Luke Athens cracked the case of missing person Daphne Pearl Hampstead who was last sighted leaving her residence on Cowpasture Road, Bossley Park in 1958.
Picture: John Feder
How could she leave her children? Why did she never go back?
They were the most common questions from readers after The Australian last week published the astonishing story of Daphne Pearl Hampstead, who was until this year the subject of one of Australia’s oldest missing persons cases.
Daphne was a 39-year-old mother of eight children when she disappeared from the family’s dairy farm in 1958.
Her name was on the missing persons list for 62 years. She is now found, and her story had readers both curious and reminded of sudden and painful departures from their own family circles. Almost ¬always, they said, it’s the not knowing that undoes you.
For those who missed the original story: Daphne was born at Nurse O’Brien’s Private Hospital in Cootamundra on either July 13 or 15, 1918. She was married at 18 to a local boy, Sidney Hampstead, 27. Together they produced a tribe of children: Leslie, Patricia, Marcia, Daphne, twins Barry and Clifford, Helen, and Janet.
The family lived at a remote place known as Crosby’s dairy farm on Cowpasture Road in Bossley Park, which is now a suburb of Sydney. Daphne was described in early court documents as a loving mother who was “social and engaging”. But life was hard: she was required to cook for the kids and the farm workers, and Sidney would rise at 2am most mornings to tend the cows.
He was also said to love his wife “to the point of obsession”. She was attractive, and he was jealous, controlling and abusive.
In the mid-1950s, Daphne took a job as a cook at a restaurant in the city, famous as one of the first places in Sydney to serve Coca-Cola. She loved her job and probably the exciting atmosphere in the city, and started coming home later each day. Her husband suspected an affair, and may have been right.
On Saturday May 10, 1958, she fled the farm by taxi, taking most of her clothes. Her children soon found a letter addressed to her, signed by a man called Eugene, ¬offering to pick her up from the airport in Hobart.
Someone had torn up the letter. The children didn’t know anyone called Eugene. A day later, another letter arrived. This one was from Daphne, to her family.
“My darling Sid,” it said, in part. “Oh darling, what it is costing me to write this letter …” (the entire text was not released by the court.)
Daphne asked her children to take care of their father, and each other. Five years on, one of the twins, Barry, became critically ill, prompting one of his sisters to try to find their mum. A third letter arrived, expressing concern for the boy. It was signed “from somebody who loves you very much” and they were sure it was Daphne’s handwriting, but she did not visit.
That was the early 1960s, and Daphne never contacted her family again.
Daphne Pearl Hampstead.
According to documents held by the Coroner’s Court, “Daphne’s departure caused Sidney to be a broken man and he buried his ¬sorrows with alcohol.” He died on May 2, 1973, aged 64.
Again, the children tried to find Daphne. Because if she was still alive, and loved and missed them, she could surely now come forward? It never happened.
Six of the children have since died, without knowing what happened to their mother.
Then, last year, a determined granddaughter, Donna, took up the case. She engaged a private ¬investigator, Luke Athens, who told The Australian: “The family was just shattered. But it really took no time at all to find her.”
Athens followed a trail from Sydney to Queensland, where Daphne lopped some years off her age, and worked for a time in a sewing machine shop. She re-partnered not once but twice, finally taking the name Daphne Jones. She became a stepmother to her new partner’s children, and they renovated homes for profit, before retiring in the early 2000s to the town of Maryborough, inland from Fraser Island.
“I called her next of kin in Queensland; they knew straight away the person I was looking for was the same person they knew,” said Athens. “She had always been so guarded about her past.”
The second family provided photographs, to prove that Daphne Jones and Daphne Hampstead were the same person. They described Daphne Jones as a vibrant, charismatic woman who was often elegantly dressed. Never did she talk about having eight children. The story quickly became one of the week’s most popular, as readers marvelled at a mystery, but it seems that such disappearances are not uncommon.
“Similar to my mother,” said one reader. “Took off in the 60s — I was eight — left three children, never heard a peep from her. Found her in the 80s, she hadn’t even told anyone about us.”
“I‘m 64,” said another. “My ¬father left my mum with four kids when I was a year old. We often wonder how he could make no contact with us his children. Did he ever think of us? Did he ever wonder how well we turned out? Know that you can be proud of us, the 10 grandchildren are all amazing worthwhile citizens … how sad you’ve missed out on so much richness from us all.”
One of the police officers who worked on Daphne’s case told The Australian: “The children went their whole lives worried about her. Thinking: didn’t she miss us? Which is why we do encourage people, if they have taken off, to end the agony for loved ones, just by letting people know that they are OK.”
The grief and confusion of Daphne’s children was easily understood by readers, too.
“I cannot understand how any mother could leave their children and never tell them where she was gone,” one reader said.
“I feel sad for her kids, knowing that she just left them and never told them anything,” said another.
It is all the more perplexing because time was certainly on Daphne’s side. She was 39 when she fled, and 89 when she died. The winds of change were for years blowing in her direction: women’s lives have over the past six decades been transformed by feminism, reliable contraception, no-fault divorce, and the push to properly recognise violence in marriage as a crime.
Why did Daphne never reach back, across the ages, to try to explain her decision — her frustration, or even desperation — to her children? Maybe she had fallen in love with another man and, having made her choice, did not feel that she could unmake it?
It’s all so terribly sad, because there are many signs — her children’s never-ending quest to find her, for example — to suggest that all they wanted was to know what happened. But not a word did they hear ahead of Daphne’s death from the complication of cancer at Queensland’s Maryborough Hospital in 2007.
Yes, that’s right. She only died in 2007. Her children and grandchildren missed her by so little. And yet so much. So much.