Somewhere in Sudan on September 1st, 1976, my then 30-year-old uncle, Kevin Williams, wrote a short message on the back of a postcard and mailed it home to his eldest brother in Ireland.
There was nothing especially remarkable about the note. It explained why he was in that part of Africa, when he had arrived, and when he hoped to return home. What makes it significant today is that it remains, more than 41 years later, Kevin’s last ever communication with his family.
For three and a half decades, it was assumed, generally, by his family, that Kevin had died far from home, and possibly not long after he posted his final missive from Sudan. That was until an extraordinary revelation a few years ago that raised the scarcely believable prospect that Kevin could still be alive and well today.
The following is a short story about the life, times and the ongoing search for my missing uncle, Kevin Williams.
Kevin was born Richard Kevin Williams on March 24th, 1946 in the village of Taghmon, County Wexford. Known by his second name, he was the fourth eldest in a family of five.
The Williams family would have been well-known in Taghmon. Kevin’s parents, Tommy and Mary Ellen (otherwise known as Annie), ran a bakery and grocery shop on the main street. The business had been established there by Tommy’s father, Laurence, sometime in the 1890s.
After completing his secondary education, Kevin went to Dublin, where, in February 1964, he started a job with Royal Exchange Assurance (later to become The Guardian Royal Exchange Group), where he worked for about two years.
The Merchant Navy
Sometime in early to mid-1966, Kevin moved to London, where he applied to join the British Merchant Navy. He was subsequently employed as a ‘Utility Steward’ on the ‘SS Oriana’, which he joined at Southampton Port on August 9th, 1966. During two trips on this ship over the following five months, Kevin travelled around the world, visiting all the major shipping ports in America, Canada, Australia, Africa and Europe.
During this time of his life, Kevin had a blue tattoo inked on his arm. The tattoo depicted a sailing ship accompanied by the text, ‘Homeward Bound’ and was located above either his left or his right wrist.
London in the ’60s and ’70s
After he came back from sea, Kevin returned to London and lived and worked in the city for the next eight years. During part of this time, he was employed at the New Zealand High Commission on Haymarket, off Pall Mall. He also may have worked as a post office telephonist for a brief period, and as a croupier in a casino.
Kevin rented a flat in a building on Guildford Street in central London during most, if not all of this time. He may also have lived on Elgin Road in West London sometime up to mid-1975.
Kevin wrote letters, visited and telephoned home periodically, while he was also visited in London by members of his family on several occasions. The picture below is from one such visit, in October 1973. The photograph is the last the family has of Kevin. He was 27 years of age.
Kevin last visited home for mother’s funeral in early 1975. Annie died unexpectedly on February 21st that year, aged just 68. Kevin took the boat back to England the day after the service. This short trip back to Wexford remains the last time anyone in his family has seen him.
The Final Letters
Later that year, Kevin decided to go travelling again. All the information about his travels in 1975 and 1976 come from two letters and one postcard that he wrote home to each of his brothers across the spring, summer and autumn of ’76.
In the first letter, written to my father Tomás (Tom) and posted from Delhi, India, on March 11th, 1976, Kevin revealed that he had left London on September 1st the previous year and hitched through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran, before eventually arriving in Afghanistan, where he stayed for approximately one month, before carrying on by public transport to Pakistan, where he remained for about three weeks. He then travelled to India, possibly arriving there around late October, and stayed there for about four and a half months.
In a subsequent letter to his youngest brother, Brian, written sometime during the summer of 1976, Kevin revealed that he had spent one and a half months in Nepal before returning to Delhi. He subsequently travelled to Pakistan by road, ultimately making his way down to Karachi. After spending several months in the city, he landed a job as a deck hand on a Greek-Cypriot ship headed for Suez. The letter to Brian was written while he was on board the same ship as it sailed through the Indian Ocean on its way to Sudan, and ultimately Suez, from where, Kevin said, he hoped to fly back to London.
