Two of Ireland's youngest missing people who disappeared 36-years ago are featured in a new book by journalist Barry Cummins entitled “Without Trace Ireland’s Missing”
Thomas Spence (11) and John Rodgers (13) left their homes in west Belfast on November 26th 1974 to catch a bus to their special needs school. Although the two boys were not close neighbors, they became friendly because they usually got the bus to school together. But when the bus pulled up at it's usual stop along the Fall's Road that morning there was no sign of the two friends.
It was during rush hour on a Tuesday morning on one of the busiest roads in west Belfast and somehow the boys disappeared without a trace. In the days and weeks that followed frantic appeals and extensive searches of the surrounding areas proved fruitless. To this this the boys remain missing and their case remains unsolved.
Over three decades later the loss of their son Thomas, is still very raw for Richard and Anne Spence. For the first time in several years Thomas's parents spoke to Barry Cummins about their eldest son’s disappearance.
Richard recalled that despite his son's dyslexia he had great skill with numbers: “He had no problem with numbers at all, 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.”
Anne remembers the morning her son disappeared vividly.
“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.”
Cummins points out in his new book that it is surprising that on such a busy morning on one of the main nationalist thoroughfares nobody saw anything.
In September 2001 police working on the cold case excavated two sites linked to a convicted paedophile who had been in the area around the same time the boys disappeared. The search lasted a week and unearthed bones which later turned out to be that of an animal. This was the last time police made a major appeals for information on the missing boys cases.
Richard and Anne Spence still live in Belfast surrounded by their surviving children and grandchildren. While they moved from the area of the Falls Road, they still on occasion visit the area which to this day is a constant reminder of the eldest they lost.
“Our family doctor is still located on the Falls Road,” Anne says. “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.