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Rose West: Britain's most depraved female killer

Rose West
Image: Rosemary West | World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The forging of a serial killer’s mindset, the myriad causes of their moral disfigurement, is one of the most compelling subjects in forensic psychology. And it’s the focus of new true crime series Making a Monster, which sees renowned experts analyse some of the most notorious murderers ever to stand in court.

Rosemary West certainly has notoriety – she is perhaps second only to fellow child-killer Myra Hindley as the most loathed woman in British legal history. But the true extent of Rose West’s depravity may still come as a shock to those who think of her as simply an accomplice of her equally infamous husband, Fred West. 

With male/female killer couples, the tendency is to automatically assume the man to be the driving force, 'corrupting' his female partner into going along with his ghoulish fantasies. Controversy still surrounds the respective culpabilities of the Moors Murderers, with views differing on whether Myra Hindley was a brainwashed puppet of Ian Brady, or an enthusiastic sexual sadist who fully relished their crimes (Ian Brady himself firmly asserted the latter).

No such controversy surrounds Rose West. She was in many respects the more frightening, volatile, sadistic and passionately wicked half of 'Fred and Rose'. As Dr Richard Walter, a forensic psychologist featured in Making a Monster puts it, the two fell into a 'shared psychosis'.

'Meeting Fred was the catalyst for Rose becoming a killer,' Dr Walter says, 'but she already had a lot of potential.'

How was such a disturbed personality created? Certainly, a glance at her childhood reveals a tale of almost gothic grotesqueness. Her mother suffered serious mental health problems which led to her being given electroconvulsive treatment mere days before giving birth to Rose. As crime writer Jane Carter Woodrow writes in Rose West: The Making of a Monster, 'This meant as Rose lay in her mother’s womb Daisy had more shocks blasted to her brain, sending convulsions through her body, the last one just days before Rose was born. There has been little research on the use of ECT with pregnant patients, and expert opinion is divided, but given the damage ECT can do to the patient it seems unlikely the foetus would remain unaffected.'

The infant Rose displayed bizarre behaviour, prone to rocking her head for 'hours on end', and repeatedly hitting herself against the bars of her cot until her siblings protested. Her father, meanwhile, suffered from paranoid schizophrenic and was a violent, tyrannical figure in the house – beating Rose’s mother and sexually grooming his daughter. Rose herself, sexualised from a young age, would molest her own younger brothers when she was still a child herself.

'Rose in her formative years would have grown up believing her father’s behaviour was normal,' writes Jane Carter Woodrow, in a telling analysis which explains Rose’s later acceptance of Fred West’s own abuse of their children. She was known to tell them they 'had it coming', and that – as the man of the house – Fred had the right to violate them whenever he saw fit. 

Rose was still a teenager when she met Fred, who was well over a decade older, and whom she dismissed as an ugly tramp when he chatted her up at a Cheltenham bus stop. But he persisted with his eager courtship, and Rose became the guardian of his daughter Anna Marie and stepdaughter Charmaine. Both were physically tortured by Rose, and Charmaine was eventually murdered by an enraged Rose while Fred was in prison for a petty crime.

Fred’s nonchalant attitude to Rose’s heinous crime was indicative of their casually amoral view of the world – a view that allowed for the creation of an outlandish private universe at the soon-to-be-infamous address, 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester. Here, in this claustrophobic and squalid space, everyday life was a kind of delirium of sex and violence, with Rose giving birth to numerous children and presiding over a regime of physical and sexual abuse. As Anna Marie, Fred’s daughter from a previous relationship, put it, 'Rose would have made a wonderful concentration camp guard...Nothing would have pleased her more than to send many to their deaths.'

Proudly insatiable sexually, Rose took a sort of manic glee in doling out beatings to the children, and entertaining clients as a sex worker in the house – one of them being her own father. When Fred West told one of his children, 'I made you, I can do what I like with you', it was a justification for incest whose twisted logic Rose fully understood and concurred with. Her view of the world and its workings meant it was no big leap to go from domestic abuse to serial killing, as an array of young women were taken, tortured and disposed of by the Wests.

Fred West would later commit suicide after their crimes were exposed. Rose West languishes on in prison, one of the very few women to have been handed a whole life tariff, and a living refutation of the perhaps patronising presumption that female killers can never take the same ecstatic, sexual, greedy delight in savagery that male killers more usually do.