing that it be followed up. He said it would indeed make a good article, perhaps even a series of some kind. But the ball rolled slowly. Then in June of 1998 Sir David sadly died, aged 67. However, the idea for the people-finding article did not die with him. And a year later the Mail duly published my feature about the Whitleys. At the same time the mooted series became a column, and happily also fell to me.
Each week we would feature a story about someone being sought, as well as a tale of a recent reunion between long-lost compadres. At first these reunions came about chiefly through Gill’s tracing expertise. But as the column gained an ever greater audience, more and more of the ‘missing’ were located courtesy of the Mail’s long reach. For after all, even if the person being looked for didn’t see the column, a friend or neighbour or workmate or cousin of said person might have read it and alerted them. And the next thing you know, it’s reunion drinks all round.
In recent years M & F has acquired a small band of skilled researchers who, purely for the pleasure of it, follow the column and set themselves the task of tracing the missing persons. They are quick and very successful. I just write the stories and cross my fingers. They actually ferret around in the online archives.
I’ve loved many of M & F’s reunions, but some really stand out. For example, the column has twice brought together former wartime adversaries. In 2007 we reunited one-time German POW Heinz Bottger with Englishman Stanley Lamb, the guard who befriended him at POW Camp 801 on Guernsey in 1945. Heinz, who was living in Hamburg, travelled to Newcastle to visit Stanley and the octogenarians gaily recalled their Guernsey days, when Heinz tried (and failed) to teach Stanley German.
And in 2009 we reunited Argentinian woman Andrea Maroño with Michael Poole, the Royal Marine seaman she had known in Buenos Aires in 1982, shortly before the Falklands War. They’d had a lovely time together for a few weeks, then the war dragged them apart and although they kept in touch for a while, their lives moved on. But they never forgot each other. Nearly thirty years later, they were post-marital and free again. Michael’s sister spotted Andrea’s search for him in the column and the pair were soon chatting on Skype between Buenos Aires and Northampton. They rekindled their youthful romance and made plans for the future. I like to think they’ve stayed together. But life is too unpredictable.
Children in wartime has been a recurring theme. In 2015 we reconnected Billy Plain and Alex Belcher with Kenny Salmon and John Miles – two pals with whom they roamed their north London neighbourhood of Finsbury Park during the Blitz. As Billy wrote: ‘Our memories are still vivid: watching a doodlebug fly over the roof of our house and crash into King’s Cross Station, watching dogfights in the air, collecting shrapnel. We slept on the platform at Finsbury Park tube station. All around us houses were destroyed while we were mucking about in the streets…and every one of us survived without a scratch!’
I’ve a fondness for stories in which someone is looking for those with whom, in their youth, they had shared a grand, life-enhancing experience. For example John Matthews’ search for fellow travellers on his three-month expedition across Africa in 1975. Starting from Johannesburg, they ‘took a flight around Victoria Falls, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, saw pink flamingos in Kenyan lakes and wild elephants gambolling in the sea, and crossed the Sahara’. There were 18 in the group, ‘plus a guide and driver, Bill Wallace, who knew how to lead us across politically precarious Africa and maintain our old vehicle – a Bedford 3-ton ex-army truck with a trailer.
‘We had a rota for shopping, cooking, washing up, finding drinking water and being on night watch for wild animals and strangers – in Africa anything not padlocked or nailed down can disappear mysteriously. We also did a lot of digging and pushing to get the truck out of mud-holes…’
The M & F write-up garnered five of John’s fellow adventurers – Martin Hobday, Neil Wilkinson (in Toronto), Pete and Alison Kennington, and lastly, the intrepid expedition leader himself, Bill Wallace. Plenty for a lengthy round of reminiscences.
The Brits love their clubs – the more eccentric the better – and the column has featured many. In 2015 we ran a story about Alan Bissell’s quest for former members of the Double Decker Club, which in the Sixties ‘was based in Twickenham and centred around an ex London Transport red double-decker bus owned by some of our members. The club provided inexpensive, fun-filled camping holidays, departing from Twickenham’s Rising Sun pub for various destinations across Europe. In its heyday the DDC had 300 members and we’d love to find as many as possible to celebrate our forthcoming 50th anniversary reunion.’
