Still fighting in the name of James

A MOTHER'S SON: Denise Fergus whose son James Bulger was killed 20 years ago.
A MOTHER'S SON: Denise Fergus whose son James Bulger was killed 20 years ago.
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FOR James. 16 March 1990 – 12 February 1993.

That is the poigniant dedication on the side of a holiday home at Ribby Hall Village, Wrea Green, in memory of tragic toddler James Bulger.

The six berth static caravan known as James Bulger House opened in the summer of 2011 and James’ mother Denise Fergus has described it as the “only real, tangible memorial” to her lost child.

For two decades Denise has been courted by the great and good of children’s charities to work in their name. But this is personal. This is for her child. A little boy whose name is 
irrevocably linked with 
atrocities so appalling the world wept to read them.

It is 20 years to the day since James Bulger took the hands of two boys who took his life. He was two years and 11 months old.

He was lured away from his mother in Bootle’s Strand shopping centre by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both 10 years and six months old.

Together they walked a toddler, tearful, upset, tired and tugging away from them, more than two miles from his worried mum.

On the fringe of a freight train track 200 yards from Walton police station they mutilated James beyond belief and left him for dead on the line.

We won’t dwell on the detail. It was the devil in the detail that drove even hardened observers out of courtroom one at Preston Crown Court close to tears.

I attended for one day. One day was enough. It is not easy reading. It is not easy writing. Some crimes blight a community as we in the Fylde know to our cost. Children have been killed here. There are places I cannot pass without thinking of a child’s smile from our own front page breaking news of their death.

But some crimes scar society. The torturing, taunting and breaking of James Bulger by children is one such.

The closest comparable case is that of Mary Bell, now a grandmother, who became notorious at 11 in 1968 after strangling two small boys and carving her initial into the mutilated body of one.

She was released at 23 and reportedly earned £50,000 from a book which detailed her life. Robert Thompson was said, last year, to be in line for similar payment as recompense for suspected phone hacking by the press.

Denise is of the opinion crime should not pay. Her charity the James Bulger Memorial Trust (JBMT) has an e-petition to stop criminals receiving payouts for phone hacking offences ... and for any profits from their notoriety to be handed to charity.

The e-petition stood at more than 5,000 names when I added my own. It closes in May. If it collects more than 10,000 names the topic can be debated in Parliament.

Denise said: “This is an 
important matter of principle and I hope enough people sign the petition to make the MPs sit-up and take notice.”

This is not a woman who “wallows” in her “victim status” – as Boris Johnson once memorably remarked of her home city post-Hillsborough.

Denise, 44, is feisty, formidable, a fighter. She has been redefined by tragedy – as every parent of every lost child is – but she also lives her life. She has three other children. She is married to electrician Stuart Fergus, her first marriage 
having collapsed under the strain.

James’ Ralph Bulger has written of his experiences in his book My James, out this week.

He regrets drinking himself to oblivion and blaming Denise, in darker moments, for letting their son out of her sight.

And to this day Denise admits that she watches, worries and waits for reassurance that all is well if she sees or hears a child crying. To this day her oldest child Michael, 19, James’ younger brother, is watched over, his mum preferring his friends to come to their home, and driven by his parents to and from job interviews.

The website of the James Bulger Memorial Trust (JBMT) which operates under the name ‘For James’ crashed in recent days under pressure of “visits” from around the world.

It asks: “Do you know a child who deserves a holiday”? The criteria for nomination is simple. Any child who has suffered bullying, violence, hatred or crime. Or to reward any to show exemplary behaviour.

It describes Ribby Hall as “near Blackpool” and the holiday home in such a tranquil spot of the Fylde is a balm to the soul.

It’s about life and laughter. It’s for kids, families or carers, who need a cost-free break for reasons known only to the charity which bears James’ name – and the mother who bore him.

It’s there by the grace of goodness, by public donations, and the generosity of an anonymous well-wisher who handed over a £28,000 six berth static caravan to Denise six months after she started her £50,000 fund-raising drive.

Denise and Stuart got stuck in immediately, refurbishing the caravan and kitting it out before relocating it to Ribby Hall which itself has never courted publicity on that basis.

She admits: “I fell in love with the place. We decided to do it because every time you pick up the paper or put on the news you hear about bad kids getting rewards but good kids getting nothing at all.”

She also champions the Red Balloon Learner Centres for victims of bullying throughout the UK.

Venables and Thompson were just seven years and seven months older than James.

That was spelled out at Preston Crown Court the barrister, Fylde’s own Richard Henriques QC, now High Court judge.

Mr Henriques referred to the murdered child throughout as – James. It was not only his given name but what his parents Denise and Ralph called him, he pointed out.

The gravitas Mr Henriques brought to the proceedings helped anchor Ralph Bulger where he sat with other family members in the public gallery.

In his book he reveals how he gazed with disbelief upon the small frames of his son’s killers.

Thomson and Venables were of the minimum age of criminal responsibility – 10 years old.

The very age well meaning campaigners now wish to revise upwards.

Some 50 of them wrote to the Guardian a few weeks ago.

They pointed out some 2,000 primary age children were arrested in 2011. They reminded policy makers that you have to be 13 to get a paper round, 16 to consent to sex and 17 to drive.

The coalition has ruled out any change. Justice minister Jeremy Wright said: “The Government believes young people aged 10 and over are able to differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing and as such we have no intention of reviewing this.”

The trial went ahead in spite of much angst about the age of criminal responsibility and whether Thompson and Venables would receive a fair hearing.

Venables was held by many to have been led astray by Thompson. But it was Venables who urged his friend to pick up James’ hand again, having dropped it and had second thoughts.

Mr Henriques stressed that such was the enormity of the crimes heaped upon a defenceless child both had been equally responsible.

The pair were found guilty of murder with a recommendation they serve at least eight years. This was later increased on appeal to 17 years. It was reduced to eight by the European Court which ruled they had suffered “inhuman and degrading treatment in an adult court”.

They were released on life licence at 18 to live under new identities at the taxpayers’ expense to protect them from revenge attacks.

In 2005 a Fleetwood father of four was forced to flee the town after neighbours wrongly claimed he was Jon Venables.

In 2010 the real life Venables was back inside, this time in a proper jail, for downloading and distributing indecent images of children.

Speaking on daytime TV this month Denise said: “Venables never did time in prison. He went to a young offenders’ where he was totally looked after, given the best care, given everything he asked for. In my eyes he got a better education, a better lifestyle than he had before he went in.”