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.’

No one thought that Edith Thompson had actually stabbed her husband; many people thought that she had meant to seduce Bywaters into doing so. ‘Illicit love may lead to crime,’ the judge instructed the jury, adding unconvincingly: ‘You must not, of course, let your disgust carry you too far.’ In her novel about the case, A Pin to See the Peepshow, F. Tennyson Jesse suggested that the crime for which Edith Thompson was really tried was adultery, and that it was disgust at her love affair with a younger man (not, as Bywaters’s mother had it, ‘many’ years younger, just nine) which condemned her. Tennyson Jesse, who was in some respects less tender to her heroine’s longings for glamour than René Weis is, did not say that Edith Thompson was blameless: she did say that she shouldn’t have been hanged, and wouldn’t have been had she been a man.

It is not the concern of Criminal Justice to say these things again, though the book does provide a strong case for Edith Thompson’s innocence, and a strong case against capital punishment. It does so by detailing with extraordinary density the particular circumstances of Edith Thompson’s life. Here are some of them. On Friday 10 March 1922 she had port and French almonds with an admirer at the Holborn Restaurant; on Sunday 17 September she made chutney. In the Aldersgate milliners where she worked there was a print of Watts’s Hope on the wall. On the night of her husband’s murder, she went with him to see Ben Travers’s The Dippers: the programme carried advertisements for petticoats from Debenham and Freebody and Apollinaris Natural Mineral Water. Among the flowers at Percy Thompson’s funeral was a bunch of lilies inscribed: ‘My wee token to Uncle Percy. I did love him so – Little Nephew Graham.’ On Tuesday 8 August, five months before she died, Edith Thompson was approached by a man in the lobby of the Waldorf Hotel. He was looking for a woman with whom he had had a lonely hearts exchange, a woman wearing a lace hat and a black frock with roses. Alighting by mistake on Mrs Thompson, he asked her: ‘Are you Romance?’

Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters grew up near each other in Manor Park, London. They first kissed in Ventnor, Isle of Wight, after a charabanc outing. They first made love when Bywaters was lodging with Percy and Edith Thompson in Ilford. They continued to meet and make love (on bits of common and in railway carriages) after Bywaters had left his lodgings, having scrapped with the suspicious Mr Thompson. They also began the correspondence which was to cause Edith Thompson to hang.

In the summer of 1922 Edith Thompson posted 24 letters to Bywaters on board his ship. When he was in London, she sent telegrams and messengers whizzing across the city; notes written between their meetings at lunch and their teas at Fuller’s were delivered in person in the evening. Writing about their love affair became an important part of having it. In these letters they described each other with stagey excitement. Him to her: ‘logic and what others call reason do not enter our lives ... you are my magnet.’ Her to him: ‘Why should we choose to be as every other person – when we’re not ... there can never be any pride to stand in the way – it melts in the flame of a great love.’ They offered directions on each other’s appearance. Bywaters was particular about his lover’s camisoles and garters; he was in favour of her tight green sweater, but came out against long skirts and lace shoes. They arranged to eat a piece of Toblerone at the same time and think about each other. They did not make plans to change their circumstances by running away or by approaching Percy Thompson. What they seemed to do was to plot.

‘Yes darlint be jealous, so much that you will do something desperate,’ Edith Thompson urged Frederick Bywaters. She had earlier envied the lot of one of her customers who had managed to shed several husbands: ‘two were drowned and one committed suicide and some people I know cant lose one. How unfair everything is.’ In February 1922 she sent her lover a cutting from the Daily Sketch about the death of the Reverend Horace Bolding from hyoscine poisoning: the reverend’s wife had been having an affair with her lodger. In March she forwarded details of ‘Dancing Girl’s Mystery Death. Story of Dope, Drugged Drink, Night Club & Chinese Cafe’, commenting that Bywaters may find this of interest ‘if it’s to be the same method’. In April she reports that she has slipped quinine into her husband’s tea and, since he has complained of the bitter taste, is now going to try (‘again’) ground glass: ‘I’ve got an electric light globe this time.’