Several DDC devotees made contact, including Colin Malyon, who recalled: ‘I was amazed to see your story about the DDC, as I was on the very trip shown in the photo. We left the UK just after England won the World Cup, went through France into Luxembourg, on to Germany and back home via Paris. I remember walking around Paris all night and seeing the dawn come up over the Eiffel Tower. There were 18 boys and 23 girls on the bus, it will be great to catch up with them.’
M & F was heavily involved another 50th anniversary reunion bash, for the 1966 opening of London’s glamorous Playboy Club. We garnered 30-odd of the former cotton-tailed lovelies (mostly grandmas now) from far and wide, who were thrilled to learn of the glitzy West End affair and be able to attend. One of them was Mary Messer, a croupier Bunny at the club from 1966 to 1969, whose picture from those heady days (together with colleague Bunny Gloria) graced the column. Another was Denise Irace, who informed us: ‘I was the London Club’s first Chinese Bunny, known as Su-Lin. When my local paper in Singapore, the Straits Times, interviewed me and put me on the front page, my horrified parents ordered me back home at once, as I was supposed to be studying in London…’
Talking of the Sixties, M & F has carried countless stories of old rockers looking for their missing band members from the era. We’ve had the Deesiders, the Sunnysiders, the Toledos, the Delacardoes, etc. A notable one concerned Graham Sampson’s search for surviving members of the Kon-rads, the band in which the teenaged David Bowie (then still David Jones) played the sax. Graham was involved with the band for three years and great mates with its lead guitarist, the late Neville Wills. Among others, Graham hoped to find rhythm guitarist Alan Dodds and Mick Millo ‘who, like me, joined in the Kon-rads’ jamming sessions in Neville’s bungalow in Chislehurst, Kent, while his mum was out.’
The column reunited Graham with Alan Dodds (now a retired priest in Devon), the Kon-rads’ bass player Andrew Baldock, and Mick Millo: ‘I remember our jam sessions with more than a little nostalgia and would love to see Graham again. I still have an old “Strat” electric guitar, although I’m as useless a musician now as I was then.’
M & F often features searches for fondly-remembered workmates with whom to chew the rag about the times they shared. Take Ian Chantry, hoping to reconnect with fellow members of the Grimsby Fire Brigade’s Red Watch from the Sixties and Seventies. ‘My photo shows some of them,’ he wrote. ‘Typically, having just put out a smoky fire in a derelict property, they take five for a smoke. From left to right they are John Grey, Graham Barr, Derek Hewer, George Croft and Brian Bateman.
‘Throughout our years of service together special friendships were forged. I remember Reg Hill always whistled at work. One day he walked into a door and got a fat lip. Unable to whistle, his frustration was the butt of many jokes.’ Who knew fire-fighting could be such fun? We reunited Ian with Derek Hewer and also with Paul Dodd, who said: ‘I joined Red Watch in 1973 and knew Ian and everybody on the photo. Derek Hewer taught me all I know about fire legislation.’
Last summer we featured an extraordinary reunion. Mike Taylor was exploring his parents’ early lives: ‘Mum married my father, Ernest Withers, a policeman, in 1947 and I was born the following year. But in 1950 my parents split up and I never saw my dad again. I later took my step-father’s surname.’ His mother had died long ago, having never told him much about his father, so now he was hoping to fill in some blanks by tracing her friends.
Rather than looking for his mother’s friends, however, the column’s researchers tracked down Ernest Withers himself, now 97 and living in Kent. Before long, Mike was on the phone speaking to his father for the very first time. ‘How mind-boggling is that!’ he emailed. ‘I’m going to visit him next weekend. There are also two half-sisters I never knew I had. This has been one big whirlwind and I’m ecstatic about this excellent result. It’s changed my life.’
Mike and his new-found father have met four more times since then – despite the seven-hour journey from Plymouth to Broadstairs – and he’s learned much about his parents’ history. ‘Dad turned 98 last week and is still sharp and witty. Our families have met each other and that went well too. Thank you for making it all possible.’
When a Missing results in such a joyful Found, it gives the reader a sunny moment in an often bleak world. Just as Sir David knew it would.