A brief time later, on September 1st, Kevin mailed a postcard to his eldest brother, Dominic. In it, he explained that he was writing from Sudan, and had been there for one month, after arriving on the ship referred to in his previous letter. Why he had decided to remain in Sudan, rather than continue on to Suez, is not revealed.
In this postcard, Kevin said that he hoped to be in London ‘within six weeks’. This would have had him arriving in the English capital sometime around mid-October 1976.
The Lost Years
Sadly, although it was written more than four decades ago, this postcard remains the last communication between Kevin and his family.
Kevin’s siblings made various efforts to locate Kevin in the years following his disappearance, but to no avail. The trail simply ran cold. And as each year passed, it grew colder still.
For his 15 nieces and nephews, seven of whom, like myself, weren’t even born when Kevin wrote his final postcard from Sudan, the case of our missing uncle was a curiosity that was raised at family gatherings from time to time, but nothing more.
As surprising as it may seem now, I never even held a conversation of note with my own father about Kevin. He never brought it up with me and while I might have broached the subject once or twice over the years, I never queried him on it in any detail. If I had known what was to occur after he died, I would have made sure to find out everything he knew.
My father died aged 71, on August 18th, 2012. It was very shortly afterwards that everything we thought we knew or assumed about Kevin’s disappearance changed utterly.
A few days after the funeral, a family relative was having lunch with some work colleagues in Wexford when, during a conversation about my father, one of them casually revealed that he had met Kevin in London about four or five years previously.
Although the immediate assumption was that they were mistaken, the information that the same person was able reveal about the encounter, including what Kevin said, made it highly likely that the person he had met was indeed my father’s missing brother. The individual who met Kevin also had no idea then, or during the conversation at lunch some years later, that his family had not heard from him since September 1976.
Understandably, this disclosure came as a complete bolt from the blue to Kevin’s siblings, and indeed, to his wider family. Not only were they faced with the realisation that Kevin may have been alive and well in London three decades after they last heard from him, but there was no reason to suppose that - at just 66 years of age - he wasn’t still living at the time the revelation was made in August 2012.
Sadly, the optimism they shared at tracing Kevin again was desperately short-lived. Despite speaking again to the person who met Kevin in London, they were unable to gather any further information that would have made it possible to trace him.
The realisation, when it finally came, that there were no leads to follow and therefore no straightforward way to track Kevin down, was as shocking as the initial revelation. They were back to square one before they had even begun.
Postscript – January 2018:
Almost five-and-a-half years on, nothing much has changed, apart from the fact that the family has been able to confirm, beyond any doubt, that Kevin was alive and living in London in the early 2000s.
As these words are being written, however, the fact remains that no communication of any kind has passed between Kevin and his family for over 41 years.
While the chances of seeing him again remain remote, the question of why Kevin disappeared in the first place continues to burn. In fact, if the revelation of 2012 is to be taken as fact, and Kevin was alive in approximately 2007 or 2008, and is possibly even still alive today (he would be 72 in March), the question becomes ever more critical.
A couple of family members have revealed that Kevin indicated to them in the 1970s that he may not return to Taghmon after his parents died. But at no point did he signal that he would, and without any warning, terminate all contact with his family. Not even in his final letters, in which, going by what he wrote at least, he led them to believe that he would see them soon.
With no strong leads to follow, all his surviving siblings can do is remain hopeful that they will meet Kevin again someday, or, at the very least, be delivered news that he is alive, well, and at peace.
For Kevin’s other relations, particularly his nieces and nephews, Kevin remains something of an enigma. I have 14 cousins on my father’s side and, apart from the seven of us who were born after his last correspondence, those who were alive either have no recollection of him, or barely remember him. Even the eldest of us would only have been nine when he disappeared.
But whether he is a much-loved brother, a cousin, or an uncle we barely remember or never met, one thing holds true: he is family. And his disappearance remains a mystery that we all fervently wish to solve.
* For those with genuine information on Kevin's whereabouts, you can make contact with the author via the 'Contact' form on this website.
** A special thank you to my extended family for their support with this article, and, in particular, to my uncles and aunt.