Merely a Warning that a Noun is Coming

Bee Wilson

  • The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice and a Mystery about Words in 1920s England by Christopher Hilliard
    Oxford, 256 pp, £30.00, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 879965 8

In July 1923 at the Lewes assizes, Mr Justice Avory handed an anonymous letter containing some ‘improper words’ to a respectable-looking woman. He asked her if she had ever used such foul language. ‘Never during the whole of my life, either in writing or talking, never,’ she replied. The woman’s father, a retired house painter with a grey beard, was asked whether he had ever heard his daughter use indecent language. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘She was brought up quite differently. I have never heard such language from her or any others of my family of nine children.’

Rose Gooding, Bill Gooding and Ruth Russell.
Rose Gooding, Bill Gooding and Ruth Russell.

Edith Swan, a 30-year-old laundress from the seaside town of Littlehampton in Sussex, was accused of sending a letter to a sanitary inspector called Charles Gardner that contained words of ‘an indecent, obscene and grossly offensive character’. The full letter has not survived, but the gist of it was that Mr Gardner would be very sorry that he had ever called Swan’s ‘dust boxes’ a nuisance. Three witnesses had seen Swan post this letter. Offensive letters had been circulating in Littlehampton for several years, and the police had taken the unusual step of installing a periscopic mirror in the post office’s mail drop. Whenever anyone posted anything, it was retrieved by post office staff and examined by two clerks from the Special Investigation Branch. Looking through the periscope, Edwin Baker, one of the clerks, saw Miss Swan’s hand posting the letter to the sanitary inspector along with a letter addressed to her sister in Woking. The stamps on both letters had been marked with invisible ink, and had been sold to Swan at the request of the police, who had long suspected her of being behind the rash of anonymous letters.

Edith Swan and her mother arriving at court in October 1921.
Edith Swan and her mother arriving at court in October 1921.

Despite all of this, Mr Justice Avory was not convinced that the slender, self-possessed woman in front of him was capable of writing such a letter. The Brighton Argus reported that he directed the jury to ‘consider whether it was conceivable that she could have written this document’ given that her ‘demeanour in the witness box was that of a respectable, clean-mouthed woman’. The judge said that the jury must ask themselves ‘whether there might possibly be some mistake’.

The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard is a short but dazzling work of microhistory. It uses the story of some poison pen letters in a small town to illuminate wider questions of social life in Britain between the wars, from ordinary people’s experience of the legal system to the way people washed their sheets, and is a far more exciting book than either the title or the rather dull cover would suggest. For a short period, the mystery of these letters became a national news story that generated four separate trials and, as Hilliard writes, ‘demanded more from the police and the lawyers than most murders’.

This is a book about morality and class, about the uses and abuses of literacy and about the tremendous dislocations in British society after the First World War, which extended far beyond those who had suffered the direct trauma of battle. Hilliard uses these poison pen letters – written in language that was as eccentric as it was obscene – to ‘catch the accents of the past’. The Littlehampton Libels is about a battle between two women who were members of only the second generation in Britain to benefit from compulsory elementary education, women for whom the written word was a new and exhilarating weapon.

Hilliard asks what it was like to live in a society where ‘nice’ women had to pretend that they were ignorant of all profanity. Melissa Mohr claims in her excellent book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) that the British started to swear more during and after the First World War, because strong language – like strong drink – is a way to alleviate despair. In 1930, John Brophy and Eric Partridge published a collection of British songs and slang from the war. They claimed that soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning ‘that a noun is coming’. In a normal situation, swear words are used for emphasis, but Brophy and Partridge found that obscenity was so over-used among the military in the Great War that if a soldier wanted to express emotion he wouldn’t swear. ‘Thus if a sergeant said, “Get your —ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’

As former soldiers re-established themselves as civilians, swearing became normalised, but it was only acceptable when used by men and addressed to men. The story of the Littlehampton libels reveals the extent to which British society at this time clung to certain beliefs about women and language. One of these prejudices, fiercely held, was that a ‘respectable’ woman was incapable of allowing a dirty word to sully her mouth. Another was that women who did swear were beyond the pale, and therefore capable of anything. The tenacity of these prejudices within the legal system would allow Edith Swan to send multiple poison pen letters to her neighbours over a period of three years and contrive to have a less ‘respectable’ woman – Rose Gooding – twice sent to jail for crimes of which she was entirely innocent.

