Illustrated London News, 29th November 1980
A BOY WHO DISAPPEARED (Illustrated London News, 29th November 1980)
November 5—Guy Fawkes Night—is this year the firs anniversary of the disappearance in London of a 15-year-old boy in circumstances which have touched a sensitive nerve with both police and public.
The boy, Martin Allen, was raised in the Holloway Road area of North London. His father Tom has worked for many years as a driver with the Australian High Commission and, on his promotion to become the High Commissioner’s personal chauffeur, was given a cottage near the official residence in Hyde Park Gate. Martin was attending the Central Foundation, a respected school near Old Street, and it was decided that he should continue to do so, travelling across London from Gloucester Road Underground station to Old Street, changing at King’s Cross.
November 5 last year was a Monday and on Mondays that boy would not return home immediately after school but would visit the home of an older, married brother in Holloway, usually staying overnight. This was the plan on November 5. In his bright yellow Astral bag he carried a woollen balaclava his mother was sending for her grandchild, a transformer to use with a toy train, and other items reflecting his intention to visit his relatives. He had, however, left at home a £1 note he owed his sister-in-law. He told schoolfriends he intended to travel home and pick it up and then return to Holloway Road. (This seems a lot of trouble to go to but the police say it was only a 25 minute journey, and he had a travel pass so it would coast no more.) Thus it was that at about 3.50 pm he parted from a friend at King’s Cross station and walked into the short and usually crowded passage to the west-bound trains. This was the last definite sighting of Martin Allen. He then vanished.
A hue and cry should have been raised that evening but unfortunately his disappearance was not noted for over 24 hours. His parents thought he was staying overnight with his brother. His brother, who was not on the telephone, assumed that because it was Guy Fawkes Night the boy had gone to a bonfire party instead and would not be coming. Martin was not missed by his family until he failed to arrive home on the Tuesday evening.
Over 3,500 boys and girls are reported missing in London every year. They nearly all turn up within a few days. A high proportion are in the care of local authorities or in trouble with one authority or another and have run away. The first instinct of police investigators, therefore, is to look for reasons why a boy such as Martin might have absconded. Was there trouble in the family? At school? With a girlfriend? With the police themselves? Extensive inquiries, including interviews with every member of the family, every known friend of the boy or the family, teachers, schoolchildren and everyone who could possibly have known Martin revealed, however, that he did not fit the pattern for missing children. On the contrary, it became clear that he was a happy, home-centred, well liked boy without a problem in the world. The police began to feel very uneasy.
From the start the man in charge of the investigation has been David Veness, a father of two children and as highly regarded as his promotion to Detective Chief Inspector at 33 would suggest. Veness, a policeman with 15 years’ experience, says that while missing children are not unusual, abducted children are. “Our inquiries were initially intended to answer three questions: had he run away because of some trouble? Had he run away to seek adventure? Or had he had an accident? There is not a fraction of evidence that he ran away from a problem, and we looked into his background and life with immense care. Nor by all accounts was he an adventurer, a boy with dreams of stowing away on Concorde or the QE2. We conducted detailed searches of the North London area round Holloway and King’s Cross and in the area of the school, every piece of vacant land, derelict property. We also searched the open spaces round Gloucester Road. If he had had an accident he would have been found.”
By now Veness and his colleagues were treating Martin’s disappearance in almost every respect as if it were a murder inquiry. The next step was to seek publicity and in this respect the police had bad luck. The Anthony Blunt affair broke in the newspapers, devouring the column inches that might have been available to tell the story. The BBC television programme Nationwide prepared a programme but could not screen it because of the technicians’ strike. A full three weeks went by before the Nationwide item finally appeared and Veness got his first breakthrough.
“From that programme we got a group of six sightings which described an incident on Gloucester Road station that day. A man was seen forcefully guiding a small boy, his hand on the back of the boy’s neck, on to a train travelling on the Piccadilly line to Earls Court. They were seen to leave the train at Earls Court station and as they walked down the platform the man was heard to say ‘Don’t try to run.’ They then vanished. Now six people had obviously not all seen the whole of that incident but they saw bits and it came together like a jigsaw.”
Up to this point the investigation had been concentrated largely in North London. Now it moved to West London and a massive search took place of the Gloucester Road-Earls Court area. The homes of 40,000 people were visited. The area was inundated with leaflets. A year later there has been no advance. Martin Allen has been seen or heard of no more.
But was the boy seen being led away from Earls Court station Martin Allen? Chief Inspector Veness says that while he cannot be definite, “I had enough evidence to mount a major police operation on the basis that it was. For a start, the timing fits. They were seen at about 4.20pm, just the time when Martin could have been expected to arrive at Gloucester Road. The description fits: the witnesses describe a boy who could be Martin, slim, 5 feet tall, wearing school uniform and carrying a bag. Despite all the publicity no man or boy has come forward to identify himself as one of that couple. Either that boy was Martin, or a boy with a remarkable resemblance to him was abducted on that train at that time, and that is a considerable coincidence.”
If it was Martin, why did he not appeal to others on the train or on the platform at Earls Court? He was, after all, 15 years old, intelligent, aware. It could be that the man had a powerful personality and had engendered such fear in the boy that he dare not call for help. Or it could be that he persuaded Martin that he was someone in authority, a London Transport security officer or a policeman, and that he was taking him to an office near the station to explain some misdemeanour. These are not questions anyone can answer.
Certainly it would have required remarkable nerve to abduct a boy of 15 in broad daylight in front of other travellers, but given the lack of any evidence, the police are having to work on the basis that this is what happened.
The size of the police operation has been almost unprecedented. There is no question that the case has got under the skin of Veness and his colleagues, almost to the point of obsession. Why? It is not, says Veness, because of the diplomatic connexions, for no special pressure has been applied. It is a combination of factors: the mystery itself, the warm picture that has emerged of Martin, and perhaps the fact that Veness and others working on the case, together with the public, have been increasingly disturbed by the evidence that a schoolboy could travel on the Underground at a busy time, be seen by scores of people but be remembered by hardly any, be forcibly abducted before their eyes, and vanish beyond the powers of Scotland Yard and a considerable force of policemen to find him.