On her 80th birthday, a tribute to the courageous, caring, and fiercely determined mother of missing York chef Claudia Lawrence, who vanished 14 years ago…

REACHING the age of 80 is an important milestone for anyone, but it’s especially poignant for Joan Lawrence.

She can’t help feeling that time is running out in her quest to find an answer to the question she’s asked herself every day for 14 years: “Where’s Claudia?”

“I can’t believe I’m 80, but it makes me more determined than ever to get justice for Claudia, and closure for myself,” says the grandmother.

“I’m not one for material things. The only birthday present I want is news – even if it’s bad news.”

We’ve met many times since Joan’s daughter, a York chef, went missing. Every anniversary, every Mother’s Day, has been an opportunity to keep the story alive in the hope that someone will finally come forward with the key to unlock the mystery.

We last met in March – on the 14th anniversary of Claudia’s disappearance – when we went inside her little house in Heworth, on the outskirts of York. The cottage has remained frozen in time while the investigation has continued.

That meeting led to emails being sent to me by a person with long-held suspicions about someone they know. The correspondent, who'd been too frightened to come forward before, begged to be put in direct contact with Joan. Conversations have subsequently taken place and the police informed.

“I’m convinced the person is genuine and, credible, so who knows where it might lead?” says Joan. “It shows why it's so important to keep the story out there. Someone, somewhere must know something.”

Four months on, a few days before her 80th birthday, our latest meeting is taking place at the Principal Hotel, next York Railway Station, and the first thing to say is that Joan looks great for her age.

“Oh, it’s the wig,” she chuckles, giving it a mischievous little tug at both sides to make sure it’s straight. “People say it takes years off me.”

She started wearing a wig four years ago, when the stress of not knowing what’s happened to Claudia led to alopecia. But it’s typical of Joan that she’s used her own experience of hair-loss to inspire others.

“My message is that it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she says. “I want to be open about it, and wear a wig with pride, because it’s important to remove the stigma.”

Joan gets two new wigs every year from the NHS, and her latest have arrived for the summer.

“Strangers stop me in the street and say how nice my hair looks. I know they’re being kind because they can see that it makes me feel good.

“There’s an awful lot of nice people, aren’t there? So many ask how I am and tell me they’re thinking of Claudia. It helps so much to know that.”

York Press: Claudia LawrenceClaudia Lawrence

Claudia was last seen on March 18, 2009, when she was 35. Ever since that day, Joan’s first thought every morning, and the last thought before she goes to sleep, is about her daughter: wondering what could have happened, fearful of the possibilities, but never losing hope completely.

And, despite everything she’s been through, she’s one of the kindest, most thoughtful, bravest people I’ve met. Getting to know Joan has been a privilege and an inspiration.

Whenever news breaks of a missing person, or a family facing a tragedy, she’s among the first to get in touch with a message of condolence or offer of support, no matter where they may be around the country.


And, as an active member of her local Lions club, she supports isolated and housebound people in Malton in the run-up to Christmas. Whether it’s baking cakes to deliver to their homes, or sending them one of her beautifully hand-painted cards, Joan always wants to play her part.

Now, as she reaches 80, this remarkable woman deserves to be in our thoughts more than ever because she admits she will find her “big birthday” particularly hard, and isn’t sure how she'll spend it.

“I find all these special days – birthdays and anniversaries – emotional and stressful,” she says. “But getting to 80 makes me more determined to keep going, because it feels like I’m running out of time, and I need the answer.”

She admits to having had "very dark thoughts" during the past 14 years.

"As hard as it's been, I'm lucky to still have my health and my gorgeous grandchildren, so there's a lot to be thankful for.

York Press: Claudia LawrenceClaudia Lawrence

"Despite the nightmares, what's happened has also brought a lot of love my way, and that keeps me going. For however much time I've got left, I'll never give up."

Joan has been touched by the amount of cards she's been sent, including from her old colleagues from the telephone exchange in her hometown of Darlington.

"It's more than 50 years since we worked together, but we're still the same deep down, and they mean a lot to me," she says.

At the end of this week, Joan will visit Claudia's sister, Ali, and be taken for a special lunch. "It's important to have some mother and daughter time," she says.

But today – her 80th birthday – she plans to keep a low profile and “take a deep breath”.

“There are times when I just want to be on my own," she says. "I think I might just fill up with petrol and go for a drive in the country, find a quiet spot, and think about the good times we had.”

Those memories include the last “big birthday" Joan spent with Claudia. It was her 60th, when she, Claudia, and Ali, along with friends and family members, celebrated at the Forest and Vale Hotel, in Pickering.

“It was a beautiful day. We had Pimm’s on the lawn and Claudia was really happy,” she recalls. “She bought me a ring with the August birthstone, peridot. I keep it safe because I’m scared of losing it. You can’t put a price on some things.”

Apart from some long-awaited news, the other birthday present she'd love is for some kind person, or organisation to help clear the overgrown garden behind Claudia's cottage.

"I'd be forever grateful if someone could help with that – it would make me feel so much better to see it tidy again," she says.

The mortgage has been written off by Santander, and Joan hopes the cottage can soon be put to some kind of charitable use.

"I just want something good to come out of everything that's happened," she declares.

In the meantime, she'll go on hoping and praying for news.

"Sometimes, I think it'll never end, but it will one day, won't it?" she says, softly.

Joan Lawrence – the epitome of courage and kindness – so deserves to find the answer to that heartbreaking question.