Swan was accused of libel for the first time in 1921, charged with sending a series of obscene letters, mostly addressed to her neighbours Violet and George May. Here is an extract from a letter dated 14 September 1921: ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt. Its your drain that stinks not our fish box. Yo fucking dirty sods. You are as bad as your whore neybor.’ The Mays were sent many such letters in the course of 1921. Swan claimed that she had received similar letters herself, such as this one from 23 September: ‘To the foxy ass whore 47, Western Rd Local. You foxy ass piss country whore you are a character.’

There was compelling proof that Edith Swan was the author of these letters, even the ones she received. The police searched the house where she lived with her parents and two of her brothers and found a piece of blotting paper which contained clear traces of some of the letters. Swan protested that the blotting paper had been found by her father in the washing house. A still more devastating piece of evidence was that Swan had been seen by a policewoman throwing one of the letters into the garden her family shared with their neighbours. Gladys Moss, the policewoman, was keeping watch on Swan through a slit in a garden shed when she saw her throw a folded piece of buff-coloured paper in the direction of the Mays’ house. The paper was addressed to ‘fucking old whore May, 49, Western Rd, Local’.

As in the 1923 trial, the judge simply refused to accept the evidence of Swan’s guilt. Sir Clement Bailhache was not convinced by Moss’s testimony because it conflicted with what his eyes told him: that Edith Swan was the kind of Englishwoman who was incapable of swearing. ‘If I were on the jury, I would not convict,’ Bailhache announced. The jury followed his guidance.

For Travers Humphreys, the barrister who acted for the prosecution in the 1921 trial, Swan’s case exposed a flaw in the English justice system, as he explained in his memoir 25 years later. Humphreys thought that juries were very rarely wrong, but that a miscarriage of justice was possible if a woman of respectable appearance was prepared to lie in court. Swan was that woman. She dressed for court in a blue serge dress with a long grey cloak over it and a white chrysanthemum pinned to her breast. ‘She was the perfect witness,’ Humphreys wrote. ‘Neat and tidy in her appearance, polite and respectful in her answers, with just that twinge of feeling to be expected in a person who knows herself to be the victim of circumstances, she would have deceived, nay she did deceive, the very elect.’ What Humphreys did not say was just how willing ‘the elect’ were to be deceived, eager as they were to refute the notion that a woman like her could conceivably use such language.

The immediate cause of the letters was a dispute between Swan and her neighbour Rose Gooding that began in 1920. Swan lived with her parents at 47 Western Road and Rose Gooding lived at 45 Western Road with her husband, Bill, a seaman who worked as a ship’s cook, and her younger sister Ruth Russell, who was unmarried. Between them, Rose and Ruth had four illegitimate children. Rose and Bill also had a son, Willie. Both families were working class, but the presence of illegitimate children in the Gooding home made them less respectable than the Swans. Another thing that set the families apart was that the Goodings were known for having loud rows and swearing at each other. In 1919, Rose Gooding was fired from her job as a servant in the house of a local publisher. He complained about her ‘habit of making horrible accusations particularly about her husband and sister … that her husband was sleeping with her sister, he treated her as his wife, that he took no notice of her [Mrs Gooding] when she was in the room and if she made a remark she was told to shut up.’

