THE EARLY DAYS: Idyllic village childhood hid a darker side

`Fred was a bit cheeky, but that was the way these kids were'

Will Bennett
Monday 02 January 1995 01:02
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Outwardly Fred West had an idyllic childhood in the picturesque Herefordshire village of Much Marcle, but there was a dark side to his nature which was occasionally glimpsed.

He and his brothers and sisters went hop-picking with their parents, enjoyed tobogganing when winter snow came and helped out on the farm where their father worked.

Fred was a cheerful youngster, happy-go-lucky and rather cheeky, and he could inspire real affection. Even after he was charged with the murders, Edna Hill, his aunt, said: "Fred has always been a nice boy."

Yet he sexually assaulted a girl who rejected his advances at a dance and he once, apparently deliberately, rode his motorcycle at another young woman in the village.

He was born in the village on 29 September 1941, the son of Walter West, a farm labourer, and his wife Daisy. Fred was the eldest of six surviving children, two others having died in infancy.

They were at the bottom of the social scale in the village, which is on the Herefordshire-Gloucestershire boundary, but Walter and Daisy were regarded as decent and hard-working.

Fred grew up in a tied cottage owned by Frank Brooke, the farmer for whom Walter worked. It was crowded, having just two bedrooms until Mr Brooke added a third.

Kay Cotton, Mr Brooke's daughter, who now runs the farm with her husband, said: "He was just an ordinary little lad, nothing that would stand out in your mind. He was small with a crop of curly hair and was very like his mother to look at. He was a cheerful lad.

"He was a bit cheeky, a bit mouthy, but that was the way these kids were. I would say that he was probably naive and easily led."

Edna Hill, Daisy's sister, said: "The family always did things together and used to go hop-picking. They had everything they wanted. Daisy was one of the best mothers I have ever known. Wherever she went she always had the kids trailing along behind her.

"When Walter was working he would often take the kids with him. They always had jobs and they would go out in the fields and help their mother and their father. They used to go and pick fruit ."

Fred was his mother's favourite child among her three sons and three daughters. Ann Colburn, who went to school with him, said: "Mrs West was very protective of Fred, more than any of her children. The highlight of our summer days was to see Mrs West coming down the road in her pretty dress to sort out one of the teachers who had been giving Fred a hard time."

He was educated entirely at the village school, where he was not regarded as being particularly bright. After he left, he went to work for the Brookes alongside his father, but left after 18 months because he was not interested in farming.

He and his brother John, to whom he was close, worked on building sites around west Gloucestershire for a while and it was around this time that Fred met Catherine Costello, who became his first wife and one of his early victims.

She was from Scotland but worked as a waitress in the Milk Bar, a cafe in nearby Ledbury that was a regular haunt of Fred and other young local people. Their relationship revealed the secretive side of Fred's nature.

His brother Doug, who still lives in Much Marcle, recalled: "We didn't know Fred was getting married until afterwards. He came back and said he had got married. He didn't tell the family; only John knew about the wedding. He was the best man. When he came back and said that he had got married we thought he was joking.

"That was Fred all over. If he decided to do it he just went ahead and did it. He was a bit secretive. He would go and do things without thinking and that was that." It was the pattern of things to come for an outwardly easy-going, straightforward man who had a dark side that few people saw.

Walter and Daisy are dead and lie side by side in Much Marcle churchyard, spared the anguish of the murder case. Mrs Cotton said: "Walter was a nice old boy, he would have been horrified by this."

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