René Weis says that during the 16 months of her love-affair with Bywaters ‘thoughts of murder formed only a tiny and fantastical fraction’ of Edith Thompson’s considerations. The tininess of the fraction (like being ‘only a little bit pregnant’?) does not do much to exonerate her. But the wildness, near daftness of her supposed plots might have given the judge and jury pause. Percy Thompson, gardener, elocutionist and grump (‘You never catch my colds, I always catch yours’), was never likely to be found doped in a Chinese café. The post-mortem on his body revealed no traces of poison, and none of the lesions which would have been produced by munching glass.

Edith Thompson was a fantasist and a manipulator, who, as Weis shows, floated dramatic improbabilities in her letters as a way of securing Bywaters’s fluctuating affections and alleviating her own boredom. ‘We ourselves die & live in the books we read while we are reading them,’ she wrote. ‘Then when we have finished, the books die and we live – or exist – just drag on thro years & years.’ Alongside inventive descriptions of her own life, she delivered exhaustive accounts of novels such as Robert Hichens’s Bella Donna, Eden Philpott’s The Secret Woman and W.B. Maxwell’s The Guarded Flame. These fictions featured buccaneers with bull-like necks, Nubian singers and baskets of snakes, ‘intensely masculine’ counts and women with flower-like faces: ‘Then, in the moonlight, her eyes opened divinely, met his, lingered unafraid and were slowly veiled again. Neither stirred until, at last, her arms stole up around his neck and her lips whispered his name as though it were a holy name, loved, honoured, and adored.’ They offered the couple a means of discussing and glamorising themselves and their predicament; they also offered them a means of discussing what they were not like. In page after page Edith Thompson examined the personalities of Lady Sarah Ides, Cesare Carelli or the Princess Mancelli with the ferocious attention of a Dallas fan. ‘About Dolores darlint – I dont agree with you at all about her not liking her husband’; ‘I didnt like Theo myself’; ‘I like Clarie – she is so unnatural, so unworldly. Why ar’nt you an artist and I as she is.’ The judge assumed that such characters served as paper patterns for the lovers. In his summing-up he observed that the couple wrote ‘chiefly about so-called heroes and heroines, probably wicked people, which no doubt accounts for a great many of these tragedies’. He pronounced that the ‘only point’ about the much-discussed Bella Donna was that ‘there is at the end of the book somebody poisoning her husband.’ But, as Edith Thompson once memorably explained to Bywaters, ‘the endings aren’t the story.’

There was never any evidence that Mrs Thompson knew that Bywaters was going to attack her husband, on that night or any other; nor is it clear why he chose to act. At the trial Bywaters made it plain that he regarded her talk of poison as a game, as ‘melodrama’. Yet she had wanted to get rid of her husband, and her husband was now dead. Her letters contained references to potions which she refused to explain: she could not bring herself to admit she had twice induced an abortion. The judge and the police thought she was culpable. One juror declared: ‘Mrs Thompson’s letters were her own condemnation ... “nauseous” is hardly strong enough to describe their contents.’ She was sentenced to death on 11 December 1922.

‘Even in little things my luck is entirely absent.’ Edith Thompson wrote to her father from Holloway: she had been told that a book she had ordered was out of print; she was knitting mufflers for Borstal boys; the tea was undrinkable. Most of the miseries of her last few weeks had little to do with luck. First, there was the routine vindictiveness of prison life. Magazines brought in by her aunt were confiscated. So were letters from Bywaters: ‘I want to ask you not to give up hope ... I’ve read two books by Baroness Von Sutton Pam and What became of Pam.’ The self-importance of the Anglican and Roman Catholic chaplains kept from her the cleric she had asked to see. Then, a few days after her 29th birthday, her appeal was turned down. Edith Thompson’s hair went grey; she had to be continually dosed with morphia. She was carried to the scaffold moaning: according to the Governor of Pentonville, ‘they hanged a practically unconscious woman.’