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‘I shouldn’t have let go of him’: the pain of James Bulger’s mother 28 years on

James Tapper
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/the Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/the Observer

Denise Fergus has always spoken about her son James to his three younger brothers, telling them what the toddler was like before he was murdered. But hearing them describe in a new television documentary the effect of his death on them and their family left her lost for words.

“It really did touch me,” she said. “Seeing my lads – they’ve never spoken like that before. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard them say how they actually felt about James’s death, his murder. It did take me aback quite a bit, hearing how protective they were of me.”

James’s 27-year-old brother Michael and half-brothers Thomas, 22, and Leon, 21, describe in the Channel Five film how Fergus often told them stories about their oldest brother, and kept an empty chair at the dinner table at Christmas.

“People think I set up a place for James, but it’s not like that,” Fergus told the Observer. “We have a table for six, and there’s five of us. I’ve always said that the empty chair is where James should be sitting. I try to be positive when I talk about him. I don’t want James’s memory to be lost.”

The two-part documentary, Lost Boy: The Killing of James Bulger, to be aired at 9pm on 10 and 11 March, retells the events, hour by hour, of 12 February 1993 when Fergus had been shopping in a butcher’s in Bootle, Merseyside, with her blond, bouncy-haired two-year-old son. He had been tearing round the shop, so she took hold of his hand. Then, as she took out her purse to pay, she let go.

“I shouldn’t have let go of his hand,” she says in the film. “It’s hard for me to say, but it’s the truth.”

The documentary details the police search of the New Strand shopping centre, the realisation he had been abducted by two boys, and the discovery of his body on a railway line two and a half miles away. Investigators found he had been attacked repeatedly before he died, with 41 injuries on his body.

Fergus said she had not realised the extent of the police officers’ own emotional trauma during the investigation.

“When I was in contact with them and seeing them all the time, they were doing a good job of putting a brave face on things,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were feeling. It was breathtaking to hear – how it really did affect them as well.”

James would have turned 31 later this month, and his birthday revives unanswerable questions for her.

“Would he be married? I don’t know. Would he be a dad? I don’t know. It’s things like this that do play on my mind, like his first day at school, his first sports day, first parents evening, these are questions I ask myself but never get answers to.”

One way of dealing with the impossibility of those questions has been to set up a charity, ForJames.org – the James Bulger Memorial Trust, which provides holidays for disadvantaged families, the bereaved, and crime victims at a holiday lodge in Lytham St Annes in Lancashire.

But the charity has been hit hard by the pandemic, which meant it had no fundraising events last year, while continuing to pay its costs for the lodge and other expenses.

“For the last year the charity is down £70,000 – it’s had a massive impact,” Fergus’s husband, Stuart, said. “If it carries on for another year I don’t think the charity would survive.”

Fergus said the support she receives from ordinary people had been invaluable. Writing a book two years ago, with ghostwriter Carly Cook, also helped.

“You’ve got to let something go because if you don’t, it will drive you insane,” she said. “It’s not always in my head. I’m a mum again and that has kept me occupied. But I’m two people – I’m a mum but when it’s time to fight for James, I become that fighting person again.”

Related: James Bulger's parents 'disgusted' as film about son's killers gets Oscar nomination

For Fergus, the fight means campaigning for a public inquiry into how James’s killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were dealt with by the criminal justice system. The boys were barely above the age of criminal responsibility when they killed James, and were given sentences lasting eight years, something Fergus described as “a stab in the back”.

Since completing their sentences, their identities have been protected by court order due to their notoriety. Venables has since been convicted twice for offences relating to child pornography.

“I always said if they weren’t punished in the right way they’d go on to commit more crimes, and that’s what happened,” she said.

“You watch your own kids as they’re getting older. At the age of 10? Everyone knows what they’re doing at that age. You know right from wrong. I can’t understand people who say ‘they were only 10’.”