As Fred and Rosemary West's old house awaits an uncertain fate, Philip Macdonald looks at other properties with a dark past
Fred West is dead. Rosemary West is in jail. The one enduring symbol of their crimes is the bland Victorian house in Cromwell Street, where they butchered and buried most of their victims. Sealed up, unyielding to scrutiny, it lies empty and bare, awaiting its uncertain fate. It is the only tangible reminder of the Wests' murders and no one knows what to do with it.

Much of Gloucester's anger is directed at this forsaken, crumbling house. The locals want something done about it. Property prices in Cromwell Street have plunged. Ted Wynn, of the Gloucester estate agents ME Wynn & Co, says the entire street has been afflicted, with a six-bedroom house that should have sold for pounds 60,000 now on the market for little more than half that amount. In weeks gone by, police and journalists have often outnumbered residents. And, worst of all, ghoulish, camera-wielding sight-seers have started to come and gawp.

The overwhelming consensus is that the house should be demolished. That is what happened to the murderer Dr John Crippen's house in Camden Town, north London, and 10 Rillington Place, in west London, where in 1952 the necrophile John Christie killed six women.

Gloucester council plans to consult local residents and relatives of the victims before any decision is made about the future of the house. It is owned by the estate of Fred West and administered by the official solicitor, Peter Harris. Any decision Mr Harris makes must be in the interests of the West children rather than the residents of Cromwell Street. The house is likely to be sold to the highest bidder, if any appear.

Suggestions for alternative uses so far include a shrine or memorial garden for the victims or a hostel for vulnerable young people. The council will also ask residents if they want the street's name changed: 10 Rillington Place was demolished and the street renamed Ruston Close. It was renamed a second time, to Wesley Square, when the area was redeveloped.

But it's not inevitable that 25 Cromwell Street will be demolished. Not every house where there has been a headline-grabbing murder is demolished, nor are streets diplomatically renamed.

At 23 Cranley Gardens and 195 Melrose Avenue, both in north London, Dennis Nilsen murdered and dismembered 15 men. After his conviction in 1983, the houses were sold cheaply to investors who renovated them and put them back on the market. The houses, divided into flats, look much as they did 15 years ago and are now homes no different from any others in the road.

However, some of the owners have bought them unsuspecting and only found out about their past at a later date when they came to sell-up. Partly as a result, the flats are constantly on the market, often lying empty for months on end.

Those who do live there do not want to speak about how it feels. But one ex-tenant of Cranley Gardens says owners do not draw attention to the Nilsen connection when they are selling for fear that the price will plummet. The estate agent Barry Steer, who tried to sell Nilsen's flat at 23 Cranley Gardens during the Eighties property boom, said: "I could not sell it for love nor money, it was impossible. People seemed to think that something was still there, lurking under the floorboards."

Nilsen's former flat at 195 Melrose Avenue has just been put on the market by its present owner, Sonia Bindoff. The estate agent handling the sale, Camerons, Stiff & Co, expect it to fetch the market value, about pounds 90,000, and dismiss any suggestions that it might be worth less. Like other residents, Sonia Bindoff is unwilling to speak about Nilsen and her flat. However, the estate agents Dutch and Dutch, who sold her the flat during the Eighties property boom, say that she did not know it belonged to Nilsen until she exchanged contracts and paid the market price.

Emma Strachan of Dutch and Dutch said: "The agent who is dealing with it now doesn't know whether to say anything to buyers. I think you have to. The flat is very pleasant inside, but I wouldn't live there. No way. You just get a feeling when you walk up the path, it is slightly sloping because it was all dug up and not relaid very well. But it is whether you take it to heart. Things must happen in all old houses. Things you don't know about, like suicides."

But not everyone is bothered by living in a house where there has been murder. Flora Johnsen lives at 25 Noel Road in Islington, a fashionable conservation area in north London, where in 1967 Kenneth Halliwell beat the playwright Joe Orton to death with a hammer before taking his own life. She explained: "It never worried me. It doesn't make it any cheaper or more expensive. It was just a fellow killing another fellow through jealous rage. It is not mass murder or buried bodies. If they had to destroy every property with a murder, there wouldn't be many left."

Orton's fame adds to the house's appeal and, according to estate agents, it may even enhance the value if the right buyer is found. This is not an option for Cromwell Street. At present, no estate agent, landlord or private buyer will touch the property.

Yet time may change all that, even for Cromwell Street. At least that is the example of 2 Dalton Square in Lancaster, where in 1935 Dr Buck Ruxton murdered his wife and maid in a jealous rage before dismembering them in the bath.

The house lay empty for more than 40 years. Then, in an inspired move, the town's planning department turned it into their headquarters. Their decision was influenced by its proximity to the town hall on the other side of Dalton Square and by the fact it is a 200-year-old listed building.

Vic Crumley, Lancaster's chief planning officer, explained: "It was in a very bad condition and it may not have been long before we had to take it down. The opportunity to achieve a piece of architectural conservation was probably foremost in our minds, but we probably would not have moved in if it was not for the location."

Perhaps a better model for 25 Cromwell Street's future is in the town of Rugeley in Staffordshire, where Dr William Palmer was convicted of murdering John Parsons Cook in 1855. Palmer was also suspected of poisoning 15 others, including his wife, his brother, his mother, four of his children and his mother-in-law. Local feeling was so outraged that an Act of Parliament (still known as Palmer's Act) was passed so he could be given a trial in London.

The locals hated Palmer so much that 30,000 people came to cheer on the hangman at his public execution. The Talbot Arms, where Cook was murdered, changed its name to the Shrewsbury Arms and the town council petitioned the then Prime Minister to change Rugeley's name because they felt its reputation was too closely associated with Palmer. Apparently, the Prime Minister said with mischievous wit that they could only change it if they named it after him. And he was Lord Palmerston. They did not bother.

Palmer's house on Market Street is still standing. After his execution it was forgotten, left to rot. The only visitors were a Mr Allen, an enterprising photographer, and his clients, who had souvenir pictures taken in the back garden. But as Palmer's crimes and his contemporaries faded into memory, the house gradually came back into use. At the turn of the century it became Rugeley Post Office, then an ironmonger's shop and finally, in the Eighties, it became a video shop.

It is difficult to imagine, but it is possible: 25 Cromwell Street could be a CD-Rom shop in the next century.

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