The fiery Rose Gooding had little in common with Edith Swan, who was described by Inspector Nicholls, a detective, as having a ‘stony expression’ that made her seem ‘possibly wrong in the head’. Edith had a fiancé, Bert Boxall, a soldier who had served in India and then in Afghanistan, but at the age of thirty she was still sharing a bedroom with her parents, both in their seventies. The Swans had always lived in Littlehampton, a middling-sized Sussex town with a sandy beach and a pier whose architecture was described by Pevsner as ‘a rather bewildering mixture of Old Hastings and Bournemouth’. By the time of the libels, most of her older siblings had left home. Only two brothers, Stephen and Ernest, both of them labourers but often unemployed, remained. Edith’s mother is described by Hilliard as ‘quiet and unobtrusive’ whereas her father was irritable and quick to meddle in the affairs of others. At the time of the libels, Edith was earning money by taking in laundry. The whole family was thrifty and Edith was a keen member of the Tontine Club, a group that met at a local pub and put their savings in a mutual fund.

The houses in Western Road were ‘jammed in against each other’, as Hilliard puts it. The communal garden was also ‘the site of a motley collection of sheds and home to the residents’ rabbits and chickens’ as well as the location of the ‘drying ground’, where the women hung out laundry. The front door of No. 45 and the scullery of No. 47 were practically adjacent, so that it was possible to eavesdrop on conversations in the other house. As Inspector Nicholls observed, ‘everything that went on in the Goodings must have been known in the Swans and vice versa.’ There were spats over the smell from the Goodings’ dustbin or the nuisance caused by the chickens owned by Alfred Russell, a policeman who lived with his wife, Edith, at No. 49.

The relationship between Edith Swan and Rose Gooding got off to a fairly good start. When the Goodings moved in late in 1918 Edith Swan made an effort to be friendly. Questioned by Inspector Nicholls, Edith recalled that she ‘went in and out’ of the Goodings’ house and sometimes took the children out. Her father gave Rose Gooding a large marrow he had grown and Edith gave her a recipe for marrow chutney. She also gave Rose a knitting pattern for socks and encouraged her to join the Tontine Club to help her build up some savings. Rose lent the Swans patty pans, clothes pegs and a suet scraper – a cutter for shredding beef suet into tiny pieces. These details would resurface as points of controversy in Rose Gooding’s trial.

Edith and Rose disagreed about the reasons for their falling out. Rose said in court that the whole Swan family ‘seemed to turn against her ever since one Saturday afternoon, when she was unable to lend Mrs Swan her flat irons’. The court exploded with laughter at such a trivial casus belli. Edith Swan’s version of events was different. She maintained that Bill and Rose Gooding had had a vicious row, as a result of which she wrote a letter to the NSPCC accusing Rose of ‘ill-treating a child who was living with her’.

The row happened over the Easter weekend of 1920. On Easter Sunday, Edith claimed to have overheard a row in which Rose accused Bill of being the father of her sister Ruth’s last baby. She said she heard Bill reply that Rose’s guts were ‘bloody rotten through going with other men while I was risking my life at sea’. Some of her story was corroborated by other neighbours. Edith Russell confirmed that Rose Gooding was a woman of ‘a very bad temper’ who frequently shouted at her children and quarrelled with her sister. Russell said that Rose Gooding had told her that her husband would call her ‘a rotten cow, and a bloody sod’. Bill Gooding was not usually a drinker, but several neighbours said that he had been drinking heavily that weekend. At 51 Western Road, a bathing machine proprietor called William Birkin overheard some of the row on Easter Sunday. He heard Bill shout: ‘You bloody rotten cow – You rotten bugger.’ The couple were using ‘the filthiest language I had ever heard’, Birkin said. The next day he saw Rose Gooding with her eye bandaged and ‘surmised that Mr Gooding had struck her’. The one part of Swan’s story that no one else could corroborate was her insistence that Rose Gooding had beaten her sister’s baby.

When the NSPCC inspector arrived – a man from Chichester called A.C. Bailey – he found the Gooding home to be ‘spotlessly clean and the children in a perfect state in every way’. Bailey met with Edith Swan and Rose and Bill Gooding and, in Rose’s confusing translation, he gave her ‘a good name and credit for how all the fine little children looked after for a poor person he told me not to brood over it as the person who wrote him had no cause whatever’. He saw the baby who was supposed to have been beaten and found him healthy.

