Bad Books

Susannah Clapp

  • Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson by René Weis
    Hamish Hamilton, 327 pp, £14.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 241 12263 5

On 3 October 1922 Percy Thompson, a shipping clerk and old member of the Stepney Elocution Class, was stabbed to death in the street near his home in Ilford. His wife, Edith, was with him; her lover and former lodger, Frederick Bywaters, was the attacker. These circumstances were not disputed when the couple were charged with Thompson’s murder. But when they were found guilty and sentenced to hang, the clamour for reprieve was insistent. The magistrate who had committed them for trial at the Old Bailey protested to the Home Office. The Daily Sketch featured front-page pictures of the lovers’ parents. A petition seeking commutation of the sentence, placed in cinemas, tube stations and theatres, was signed by over a million people. It took a poet to applaud the verdict. Thomas Hardy enthused:

        Could subtlest breast

        Ever have guessed

What was behind that innocent face,

    Drumming, drumming!

And T.S. Eliot wrote to congratulate the Daily Mail on their benign attitude towards the gallows, an attitude ‘in striking contrast with the flaccid sentimentality of other papers I have seen, which have been so impudent as to affirm that they represented the great majority of the British people’. In the same letter he also praised the paper’s salutary attitude to ‘Fascismo’.

No one doubted that Frederick Bywaters had stabbed Percy Thompson; many people doubted that he had meant to kill him. It was on his behalf, not Edith Thompson’s, that the petition was mounted. Bywaters was a swaggerer, who wore spats in court, and a sailor who had run away to join the Merchant Navy when he was 15. He was curly-haired and petulant-looking, and he had a strong sense of what he considered to be manly behaviour. He did his best to protect Edith Thompson, and he did his best to preserve and promote his own character. René Weis writes that when Bywaters said goodbye to his mother in the condemned cell, he urged her to buy a copy of Tom Brown’s Schooldays for his younger brother: ‘Let him read it all, mum, but don’t let him miss that part where the Squire tells Tom not to say or do things he wouldn’t like his sisters to know about. I want him to learn that off by heart and never to forget it.’ At the trial, his lawyer had made much of Bywaters’s youth: he was 20. When his mother wrote to the King after her son’s conviction, she made ‘much of the probity and the deprivation of his home, enclosing details of her husband’s war record with the plea: ‘Had my poor boy had a father to advise him this terrible thing would never have happened.’ She also said what By-waters had not allowed his lawyer to say: that it was really Edith Thompson’s fault. ‘He has always been the best of sons to me,’ wrote Lilian Bywaters. ‘But like many other boys of his age, he fell under the spell of a woman many years older than himself, who has brought all this terrible suffering on him.’

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