An inquiry was immediately launched into how he died while being monitored at 30-minute intervals by officers at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham. West, 53, was found hanging from a ligature made of his clothing. He had been designated a "vulnerable" p risoner after psychiatric assessment.
West was found at 12.55pm and although attempts were made to revive him, he was certified dead by a doctor at 1.22pm. West Midlands Police said last night they had begun an investigation.
Chief Superintendant David Baker predicted the inquiry outcome by stating that although all options were being kept open, suicide "may well be the case at the end of the day". Initial findings will have already gone to the coroner. A post-mortem examination was conducted by a Home Office pathologist last night.
Detained since February last year , West was due to face committal proceedings at Dursley in Gloucestershire in February. Rosemary West, 41, who with her husband is the co-accused in nine murder charges, was told of the death by her solicitor.
The arrest of Frederick West triggered one of the largest police operations in Britain. Detectives had been investigating the disappearances of the Wests' daughter, Heather, last seen alive in 1987 when she was 16. Mini-diggers unearthed her remains buried under a concrete patio in the small back garden of West's home at 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester.
It was the first of a series of gruesome discoveries of other bodies in other locations. The total eventually reached 12.
When told of West's death, Joan Owen, 52, of Port Tennant, Swansea, the mother of Alison Chambers, 17, one of the victims, said: "This is the best news I've heard for a long time. After all the evil things he did, this must be the only good thing he everdid."
At Winson Green, a category B high-security prison, West was under constant supervision. A Prison Service source told the Independent that following psychiatric examination, West had been classified as a "vulnerable" prisoner and was subject to close supervision. His below- average intelligence meant a "responsible person" also had to attend all police interviews.
Between 11.30am and noon yesterday, West was given lunch in his cell. The dinner plate and plastic cutlery would have been collected about thirty minutes later.
At about 1pm West's cell was due for a routine check. His body was discovered at 12.55pm. According to medical estimates, a makeshift ligature, possibly tied around the high window bars of a jail cell, would mean death in anything from three to five minutes for a suicide victim.
The lunch period is regarded by some prison experts as the slackest period of security. Shift changes mean staff exchange watch details and, according to Dr Jim McManus, the Scottish Prison Complaints Commissioner, staff numbers are also lower during holiday periods. Dr McManus added that West seemed a "pretty strong" individual from events such as dismissing his solicitor.
"It's quite possible he's thought about when would be the best time to commit suicide. He knows the routine and if that was what he wanted to do, then that was the rational time to do it," Dr McManus said.
In advance of the police inquiry, opposition politicians were last night blaming the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, for what they called "the latest security lapse".
The shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, demanded a thorough inquiry. "Taken with the ever-growing number of security lapses in the Prison Service, this is further confirmation that Michael Howard's grip on the prison service is far too weak," he said.
Because of the horrendous nature of the charges brought against West, "the public and above all the victims' relatives had a right to expect that he would be kept securely until his trial".
Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokes-man, said: "This should never have been allowed to happen and it may deprive grieving relatives of the chance of getting the whole truth about the dreadful murders of which he was charged.
"No doubt Michael Howard will say that it's nothing to do with him, which makes a question over why we are paying him to be Home Secretary," he added.
In Much Marcle, the Herefordshire village where West grew up, his brother, Douglas, was last night said to be too upset to speak. His wife, Christine, said he would not be answering any questions.
The dead prisoner's solicitor, Tony Miles, said his death came as a terrible shock and that when he met West last week there was no indication that he was suicidal.
According to a former inmate at Winson Green, West was accompanied everywhere by two prison guards and was never left alone.
Stephen Palmer, 25, who recently finished a six-month sentence for burglary, said West was "detested by all the other inmates. Every thug in the place was dying to get his hands on him."
Mr Palmer, who walked past West's cell every day, said he was largely emotionless and neutral. "The first time I plucked up courage to speak to him, I asked him how he was and he just looked up at me at with an icy grin and said, `Go away'. He smiled like a maniac, and then continued polishing his boots."
Another Prison Service source said that West would have learned two weeks ago from press reports that for certain individuals convicted of murderer, a sentence of life imprisonment would have meant just that.
The total cost of Gloucestershire Police's investigations is thought to be about £700,000. The cost of the West case alone outstripped the force's serious crimes budget for the entire year.
West's life and victims, pages 2 and 3