Twenty Years Ago Today: Media Circus in Cromwell Street

Gloucester's newest tourist attraction Twenty years ago today, the situation at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, was growing ever more grim. In the two weeks of excavations up to this point, at least nine bodies had been discovered with a possibility of a tenth. Fred West had been charged with eight murders. This was officially one of the most horrifying murder investigations in British history, which means it had also become one of the most sickening media circuses in British history.

Solicitors involved in the case, including the one appointed to take care of the interests of the West's children (who were then in care), had warned the media to restrain themselves, and that legal action might be taken against any newspaper printing stories that would prejudice West's trial. But this did little to hold back the hordes of journalists, whose chequebooks were practically dripping money. Everyone who knew anything had had their story bought by one newspaper or another - unless they were holding out for a higher price. The local newspapers were rapidly being squeezed out by the nationals, who had reportedly offered one of West's surviving daughters £40,000 for her story.

It wasn't just the newspapers. A house that backed onto Cromwell Street had its garden taken over by television news crews, who built platforms for their cameras and lights so they could look down onto the ongoing excavations. The owner of the garden was charging by the day - and charged more if something significant happened. Hotels and shops were doing a brisk business thanks to the hordes that had descended upon the city. The chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce regretted the circumstances that had brought so many to Gloucester, but hoped that now they were there, they would discover more of what the city had to offer, like the Beatrix Potter shop and the lovely cathedral.

Identifiable signs on the house were being removed by the authorities, for fear that they would be stolen by souvenir hunters - a quite reasonable fear, since Cromwell Street had become a mecca for gawpers and murder aficionados of all kinds. Some were just locals who couldn't resist rubbernecking as they drove past, but some came from all over the country, recounting stories of how they'd gone to see Dennis Nilsen's flat, and speculating on what kinds of horrible things must have gone on behind the walls of 25 Cromwell Street.

What's left of 25 Cromwell Street

In years to come, the house would be demolished and the land on which it stood turned into a broad footpath, to prevent as much of the murder tourism as could be prevented. But it'll never stop entirely. After all, I'm writing this piece twenty years later, and I still find the whole mess fascinating, if grotesque - I certainly can't claim I'm any better than the people who were staring with open-eyed fascination at the outside of an unremarkable house, knowing that murder had taken place within. Nor do I expect our descendants will be any better than us; people will still be reading about Fred and Rose West a century from now, much as we still read about Jack the Ripper more than a century on from the killings in Whitechapel.

We might like to decry the chequebook journalism and morbid voyeurism of 1994, but it doesn't change the fact that we still do the same things today (though with greater efficiency now that we have the internet). The only perspective the past gives us in this matter is upon ourselves; in glancing back, we can see how ugly we really are.