*

It was after the inspector’s visit that the first scurrilous postcards started to arrive. The first libel, Edith Swan would later testify, was an unstamped letter which said: ‘You bloody old cow, mind your own business and there would be no rows.’ Most of the letters targeted Edith Swan or those close to her. In a single week, three letters were sent to the Beach Hotel where Edith’s brother Ernest worked accusing him of stealing things. Various letters were sent to local people for whom Edith did laundry telling them not to send their washing to her. Shopkeepers were sent letters saying that Edith was a whore and her family was ‘a dirty drunken lot’.

Most of these early letters were signed ‘R – –’ or ‘R.G.’ or on one occasion ‘with Mrs Gooding’s compliments’. The letters also included words and phrases that people had overheard the Goodings using in conversation, such as ‘bloody old cow’. Edward Swan told the police that he had ‘heard them use the language that was on the postcard’. Often they were sent to people with whom Rose had recently had contact. Several times, as a kindness, she had sent some cakes or a bit of fish to the young son of Constable Russell. Whenever Rose sent one of these gifts, it would be swiftly followed by an offensive letter or card to Constable Russell.

As the mother of an illegitimate child, and someone who was known to swear, Rose Gooding was already guilty in the eyes of many. As Mohr notes, in this period, swearing was deemed ‘morally wrong’ partly because it was seen as characteristic of the lower classes: ‘people who would violate linguistic decency, it was thought, would not hesitate to commit any sort of outrage against moral decency.’ It was this kind of reasoning that enabled Edith to frame Rose. As Hilliard writes, ‘Rose Gooding was serving her second prison sentence before anyone thoroughly examined the evidence against her.’

In July 1920, Swan consulted a solicitor who began to build a libel case against Gooding. In order for something to count as ‘criminal libel’ in the eyes of the law, there had to be a public interest at stake. In September, the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that these were private libels and not of ‘general or public importance’. Undeterred, Swan took what Hilliard calls the ‘extraordinary step’ of launching a private prosecution. Gooding was detained in prison for two and a half months awaiting trial and then prosecuted at the assizes in December 1920 in the case of Rex v. Gooding. There was no expert testimony on the handwriting of the libellous letters. Essentially, the jury had to decide whether they believed Gooding had written the letters in question or whether they were the work of Swan. Gooding was found guilty and sentenced to 14 days at Portsmouth prison, in addition to the two and a half months she had already spent locked up awaiting trial.

During this three-month period not a single libellous letter was sent in Littlehampton. But within two weeks of her release, they started up again and the Goodings became frightened that Rose would be framed again. This time, a solicitor for the Goodings, William Smith, tried to outwit Swan. Smith told Gooding to leave Littlehampton in secret and go to stay with her mother in Lewes. All the time that she was gone, the rest of her family made a show of shouting out loudly to Rose, to make the Swans believe she was still at home. Rose sent regular letters with Lewes postmarks to prove that she was not in Littlehampton. One of them has survived in the police files. In its diction, its spelling and its softness of tone it is quite unlike the poison pen letters: ‘Dear ruth i have got a suit fore your Billie and one fore Little Willie and a Dress fore your Gertie and one fore Dorie and some stockings for them and a Black skirt … Dear ruth I am coming nix wensday in the afternoon same time … xxxxxxxxx’

While Gooding was in Lewes, Swan was seen posting a letter at the Littlehampton post office and the mailbag was found to contain an abusive letter addressed to Alfred Russell’s wife, who was in hospital. This should have been enough to show that Gooding couldn’t be the culprit, but Alfred Russell said he didn’t believe that she had really gone away. He did not believe it because Edith Swan and her mother insisted that they had seen her crossing the yard.

Rose’s watertight alibi counted for nothing. She was arrested and tried for libel a second time. The judge apologised to the sole woman on the jury for asking her to read letters of an obscene nature. Gooding’s lawyer produced the sock pattern and the recipe for marrow chutney that Swan had given Gooding in 1919, to show that Swan’s handwriting looked similar to that of the libeller, but Swan simply denied that the writing was hers. The jury asked to see a sample of Gooding’s handwriting but the judge refused. In summing up, he told the jury that he ‘did not think much’ of Gooding’s alibi and the jury duly found her guilty. Since this was supposedly the second time that Gooding had persecuted Swan, she was sentenced to 12 months in prison with hard labour.

