One morning, 36 years ago, these two boys were seen at a bus stop on Belfast’s Falls Road. But then they vanished. So what happened to Thomas and John?
Author Barry Cummins, in his new book Without Trace, charts the baffling disappearance of the boys and talks to the parents of one of them about their decades of heartbreak
They are two of Ireland’s youngest missing people, but their case is one of the oldest. Two boys left their homes in west Belfast on the morning of November 26, 1974 to catch a bus to their special needs school.
But when the bus pulled up to collect the boys at the stop on the Falls Road, neither boy was there. Thomas Spence was just 11 years old, his friend John Rodgers was 13.
Just a few minutes earlier Thomas had left his home on Rockdale Street which was just around the corner from the bus stop. John would have walked a little further, his home at Rodney Drive was on the other side of the Falls Road.
Without doubt, whatever happened to Thomas and John happened within a matter of seconds.
It was shortly after nine o'clock on a Tuesday morning on one of the busiest roads in west Belfast, and the two young boys were gone.
Thirty-six years after their eldest child disappeared, the loss of Thomas is still very raw for Richard and Anne Spence. More than anyone, the Spence family know the horrific possibilities about what might have happened to the boys. They try not to dwell on the possibility that the boys were murdered, and point out that excavations of back gardens at two houses in the locality in 2001 found nothing.
The frantic appeals and endless searching in the days and weeks after their son disappeared, the diminishing hope over the following decades that the boys might return home, along with ongoing innacurate and hurtful media reports about the case have all taken their toll on the Spence family.
When we met it was the first time Richard and Anne had spoken publicly about Thomas' disappearance in four decades.
Although Thomas and John lived some distance from each other, they had become friendly because they often got the bus to school together. St Aloysius School was located at Somerton Road in north Belfast. Thomas was a pupil there because a year or two previously he had been diagnosed with dyslexia.
“He had no problem with numbers at all,” Richard remembers. “He was a clever boy. He had a part-time job selling the Belfast Telegraph at the end of our street, and for an 11-year-old he was well able to count the cash and give people back their change. His numeracy was excellent. But when it came to writing it down on paper, or reading, Thomas would struggle. He also had a slight stammer. He could complete a sentence, but might struggle to get there. So that's why he was going to a special needs school. He'd been going there for about a year before he disappeared.”
The morning that Thomas disappeared is etched on Anne's mind. Over breakfast they had arranged that when Thomas returned from school that afternoon the two of them would go Christmas shopping together. “I was due to take Thomas down the town to get some presents. He was a great saver, he saved a lot of money from selling the newspapers. He had about £7 saved in savings stamps from the post office, and he wanted to get gifts for his Daddy, and also for his younger sister Carol and little brother Richard. Before he headed off that morning I asked him was he taking his heavy coat, and he said ‘No Mummy, because they will only take it and throw it on the ground and stamp on it.’ So it's possible he was being bullied at school. He said he would put on the coat when he would come home so that we could go Christmas shopping. But he never came home.”
Thomas’ journey to school took him four miles from the nationalist Falls Road towards more unionist areas close to the Shankill, before travelling through the Cliftonville district. As he looked out the bus window every schoolday, Thomas would have seen the aftermath of shootings and bomb attacks. For young children growing up in Northern Ireland, images of violence were everywhere. In the five years from 1970 to 1974 over 1,000 people lost their lives in Northern Ireland.
“Our children often went to sleep with a lullaby of machine-gun fire,” recalls Richard Spence. “We lost our first house because of the Troubles, and we then moved to Rockdale Street. We were simply trying to live our lives and go about our business, rearing our children and doing right by them. Thomas was never involved in any of that. He stayed well clear, as did our two other children. The only dealings we ever had with police or with republicans were when Thomas went missing.”
With the benefit of what is now known about security operations going on in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, it is striking that on a busy morning on one of the main nationalist thoroughfares, nobody saw what happened to Thomas and John. The security forces had undercover surveillance in Belfast, as well as overt Army patrols, coupled with the visible RUC policing. On the other side, the keen eyes of the IRA were studying vehicles and people throughout west Belfast, and, of course, there were countless ordinary, peaceful people living along the Falls Road, yet still no-one came forward saying how the two boys vanished.
Richard and Anne tell me of the horror of those first days and weeks after Thomas disappeared. Looking back, they don't know how they coped. “If someone had said to me back then that they didn't think I was going to see Thomas again, I don't think I would have come through,” says Anne. “The only reason I did come through was because of our two other kids. Every night I kept a light on in the house thinking he was going to come back, and then at Christmas that year, I was sure he was going to come back on Christmas Eve, and we had his presents waiting under the tree. It was a nightmare.”
