Book review: Boy Number 26 – Tommy Rhattigan’s harrowing tale of a child in “care”


If you think the worst thing that could happen to a seven-year-old boy was to be lured into a house by Myra Hindley on the promise of a slice of bread and jam, think again.
For little Tommy Rhattigan, it did get worse. A whole lot worse.

While Tommy was able to escape the clutches of Hindley and her co-monster in crime Ian Brady through a window in her grandmother’s house in Gorton, escaping the tormentors working in the state’s so-called care system was another thing altogether. In fact it was impossible.

When I interviewed Tommy after 1963: A Slice of Bread and Jam – his first book describing his life as a child in a Hulme slum with an alcoholic and abusive father and negligent mother – he said it had been the happiest time of his life.

By contrast, the years that followed, the subject of his just-published sequel Boy Number 26 (Mirror Books, £7.99) proved to be the worst of times.

A persistent truant, he was placed in the care of the local authority ay the age of eight and spent time in children’s homes and later in approved schools.

“They put me in a care home because I refused to go to school. I wanted the freedom of roaming the streets. It was all I knew.”

Falling foul of paedophiles in the care system, he said: “I was abused for years. It was the worst period of my life – absolutely horrendous. They took my soul. When you mature into a man – that’s when the events of childhood have their biggest effects.

“I suffered with mental health issues because of the guilt you carry. You blame yourself for what has happened to you. It doesn’t just make you a lesser man but a lesser human being.”

He was moved from a children’s home in Manchester to the notorious St Vincent’s Approved School in Formby, Liverpool, where he was subjected to a regime of almost daily horrific abuse.

As with the first book, readers have, of necessity, to afford Tommy a considerable degree of author’s licence, for the detail with he recounts the episodes of relentless cruelty to the extent of recalling conversations – in quotes – is quite remarkable for someone who was under ten years old at the time.

Yet memoirs of abuse, victimhood and misery have, down the years, proved to be a much more successful literary genre than books about tiptoeing happily through the tulips, and Tommy lays it on with a very big trowel.

In fact, were in not for his remarkable ability to inject some humour into his narrative, it might be all too easy for readers to suffer sympathy fatigue.

But in the end, Tommy survives – and is given the opportunity to effect at least a modicum of justice following the arrival “out of the blue” of a letter from the Chief Constable of Merseyside inviting him to assist the police with their inquiries into allegations surrounding St Vincent’s.

He describes agonising for weeks before finally picking up the telephone, then: “At the precise moment I placed the receiver back down I felt a heavy burden fall from my shoulders…

“I knew my new life was about to begin.”


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