A Childhood Destroyed

Cathy Fox is an independent investigator into historic child abuse. Here she tells the story of Portsmouth man Les Cummings, who suffered horrifically at the hands of foster parents and children’s home employees in the 1950s and 1960s.

After a childhood of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, Les Cummings tracked down one of his tormentors and beat him up. Les expected to feel better afterwards, but instead was ashamed to have stooped to the level of the people who had made his life hell.

He then moved to the United States, married and built a successful career as a salesman. He thought he had put his trauma behind him for good until one day he checked the webpage of his old local newspaper and saw the face of one of his abusers. Even though he was now 5,000 miles away from Portsmouth and forty years had elapsed since those dark days, Les couldn’t contain his rage. He channelled it into writing a memoir, Forgotten: The Heartrending Story of Life in a Children’s Home.

In the early 1950s, aged just two, Les was placed into the Children’s Cottage Homes, Cosham. As soon as he arrived, he was viciously abused by sadistic houseparents and superintendents. In his book, Les stresses that not all the houseparents were cruel and some were genuinely loving and caring. The home also “exported” a different kind of abuse by sending children to work in coalmines in Scotland and Wales.

Les was not the only victim. The housefather sexually assaulted at least one girl in the home, a female houseparent was arrested for having sex with a thirteen-year-old boy and the gardener appeared in court in 1956 for exposing himself to the children.

Les was fostered twice. The first family starved and beat him, and locked him in a tiny cupboard for hours on end. The father raped Les over and over again and the son taunted and bullied him.

Next Les was taken in by a man and his sister at New Road in Copnor. He was treated well until the man insisted on sharing his bed and then sexually abusing him. The sister, however, was genuinely loving and affectionate and she remains the nearest thing Les has ever had to a mother. The abuse ended when another fostered boy moved into Les’s room.

Les spent several years with these families and repeatedly told his Portsmouth City Council placement officer of his misery. The placement officer did nothing. The police were just as unhelpful. The eight-year-old Les plucked up the courage to report the crimes committed against him, but no investigation ensued. In 2006, Les visited Fratton Police Station and was shocked to find that there was no record of him ever having contacted the police before. Les then produced his social security records which proved that he had approached the police forty-four years earlier, and the police had to admit they had mishandled the case.

In 2008, Les asked for an apology from then-Portsmouth City Council Leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson and Stuart Gallimore, Director of Childrens’ Services at the Council. They refused to say sorry or accept any liability on the Council’s behalf. However, on 7th March 2008, after a campaign for justice that Les helped set up, 19 litigants managed to extract just £92,000 in compensation from the Council for the abuse they had suffered while the Council was supposed to be looking after them.

After eight years of campaigning, Les finally received the apology he wanted from Donna Jones, current Leader of the Council, last June. He told The News, ‘It makes me feel good that finally, the right thing has been done by good, honourable people.’

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.