Gooding was only saved at last by the Court of Criminal Appeals, because some new evidence had showed up in Littlehampton while she was locked up in Portsmouth. The week before her appeal hearing, two notebooks were discovered on Selbourne Road, not far from Western Road, containing a series of expletive-ridden rants in the same handwriting as the libels. The notebooks were splattered with the name Dorothy Gooding – Dorothy was Rose’s 11-year-old daughter. Both books contained the sentence ‘Inspector Thomas wants pole-axing for taking my angel mother to prison.’

In June 1921 Inspector George Nicholls spent a week in Littlehampton investigating the libels and taking detailed statements from 29 people. To start with, he was suspicious of Ruth Russell, Rose’s sister. ‘That Miss Russell is immoral goes without saying,’ he wrote. But then he found several clues that settled the matter. On searching the Swans’ house, he found some pieces of blotting paper with clear signs of the same big handwriting that the libels had been written in. The blotting paper also contained fragments of names and addresses that exactly corresponded to some of the libels. When he asked the Swans to explain the presence of this blotting paper in their house, they insisted that the Goodings often borrowed blotting paper, pens, ink and pencils and, moreover, that Rose Gooding had tossed some blotting paper into their house. Nicholls did not ‘give much weight’ to this statement, instead concluding that he could not trust anything Edith Swan said.

*

In the end, Rose Gooding’s faulty spelling helped to save her. Inspector Nicholls painstakingly went through 27 letters that Rose sent to Bill from Portsmouth jail and found that she always misspelled the word ‘prison’ as ‘prision’. This was a mistake that the author of the libels never made (one of Edith Swan’s school teachers said she was ‘very clever at Essay writing, and a good penman’). Unlike Rose Gooding’s public exclamations of ‘bloody old cow’ and so on, which were easily copied by Edith Swan in the letters, ‘prision’ was a little quirk of Rose’s language that no one knew about except for Bill. On 25 July 1921, the Court of Criminal Appeals heard Rose’s case and overturned both of her convictions. Sir Ernley Blackwell, the top lawyer at the Home Office, concluded that Rose Gooding had twice been wrongly imprisoned and had in ‘no way’ contributed to her own misfortune:

Mrs Gooding is a woman of good character and for a long time she has borne the stigma of having committed offences of a particularly disgraceful kind, many of the letters she was supposed to have sent being of a filthy and abominable nature.

The British government paid Rose Gooding £250 as an ‘act of grace’ but without any admission of liability.

With Rose Gooding exonerated, it might be expected that Edith Swan would be forced to stop her libels. Swan started presenting herself as a detective, claiming in a letter to a newspaper that she was ‘following up certain clues’ to ‘get to the bottom of all this’. At the same time, she started up a new batch of filthy letters. In the autumn of 1921, the main recipients of her letters were George and Violet May, a twentysomething policeman and his wife who had moved into No. 49 Western Road after Alfred Russell moved out. Soon after Violet May moved in, Edith Swan helpfully came round and offered her the use of her clothes-line, which Violet gratefully accepted. It wasn’t long before the Mays were receiving abusive missives, which were still written as if from Rose Gooding. In several instances, it was Edith who helpfully ‘found’ the letters in the garden or the drying ground and brought them to the Mays’ attention. This is from 5 September 1921:

To the old bastards May. You can talk about us as much as you like you dirty cows. You bloody fucking sods, you think you are big but we are as good as you. You are bloody dirty or you would clean the yard sometimes you bloody rotten buggers.

And another, from 7 October:

We are not going because you want us to you poxy ass piss country whores. We shall stay all the longer now.

