The Ipswich murders, 10 years on: ‘We owed it to the women that nothing like it would happen again’

A decade since London Road was made notorious by the death of five sex workers, its residents have transformed the community and seen their story on stage and screen. But now, they fear government cuts will undo all the work

Walking down London Road in Ipswich, the only thing that strikes you is how normal it is. Children play in the front gardens of neat, bay-windowed houses. Barely a car drives by, despite the proximity to the town centre. It’s a cliche, but it really could be anywhere in Britain.

However, in the winter of 2006, the street was plunged into a media frenzy. First, five sex workers were abducted and murdered nearby, then a resident – Steve Wright – was convicted of their killings. In the following years, authorities and local people worked together to eradicate street prostitution, transforming the area and the lives of those involved. A strong community spirit blossomed as neighbours tried to rebuild their street – a journey documented in the play London Road, which was adapted for the screen last year.

Prior to the murders, the road had been struggling with the issue of prostitution for years. Men were propositioned while women were hassled by punters, turning it into a no-go area in the evenings. One resident, Julie Hyland, was so frustrated at the police’s reluctance to tackle the problem that she had begun to take matters into her own hands, noting down registration numbers or shouting at cars to leave. “I’d just had enough,” she says.

However, the tragic events forced the police and the council to sit up. “We wanted to move the image of the town forward – we had a responsibility to ensure it didn’t have this blight over it for ever,” says Julia Stephens-Row, then assistant director of Suffolk county council. The strategy of arresting and fining the women – only for them to return to the streets weeks later – had failed, and now five of them were dead.

Along with Suffolk police’s district commander, Alan Caton, she spearheaded a radical plan to help women leave prostitution safely while taking a zero-tolerance approach to the purchase of sex. Social workers, health authorities, housing associations and drug-treatment charities worked with 32 women, while the police made 139 arrests for kerb-crawling. It worked: street prostitution has not returned to Ipswich. Roads once littered with syringes and condoms are clean, and residents are no longer disturbed by punters, sex workers or their pimps.

A key element of the policy was bringing residents on board, encouraging them to keep an eye out and report any goings-on. “We built some great relationships with the community,” says Caton. “When I explained that we were going to try to help the women, the majority recognised that the old approach hadn’t worked.” Stephens-Row adds: “Local people wanted the area cleaned up, but they also wanted help for those involved.”

This is one of the most compelling effects of the murders on the town. Compared with crimes such as those of the Yorkshire Ripper, where the women were often portrayed as somehow deserving of their fate, Ipswich experienced an outpouring of sympathy for the victims and their families. “It helped change people’s views, and they began to see them as human beings,” Stephens-Row says.

Brian Tobin, the co-founder of local drug-rehabilitation charity Iceni, which worked with many of the women, describes the switch in attitudes as “humbling”. He recalls the day a frail-looking man in his 80s came up to him and bundled a £20 note into his hand. “I could tell he wasn’t a well-off man and I refused to take it at first, but he got very angry. He said to me: ‘I’m giving this to you because I’m ashamed – I’m ashamed that we haven’t done more in Ipswich to help these girls.’” He continues: “We’ve engineered society over the years so that people in these situations are hidden from view.”

A still from the film London Road.
A still from the film London Road. Photograph: Nicola Dove

Caton believes that police efforts to humanise the victims, and the determination of local press to refer to them as women, daughters and mothers – rather than simply “prostitutes” – helped challenge attitudes. But there is perhaps another, more personal reason behind the public sympathy. While Ipswich, with a population of 130,000, isn’t exactly tiny, it’s still a place where people know each other. Mention the murders today and you’ll hear stories of connections: “I went to school with Tania”; “I worked at the same office as Gemma”; “I dated Annette’s sister”. When crimes like this happen in relatively small, otherwise quiet towns, they resonate deeply.

On London Road, residents banded together to try to rebuild their neighbourhood, upset at the media portrayal of the street as a seedy area. “It’s very strange seeing your house on the news,” says Gordon Lawrence, who lived next door to Wright. “We had friends ringing us up from overseas saying they’d seen it on TV.” Although he wasn’t too bothered by Wright’s presence (“He’d only been there a few months; it would be different if he’d lived there longer”), Lawrence, like his neighbours, was intent on making the street a pleasant place to live again. “People wanted to build the community and move forward,” he recalls.

The subsequent quiz nights, gardening competitions and street parties, organised by local Neighbourhood Watch members Hyland and Ron Alder, didn’t go unnoticed – it was this newfound community spirit that so struck playwright Alecky Blythe on a visit that she decided to form a piece of theatre around it. London Road enjoyed a sellout run at the National Theatre, and the film it inspired set the residents’ own recorded words to a musical score.

The locals are now immensely proud of being immortalised on stage and screen, even if they were initially sceptical. “I didn’t think it would get off the ground,” admits Hyland. “I thought: ‘How are you ever going to make a play out of us? We’re just normal people living in a normal road.’” They also had to battle negative attitudes from other people in the town, who mistakenly believed they were making money off the back of the murders.

Hyland – who is still in close contact with Blythe – describes watching the play for the first time as “extraordinary. It’s incredible that she created it all from our voices”. For Alder – who keeps a box containing the DVD, the script and the programme – the experience holds a special resonance. His wife, Rosie, who appears in the story, died four years ago. Indeed, several of the characters portrayed have since died, their voices given permanence through Blythe’s work.

A scene from London Road performed at the Cottesloe, National Theatre.
A scene from London Road performed at the Cottesloe, National Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

As the years go on, some of the legacy stays while other parts fade. Street sex work hasn’t returned, and resources are now focused on preventing trafficking and child exploitation. When Iceni was faced with closure a few years ago, people in the town quickly rallied round to raise the cash it needed.

However, as the neighbourhood evolves, the community spirit that inspired Blythe is becoming less resilient. Much of the accomodation on London Road is now rented, and temporary residents aren’t as invested in nurturing connections. Some locals say the influx of eastern Europeans to the area over the past year or two has contributed to the new dynamic. “They aren’t as interested in getting involved – they just want to earn their money then return home, which is fair enough,” one neighbour says.

Although the symptoms of addiction may be less visible, charities and health authorities still struggle to combat the underlying causes. “Overall, I don’t think we’ve moved on much [as a society],” sighs Tobin. “I think we might see a spike in addiction problems over the next couple of years due to lack of opportunities and DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] attempts to get people off benefits. Lots of people with drug and alcohol problems have been sanctioned far too quickly – of course, you miss appointments when you’re off your head.” Caton also describes the current climate as challenging: “Benefit cuts and a culture of austerity mean people are going to be needy of money, so we may end up seeing more people turn to prostitution.”

While local residents are proud of having turned something so awful into a positive, there remains a sadness that the changes only came about because of the murders. “It took the slaughter of five girls for anything to be done,” says Alder. “Maybe if there had been a policy to help the girls before, it wouldn’t have happened.” Despite the close bonds formed, being in the centre of such a tragedy has inevitably changed their relationships with their environment. “It’s made me more aware of my surroundings,” explains Hyland. “You do tend to look out of your window and wonder what people are doing.”

As life moves on and residents come and go, the winter of 2006 will remain for ever woven into the area’s history. Overall, Stephens-Row believes the town has dealt with its unwanted legacy well: “We owed it to the women that nothing like that would ever happen again. For those of us who were heavily involved, it’s something we will never forget.”


Jessica Bateman

The GuardianTramp

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