Even to this day, Anne Spence can remember what her son was wearing on the day he disappeared. “He had on a dark blue anorak, maroon trousers, black shoes and a navy pullover. Thomas was five foot tall, and he had dark brown hair.” He also had a number of distinctive permanent features which are still important to focus on to this day. “Thomas had different colour eyes, they were very unique,” says Anne. “He had a green eye, and a blue eye. His right eye was blue, and his left was darker, it was green. Some people used to say it was brown, but it was green.”
Richard tells me that Thomas also had a small permanent mark at the side of his face, close to his left ear. “He had had a tiny growth near his left ear, just below where you might have a sideburn. Thomas had been to hospital and had the growth clipped off, but it had left a tiny mark like a pimple, and it would have been permanent.”
Richard and Anne have been through more than any parent should ever have to suffer. The loss of their eldest child in such mysterious circumstances is always with them. So too are the memories of undue upset caused to them down the years. While they acknowledge the amount of work done by the RUC and later the PSNI about the boys' disappearance, they are still upset that treasured photographs of Thomas which they gave police in 1974 were later lost.
One inaccurate report in recent years, which was copied by other lazy journalists, stated that the Spence family had left Belfast after Thomas' disappearance and had moved to England. “The only time we lived in England was when Thomas was born,” says Richard. “I was working on building sites over there, but we moved back to Belfast ironically for a better quality of life. We never left Belfast after Thomas vanished. We moved out of Rockdale Street in 1975 because we had been on a waiting list for a new house in nearby Twinbrook, and the house was finally ready, but we never moved out of Belfast in the last 40 years. And we want people to know that.”
In September 2001, RUC detectives called to the home of Thomas Spence's parents with news that would leave them shaken. A recently convicted paedophile was now a suspect in the disappearance of the two boys. The cold-case detectives established this man had links with the Rodney Drive area, and in particular with houses very close to where John Rodgers and his parents had lived in 1974.
The detectives told the Spence family that an excavation was to be undertaken at two houses, with the back gardens being dug up, and the groundfloors of both houses being examined.
“It was a total shock,” recalls Richard. “The detectives were very nice to us, and very conscientious, but the news they were giving us was horrible. There was a particular awful time during that week of searching when they found bones. It turned out to be animal bones, but the shock of that was awful. The whole thing was very upsetting.”
The search itself took a week, and was methodical and professional. By the end of the week no human remains had been found at either house, and the experts were able to say that both houses could be ruled out of police inquiries. The man who had been arrested
had by now been returned to prison without charge.
The excavation in 2001 was the last time police officers made any major appeal for information about John and Thomas' disappearance. That appeal did indeed lead to new witnesses coming forward with new information which placed both boys at the bus stop on the Falls Road in 1974.
In a clear sign of changing times, people who either couldn't or wouldn't talk to the RUC at the height of the Troubles had now found they were in a position to help. But perhaps there were others who still were unable to speak with police even in 2001. By the end of that year, the name of the police force had officially changed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. While name changes are one thing, the change of some people's mindset is another.
It would be some years later before Sinn Fein would embrace the new police force and give it their whole-hearted support. While the police appeal in 2001 did lead to new information, I believe that if a similar scale appeal was undertaken today even more information might be forthcoming from the public.
As it must, life has gone on for the Spence family. Carol was just ten years old when her older brother disappeared. She now has two children of her own who are both in their 20s. Thomas' brother Richard Jnr was only four when his big brother vanished. His parents tell me he recently celebrated his 40th birthday. Because he was so young when Thomas disappeared, Richard Jnr has known nothing but the loss of his brother. Like Carol, he now has two children of his own.
Richard and Anne Spence still live in Belfast, where they are now retired. Anne worked for many years in the Royal Victoria Hospital, and Richard worked as a butcher. They met on a plane to England where both were living in the early 60s and moved back to Belfast some years later. They are now the proud grandparents of two boys and two girls. While they long ago moved away from the Falls Road, Richard and Anne still have occasion to go back there.
“Our family doctor is still located on the Falls Road,” says Anne. “So we do go back to there, close to our old home at Rockdale Street. The bus stop is still there where Thomas was last seen. The flower shop is still there, and the newsagents is there, although it is now under different management but the area hasn't changed much. We have to pass the bus stop to get to the doctors. Everytime we pass by I look at that bus stop.”
Without Trace: Ireland’s Missing, Barry Cummings, Gill & Macmillan, £11.99