As well as being obscene, the libels were also ‘decidedly strange’, as Hilliard remarks. This was swearing as a foreign language by someone who had the vocab but was not sure of how to fit the words together. The phrases ‘poxy ass’ and ‘foxy ass’ often pop up in the libels. The ‘foxy’ in question did not mean ‘sassy’, Hilliard points out, but decaying like a foxed book. The phrase ‘piss country whore’, a favourite in Edith’s letters, is not one that Hilliard can trace to any known usage. He wonders whether she perhaps misheard the phrase ‘piss-factory’, meaning a pub. Often, she piles up an excess of adjectives for effect: ‘bloody flaming fucking piss country’, where ‘bloody country’ on its own would do.

The great mystery of the Littlehampton libels is what motivated Edith Swan to produce and send this curious array of obscenity, other than hatred of the Goodings. If the libels hurt the reputation of Rose Gooding, they were also a form of self-sabotage against Swan herself. One of the letters from 1920 had been written to Swan’s fiancé Bert Boxall telling him that Edith had an affair with the policeman Alfred Russell and was carrying his child. Boxall broke off the engagement. Many of the letters insulting Edith Swan were sent to people who were of economic value to her family. Among the people who received letters saying that Edith Swan was a dirty drunken whore were Caffyns the butchers, Mr Boniface the fishmonger and several of Edith’s laundry clients. As Hilliard writes, Edith Swan was ‘tearing at the fabric of her own daily life’.

Perhaps this kind of self-harming behaviour ran in the Swan family. In 1921, when he was desperately trying to get his wife freed from prison, Bill Gooding wrote to the home secretary to say he had heard that ‘the youngest Swan boy used to write letters to himself and tear his clothes up and knock his self about and say other people was doing it’.

After Edith Swan was finally sent down for her libels in 1923 – despite Justice Avory directing them to see her as the victim of a ‘mistake’, the jury took just ten minutes to find her guilty – some of the national press speculated on the state of her mental health. The Daily Express saw her as a ‘wretched being’ whose crimes were ‘the product of a mental aberration’ and who should be in an ‘asylum, not a prison’. The Manchester Guardian, likewise, saw her as ‘a subject for a mental rather than a legal specialist’. The News of the World, more bluntly, argued that this ‘unattractive’ woman with ‘weak, peering eyes’ and ‘no semblance of a figure’ must be suffering from ‘sex mania’. Hilliard himself wonders whether Edith Swan was suffering from borderline personality disorder, a form of identity disturbance in which individuals lack a stable sense of self. A typical case of a ‘discouraged’ borderline would be someone who overcomplies with the rules of society, only to feel periodic fury and resentment at this constricted way of living, and acts out some kind of rebellion.

The madness of Edith Swan was an extreme and personal reaction to the linguistic constraints under which most women in Britain lived in 1920. The person who wrote these weird, malicious libels seems to have had two equally strong urges. One was to maintain the moral high ground and prove to the world that she was the ‘clean-mouthed’ feminine creature that Mr Justice Avory and others took her to be: a neighbourly lender of clothes-lines and blotting paper, a wearer of blue serge dresses, a dutiful daughter, a protector of innocent babies, a target of someone else’s unmannerly aggression. Yet Edith Swan’s letters show that she had an equally strong impulse to utter the foul words that someone like her was not allowed to use. The Great War forced many women out of their traditional roles as they took on the jobs of men who were away fighting and gave them a glimpse of other, freer lives. Edith Swan spent most of the war working in conventional female jobs as a domestic servant but for six months in 1915 she worked for a local construction firm doing distempering and whitewashing on houses. Was it on the construction site that she learned about ‘piss’ and ‘foxy ass’ and ‘whore’ and all those other words that she could not say at home in front of her parents and her eight siblings? When Rose Gooding moved in next door and started swearing without inhibition, did Edith feel a twinge of jealousy? Ruth Russell said that she sometimes overheard Stephen and Ernest Swan ‘make use of the words “fucking and bugger”’ but she never once heard Edith or her parents swear.

When Edith was finally found guilty of the libels in 1923, Justice Avory sentenced her to 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labour, yet even then, he clung to a sense of incredulity that such a woman could have written such ‘filth’. ‘I can only act upon the verdict of the jury. It is not my verdict’ were his final words to her.