Who was ‘Neil Dovestones’?

Remember Me Research Fellow Dr Louis Bailey explores the mysterious death of Neil Dovestones, and the quest to unearth his identity.

To memorialise is to name, is to remember the person that was and commemorate the life that was lived.  Memorialisation is a way of connecting the deceased with the living – through conversations, thoughts and the objects left behind – a piece of jewellery, a favourite jumper, photographs and letters.   These are the remnants of a life lived, these are the traces of the person who has passed – the signifiers of an absence, which becomes shaped into a new form of presence.  Although a person may be physically gone, they nonetheless ‘live on’ through the people and things they leave behind.

But what happens when a death resists the process of memorialisation?  What if someone dies alone, in an unfamiliar place, with no-one to remember and mourn them?  What if a person wants to be forgotten, if they want all traces of their life and the person they were to be erased, to die with them?

He remains nameless, his body still unidentified.  A year and counting and still no-one has come forward to claim him, to mourn him.  His body lies in wait in the mortuary of Royal Oldham Hospital outside Manchester.  He was dubbed ‘Neil Dovestones’ by the mortuary technicians, who couldn’t bear to continue to refer to him as the ‘unnamed person’.  ‘Neil’ because he looked like a Neil, they said, and ‘Dovestones’ because that’s where he had been found – lying face up on a gravel track leading away from Dovestones reservoir, a beauty spot in Saddleworth (Peak District, England).  The cyclist who found him said it looked like he was just taking a rest.  He looked peaceful, there was no sign of struggle.

dovestones_from_alphin_hill
Dovestone Reservoir from Alphin Hill, in Saddleworth, Greater Manchester, England. Photograph Ian Roberts. Used under creative commons license.

One of the last people to talk to the man was Mel Robinson, the landlord of The Clarence pub in nearby Greenfield.  Robinson describes how on a cold afternoon on December 11th, 2015, a man around 70 years of age entered the pub, asking for directions to ‘the top of the mountain’.  The man – wearing a light jacket, corduroy trousers, jumper, shirt and slip-on shoes – was not dressed for walking and was certainly not dressed for wintry weather.

‘Top of the mountain’.  Although there are numerous high peaks, this is not mountain country.  The landlord directed him towards Chew reservoir – the highest escarpment nearby, accessed by track from Dovestones reservoir.  But he warned the man that it was soon to be dark and that he wouldn’t have time to get up there and back again.  The man didn’t appear to be bothered by this and went on his way.

By the following morning the man was dead – just 700 metres down from Chew reservoir.  Did he die of a heart attack?  A stroke?  Exposure?  A toxicology test soon confirmed the cause of death: strychnine poisoning.  Traces of strychnine were found in the empty bottle of thyroxine sodium (for the treatment of hypothyroidism) inside his jacket pocket.  Strychnine, a pesticide, has been banned in the UK since 2006 but is available in Pakistan, where it is used to cull feral dogs.  It causes muscles to contract and results in asphyxiation.  It is a particularly violent and unpleasant way to die.

No form of identification was found on him – no wallet, bank cards, driving licence, watch, wedding ring or keys.   All he had was £130 in cash and three train tickets – a single from Ealing Broadway to London Euston and a return from London to Manchester.  It was as if he didn’t want anyone to find him.

Parts of his final pilgrimage were captured on CCTV – grainy images of him at Ealing Broadway station in London and then, a few hours later, at Manchester Piccadilly.  Tall, light-skinned with grey receding hair and a prominent nose – these are the details, these are the things we know.  To see him alone in a sea of people is heart wrenching.  He is dressed like my dad, like every older man I see strolling around town – smart-casual but comfortable.   He wanders in and out of the shops, buys a sandwich from M&S.  It’s hard watching him.  He was once someone’s son, perhaps even a brother, an uncle, father, spouse.

neil-dovestones-greater-manchester-police
Police sketch of ‘Neil Dovestones’

The man’s DNA does not match any of the profiles on either the missing persons or criminal intelligence databases.  There have been countless police appeals – using the CCTV images and an artist impression – but no-one has come forward to claim him as their own.  No-one to mourn him, to notice his passing.  Cases like this highlight the misnomer that we’re all connected.  Even in the twenty-first century, in the age of social media – Facebook and Twitter – someone can easily slip through the cracks, disappear without a trace.

The story of Neil Dovestones has captured the world’s hearts and imaginations.  We want to know who he was, why he wound up on that track.  We want to try to understand and to ascribe meaning to his death.  The alternative is just too painful – too tragic and chilling.  We don’t want to believe that someone can die alone and remain forgotten.  This explains the numerous theories that abound – including the claim by an Australian news wesbite that he might have been a spy.

One theory postulated that he might have been the last survivor of a plane crash at Wimberry Stones.  In 1949 a British European Airways plane was travelling from Belfast to Manchester when it crashed in fog.  24 people were killed but 8 people survived, including two boys – Michael Prestwich and Stephen Evans.  News reports speculated that one of the boys may be Neil Dovestone but it was revealed that Prestwich had been killed 10 years later in a train crash.  Meanwhile, Evans – now working as a professor of pharmacology in London – came forward to say that he was still very much alive, thank you very much.

Saddleworth Moor has become synonymous with the bizarre and unexplained – unexpected tragedies, extreme and wicked acts.  In nearby St Chad’s church, a gravestone details the gruesome 1832 murder of a local innkeeper and his son: ‘Here lie interred the dreadfully bruised and lacerated bodies of William Bradbury and Thomas his son both of Greenfield who were together savagely murdered in an unusually horrid manner.’ The perpetrator was never found.  It was on the moors that Britain’s notorious serial killers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, buried their victims – innocent children who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was here that a freak avalanche claimed the lives of two experienced ice-climbers, here that the former MP for Oldham, James Platt, was accidentally shot, and here that many inexperienced and ill-prepared hikers lose their lives each year, caught out by the weather and the fog that can suddenly descend.  The same fog took down dozens of planes during the Second World War – parts of wreckage still visible in the cloughs and bogs which make up this beguiling and treacherous blanket of land.

Even though he bought a return ticket, Neil Dovestones never returned home.  He came here to disappear.  He travelled 200 miles to end his life two thirds of the way up a gravel moorland path in a remote Northern climb.  The bleak and desolate landscape seems particularly apt for such a lonely end, the ideal place for someone who just wanted to be forgotten, who wanted to blend into the endless greys of distant and unfamiliar land.  This is someone who didn’t want to be remembered, didn’t want to be named.

But still the police search and still journalists ask questions and still we all google for more news because we want to know, we want to believe that he was loved and we want to believe that he was known.

For more information about the Neil Dovestones case, please refer to the BBC webpage, ‘Body on the Moor’

Dr Louis Bailey is a Research Fellow on the ‘Remember Me’ Memorialisation Study and is leading the case study ‘Who Were They?‘ on the ways in which trans people are commemorated after death. 

UPDATE:

Ten days after this blog post was written, the identity of Neil Dovestones was finally revealed… https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/26/identity-of-man-found-dead-on-saddleworth-moor-in-2015-is-confirmed-david-lytton
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