Saturday, January 6, 2018

Mary Bastholm: 50 years on – not forgotten

With my local history interests I spend a lot of time reading historic newspapers, and I recently came across some coverage of the disappearance of 15-year-old Mary Bastholm in 1968, which is now one of Gloucester’s longest unsolved missing persons cases. Then I realised that today is the 50th anniversary of the day when Mary disappeared. So this post is to mark the occasion and to affirm that she is still remembered in the local area, even by those (including me) who weren’t born at the time she vanished.

Mary was on her way to see her boyfriend in Hardwicke, a village just outside Gloucester on the evening of 6th January 1968 (a Saturday in 1968 and in 2018). She was carrying a Monopoly game in a carrier bag. She left her home in Rosebery Avenue in Gloucester around 7.30pm and walked down Tuffley Avenue to the bus stop on Bristol Road. Her boyfriend had arranged to meet the bus at the other end but she wasn’t on it. Within hours Gloucestershire police launched a huge search but found nothing, and fearing the worst, decided to “call in the Yard”. Dept.-Supt. Bill Marchant and Det. Sgt. Morris Wenham were assigned to the case but by the end of the month they’d drawn a blank and returned to London. 

When the awful tragedy of Fred West came out in 1994 he became the obvious suspect, and many things point to him being responsible. He allegedly admitted to a couple of people that he’d killed Mary but he never formally admitted it to police, and he was very vague about where he’d buried her – farmland around Bishop’s Cleeve was one of the claims he made. It was before Cromwell Street and before he met Rose. He was living in Bishop’s Cleeve (just outside Cheltenham) at the time but his work brought him into Gloucester a lot, and he is thought to have known Mary via the café at 59 Southgate Street where she worked as a waitress (there’s still a café there today). He’s known to have murdered Ann McFall in 1967 and Rena West in 1971, so Mary’s disappearance in January 1968 fits into the ‘gap’ between his known offences. Offering lifts to young women at bus stops was also part of his pattern for later victims. Not that anybody knew that back in 1968.

Like many people, I’ve read stuff about the Mary Bastholm case online and in books, and there is a fairly consistent narrative. I thought it would be interesting to read the contemporary newspaper coverage to see in what ways the narrative differed back then. The 300 police officers who anxiously scoured the local countrside (and canal beds) in freezing conditions hoping to find Mary were not to know that her whereabouts would still be unresolved 50 years later, and they will have had a different perspective on the case from how we see it with half a century of hindsight. 

I found a few discrepancies between the 1968 reports and later re-tellings of the story. I’m not making any judgements as to which is the more accurate, but I will highlight some of the information I found in the newspapers which I haven’t seen elsewhere. 

All of the information here is from local newspapers, but not THE local newspaper. Unfortunately the relevant issues of the Gloucester Citizen are not yet available in the online newspaper archive I’m using, so these reports are from the Birmingham, Aberdeen and other local papers. In the event that any of the Gloucestershire local papers become available, which they probably will do eventually, they will probably contain more detail.

According to the 1968 newspapers, it was raining heavily on the evening of 6th January (not snowing, as some accounts suggest). Mary was described as slim and blonde, with a distinctive gap on either side of her front teeth. She was dressed in a navy blue and white striped coat with a royal blue umbrella and was thought to have been at the bus stop between 7.50 and 8.15pm. She had no reason to run away and her disappearance was totally out of character. She only had £1 on her. The ice and snow came the following day and greatly hampered the search efforts. The ground was frozen hard and the snow obscured everything.

The search extended over an 8-mile area and briefly included an Army helicopter on loan to the Home Office, though its usefulness was limited because of the appalling weather. Gloucestershire police had a team of five frogmen who searched parts of the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. One of these young officers was John Bennett, who 26 years later was to become the Senior Investigating Officer in charge of the Fred West case. Mary Bastholm was among the first cases he re-examined when West’s crimes came to light.

Police frogmen confer with detectives after a fruitless search of the canal near Hempsted bridge. It’s hard to pick out faces in a grainy old photo, but one of these divers is likely to be Supt. John Bennett who later led the Fred West inquiry. (Picture appeared in the Birmingham Daily Post, 12th January 1968)

The Monopoly game Mary was carrying belonged to her boyfriend; he had loaned it to her over Christmas and she was on her way to return it to him. The usual narrative is that some Monopoly pieces were found in the snow at or near the bus stop on Bristol Road, and it was this which made the police fear she had come to harm. However, the 1968 newspapers tell a somewhat different story. According to reports there were three separate finds of Monopoly money, none of them anywhere near Bristol Road. One wad of notes was sent in to the police anonymously by someone who claimed to have found them in Tredworth, which is on the opposite side of the city centre. Two more lots of Monopoly money were found in separate locations in Barnwood, which is even further over on the east side of Gloucester, and about 2 miles from the bus stop. Det.-Supt. Marchant was sceptical about its relevance: “It was pouring with rain on Saturday night and we have had snow and ice ever since then. But two lots of this ‘money’ were bone dry. The rest was found on top of the snow. We are investigating it but I do not see how it can have anything to do with the missing girl.” (Aberdeen Evening Express, 11th January 1968).

One of the lines of enquiry was that Mary may have been offered a lift while she waited at the bus stop. Det.-Supt. Marchant put out an appeal for witnesses and in particular asked for a couple of car drivers to come forward who had been seen in the area. “One was checking the engine of his Ford Consul car opposite the bus stop between 8.10 and 8.30pm, and another, driving a dark-coloured Morris, pulled into the bus stop without warning, making the traffic behind brake sharply.” (Birmingham Daily Post, 11th January 1968)

Police also interviewed a 19-year-old girl who said she had been walking along Tuffley Avenue at about 6.30pm – only an hour before Mary walked along the same street – and was approached by a ‘prowler’ in a dark-coloured saloon car who offered her a lift. There were two men in the car. She ignored them and the car drove off towards Bristol Road. (Birmingham Daily Post, 10th January 1968) Whether this was significant and whether it could have been the same “dark-coloured Morris” which was seen pulling in to the Bristol Road bus stop an hour and a half or so later is something that can now only be speculated. Some witnesses at the bus stop did remember seeing a car stopping but were unable to say whether anybody had been given a lift or not.

Major incidents often do attract some weird people and towards the end of January an anonymous phonecall was taken by a reporter on the Gloucestershire Echo (the local paper in Cheltenham) from someone with “an assumed foreign accent” who claimed that Mary was alive and well in Tadcaster, Yorkshire, and that if her parents placed an advert in Tadcaster’s local paper forgiving her for running away, she would come home. (Birmingham Daily Post, 27th January 1968) This briefly raised hopes that Mary might still be alive, and her father felt that there was nothing to lose by giving it a go. Unfortunately it seems to have been a hoax.

There is little more in the way of news after January 1968 and Mary seems to have vanished without trace. One more heartbreaking report appeared in March 1968, on what would have been her 16th birthday:

“It’s just like any other day,” said her mother, Mrs Doreen Bastholm, of Rosebery Avenue, Gloucester. “How can it be anything else when we don’t know whether our daughter is alive or dead.”
Mary’s father, Mr Christian Bastholm, said: “I don’t think Mary ran off. She wasn’t that kind of girl. We have always had happy days on Mary’s birthday, but all we can do now is just sit back and wait for news. I hardly got a wink of sleep last night.” (Birmingham Daily Post, 15th March 1968)

Fifty years is a long time, but for what it’s worth I think there’s still a chance she may be found at some point. And in the mean time, she hasn’t been forgotten.

Sources: Newspapers were accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.