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Duncan Campbell, Tuesday 30th October 2012 17:33
What will become of Dennis Nilsen's cooker if New Scotland Yard is sold? The pot in which the serial killer from Muswell Hill boiled the heads, hands and feet of his victims in order to remove their flesh and simplify the disposal of their bodies has a home on top of his old cooker in the Yard's Crime Museum. It is part of a display, dating back as far as the 19th century, of articles used in the most sensational of the capital's crimes.
The image of New Scotland Yard with which most people are familiar is of the revolving triangular sign outside the unremarkable 20-storey stainless steel-clad office block in Victoria. The sign apparently revolves 14,000 times a day, only slightly faster than the speed with which Metropolitan police commissioners have been replaced during Boris Johnson's mayorship. It is familiar because it is beside this sign that television reporters are required to stand when covering developments within the Metropolitan police (and while trying to ignore the smart alecs making offensive gestures behind them).
But it is the Crime Museum inside that remains the most famous part of the building. The original version was the brainchild of an Inspector Neame, who took advantage of the Prisoners' Property Act of 1869, which allowed for the confiscation of criminals' possessions, to put together a museum that maintains its ghoulish allure to this day, not least because it is not open to the public.
It was originally called the Black Museum by a miffed Observer journalist whose request to visit it in 1877 was refused; its name was later changed, for obvious reasons. Over the years and in different locations the museum has entertained invited guests from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Laurel and Hardy. Apart from Nilsen's cooker, there are mementoes of such cases as those of Ruth Ellis, Neville Heath and John Haigh, who disposed of his victims in acid baths rather than stout pots.
The current New Scotland Yard building carries none of the grandeur of fellow symbols of law enforcement such as the Old Bailey, with its gilt-bronze statue of Lady Justice and its magnificent Grand Hall, or the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. Its gothic predecessor on the Victoria Embankment was designed in the late 1880s by the Scottish architect Norman Shaw specifically as a police headquarters and, as such, had all the imperial pomp one would expect. That building now houses politicians, augmenting the space in the Palace of Westminster, thus maintaining at least a modest link with crime.
The current, rather anonymous building, to which the Met moved in 1967, has never commanded the area in the way one might expect of such an establishment. The eternal flame inside the entrance has flickered for decades beside the names of the police officers who have died on duty and its hallway has witnessed the arrival of 11 commissioners and the departures of 10 of them, all with knighthoods to their name.
If the building is finally sold off it will be intriguing to see who is in the market for it. Maybe those Americans who bought London Bridge back in 1967 and reconstructed it brick by brick in Arizona will feel like taking down New Scotland Yard floor by floor and item by item, complete with a replica copy of Dennis Nilsen's cooker, and placing it alongside the bridge. Or maybe not.
• This article was amended on 1 November 2012 because the original incorrectly said New Scotland Yard's predecessor on the Victoria Embankment was designed in 1877.