Lifestyle & Belief

Naming Britain’s dead


The authorities hope those searching the site for loved ones recognize distinctive details and contact the police.


Oli Scarff

LONDON, UK — He was discovered in the Wark Forest, a bucolic expanse of north England’s Northumberland National Park. It was February 1990. He’d packed camping gear and a Lee denim jacket. He had a bottle of whiskey and a London history.

He could have been 20 or 40, or somewhere in between. By the time he was found, some four to 12 months after he died, it was hard to tell.

From his smattering of personal items, police believe he may have been American and called Christopher Oliver.

That his name can even be guessed sets him apart from most of the people listed with him on the UK Missing Persons Bureau’s unidentified case database, a website launched in 2012 with the hope of establishing names for the country’s unclaimed dead and providing closure for those they left behind. 

The 543 individuals listed represent a selection of the 1,500 unidentified bodies and body parts from the cold case files of police departments across the country. 

The most recent case is a man in French-labeled clothes pulled from southeast England’s Ramsgate Harbour in November. The oldest is a toothless man found in a derelict house in London’s East Smithfield district in 1966.

“Every person on that list is somebody’s son or daughter,” said Detective Chief Inspector Allan Harder of the North Yorkshire Police.

Bodies that elude identification are rare these days. Even the most solitary lives usually leave traces behind.

If a found corpse doesn’t match a missing person’s report or next of kin can’t be located, police can usually make a positive identification through dental records, bank records or DNA.

Most of Britain’s nameless dead were lost in the decades before cellphone records or DNA tests could help identify them. Their next of kin could be dead or abroad.

They may have chosen to separate themselves from their families or to end their lives — which doesn’t mean families aren’t looking for them.

“It’s not that these people have not been missed, or they’re not loved. It’s that they haven’t been noticed or the records haven’t been joined up,” Harder said. “And that’s nobody’s fault.”

Each case has a page containing the date and place the person was found together with any description available. Some contain photographs of belongings, tattoos or faces taken when the bodies were discovered.

The hope is that those searching the site for loved ones will recognize a distinctive tattoo, dirt-stained sweater, something — and get in touch with the police.

Bone fragments and other body parts that would be virtually impossible for the public to identify don’t make the site. Neither do abandoned babies.

More than 80,000 people visited the site on its first day, said Sherri Latham, tactical analyst at the National Crime Agency and Missing Persons Bureau. The site still draws about 10,000 visitors a month, and there are regular inquiries from those who believe a case may be that of a loved one.

The files offer haunting sketches of anonymous lives.

Some had witnesses of their final moments if not the motives for their deaths. There was the young man who faced a London commuter train in 1996 with arms held in the air, and the woman who leapt from a 21st-floor east London apartment in 2004 clutching an oil painting.

Of other lives, nothing is known except that their ends were ugly: the headless young woman in a pink nightgown thrown into the ferns in the eastern county of Norfolk in 1974; the pair of women’s feet found 26 days and 2 miles apart in northwestern Lancashire in 1987, still in their matching sneakers.

Others passed quietly with no discernible affliction but loneliness.

“My name is Patrick Jones. I have no relatives,” read a note found with an elderly man floating in the Thames River in 2003.

Many of the dead are believed to have family abroad. The site gets hits from Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Many case files bear witness to the perils of modern migration. Decomposing young men have been found in the landing gear of airplanes and holds of inbound cargo ships. Anonymous women have been found sprawled on the side of freeways or collapsed in London hospitals, their stomachs full of cocaine parcels.

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Five people listed on the site have been identified. A niece claimed a woman found in eastern Essex. Another man recognized the profile of his brother, last seen in 1994.

There have been other resolutions. A family’s call about a woman found in the north Yorkshire brush in 1981 resulted in police locating a missing loved one who turned out to have been alive.

Another woman asked about a man she thought was her lost father. He wasn’t, but police were able to confirm her father’s fate by finding his death certificate.

For many families of the missing, even bad news is a welcome alternative to the purgatory of not knowing.

“When they’ve got a loved one missing over a longer-term period,” Latham said, “the thought that they’re lying somewhere with no identification, no burial, no one to mourn for them in that way, is worse than the thought of not knowing where they are.”