Edith Thompson (1893-1923)
Suburban housewife and milliner. Mrs. Thompson was executed on 9 January 1923 because her lover, Frederick Bywaters, murdered her husband Percy.
Edith and Percy Thompson, September 1922
At their trial, both were found guilty, the Crown "proving" her complicity through her surviving love letters to her lover. Innocent of murder, Mrs. Thompson was hanged for adultery. Both were hanged at the same time, she at Holloway and he at Pentonville. Her permanent memorial in plot 117 was placed there in October 1993 by a number of interested parties. Her grave also contains the bodies of three other women who were executed at Holloway Prison in 1903 and 1954. All the bodies were removed to Brookwood in 1971 when Holloway Prison was completely rebuilt.
This page contains further information about Mrs Thompson and is divided into the following sections:
"Edith Thompson was innocent of murder. Her sentence was unjust. Her name must be cleared."
On 9th January 1923, Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were hanged in London, she at Holloway, and he at Pentonville. They were both found guilty of her husband's murder in a quiet street in Ilford one late night in October 1922. Edith was 29 when she died, her lover only 20. The Crown "proved" at the trial at the Old Bailey that although it was Bywaters who stabbed the 32 year old Percy Thompson to death, Edith had set it up. She must have masterminded it because she was a successful businesswoman in London, whereas the much younger Bywaters was a mere merchant sailor.
But there was no colourable evidence to connect Edith Thompson to the crime. Instead, there was a rash and fanciful wish, repeatedly expressed in her many letters to Bywaters, to be rid of her husband. From such references the Crown inferred poison, and exhumed Thompson's body. However, the two most distinguished pathologists in the country independently concluded that there had been no attempt at poisoning.
If the "Messalina of Ilford", as the popular press dubbed her, could not be found guilty of poisoning, then she had to be found guilty of aiding and abetting the murder. Accordingly the Solicitor General scandalously misled the jury when he stated that Edith Thompson's correspondence contained the "undoubted evidence" of a "preconcerted meeting between Mrs. Thompson and Bywaters at the place" - meaning the spot where Thompson was murdered. There is no such evidence in the letters, but the jury could not know this, because only half of Edith Thompson's correspondence with Bywaters was submitted in court. The jury had to assume either that the Solicitor General was lying, or that explicit conspiracy to murder was spelled out in one of the withheld letters.
The judge failed to set the records straight in a summing up that was notoriously unfair to Mrs. Thompson. During the trial he scribbled on his note pad "great love ... nonsense. Great and wholesome disgust." The judge could, and should, have told the jury the reason why parts of Edith Thompson's correspondence were withheld: her letters were deemed too explicit about "women's things" such as her periods (or lack of them), her two pregnancies (resulting in one abortion and one miscarriage) and, yes, a sexual climax in Bywater's arms al fresco in Wanstead Park. This was the sort of thing that might have happened to Hollywood starlets, but not to restless British housewives.
Edith Thompson paid a terrible price for daring to be ruled by her passions, and for behaving out of her social class. If confirmation were needed that it was her perceived immorality that brought her to perdition, it is provided by the foreman of her jury. "It was my duty to read them [the letters] to the members of the jury ... 'Nauseous' is hardly strong enough to describe their contents ... Mrs. Thompson's letters were her own condemnation."
Edith's famous letters were not at all about sex, or her loathing for her husband. In fact, the bulk of them chronicled her daily life and fantasies for her lover's benefit, to keep him involved in her suburban routines while he was sailing the oceans of the world. Edith's natural gift for written expression allowed her to articulate her feelings with remarkable fluency. She devoured books, and substantial parts of her correspondence consist of discussions of sentimental and risqué novels, such as Bella Donna by Robert Hichens. She was the Madame Bovary of North-East London.
A million people signed the petition for the reprieve of Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters, particularly for his sake, as he had become something of a hero during the trial for his loyalty to her. His last words to his mother the day before he died, as she left the death cell at Pentonville, were "give my love to Edie". Bywaters died fearless, Edith Thompson disintegrated on the gallows. Rumours about the circumstances surrounding her death began to circulate at once, giving reason to suspect that she may have been pregnant, and that the observations about her "insides falling out" was a euphemism for a miscarriage. It certainly seems odd that her weight increased dramatically from 119 to 133 pounds between the day she was sentenced to death, 11 December 1922, and the day she died, 9 January 1923, even though she ate very little during her last two weeks in prison, and next to nothing during the four days before her death.
Edith Thompson continues to exercise imaginations, and above all consciences. Occasionally I return to East Ham and Ilford, mostly to show friends where Edith Thompson grew up, her school, the church she was married in, her house in Ilford, the parks nearby, the station through which she commuted, even her bank. She was a truly ordinary woman. The gulf between the legal cataclysm that destroyed her and her own sense of position is best revealed by her reaction to the sentence. As her family entered her cell in the bowels of the Old Bailey immediately after the verdict, Edith rushed towards her father, crying "Take me home, Dad!", as if he could.
One cannot avoid feeling that a wider and sinister logic operated against Edith Thompson: her husband was dead, her killer would die, and this woman needed to atone for the loss of the two men. She became the first woman in sixteen years to be hanged in Britain. Edith Thompson was innocent of murder. Her sentence was unjust. Her name must be cleared.
Author of Criminal Justice: the True Story of Edith Thompson (Hamish Hamilton, 1988; re-issued by Penguin Books in February 2001).
(This article is reproduced in full in the Society's bi-annual magazine Necropolis News first issued in April 1993.)
Mrs. Thompson is buried in plot 117 in Brookwood Cemetery. Her remains, and those of three other women who were executed at Holloway Prison, were removed to Brookwood on 1 April 1971 and buried in an unmarked grave. At that time the prison was being rebuilt.
This new memorial was dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Edith Thompson and the three other women on Saturday 13th November 1993. A special service was held to mark the occasion, led by Rev. Barry Arscott, Vicar of St Barnabas Church, Manor Park, London.
Another Life, a version of the true story of Mrs. Edith Thompson, was released in June 2001. Click on this link for more pictures and information on the film. Or click on this link for more information on Winchester Films who produced the film.
Advertised as "the true story of Edie Thompson", London reviews refer to the "satisfyingly complex" portrayal of Mrs. Thompson (played by Natasha Little), who is "trapped by circumstance but is no angel", along with the film's stylish visuals. The film is sympathetic to her case, but contains several errors of fact. It also concentrates on her life (and loves) rather than dwelling particularly on the subsequent trial (which is given scant coverage) and her execution. But the film ends with a series of titles that informs the audience that Mrs. Thompson was probably pregnant when she was hanged, that her case has never been reviewed since, and that the files on the case have been closed for 100 years. The film therefore leaves the moviegoer to make up his or her own mind about how a woman could be hanged for adultery.
The revised edition of Professor René Weis' definitive biography of Mrs. Edith Thompson has now been published by Penguin Books, price £6.99 (ISBN 0140294627).
The book is a revised and updated edition of René Weis's definitive biography of Mrs. Thompson. It contains many hitherto unseen photographs added since it was originally published in 1988. The book was reissued as a paperback in 1990 but has been out of print for many years.
The main text of the book remains unaltered from the 1990 edition, but the author has added a new Preface which is both masterly and moving. It begins with an account of the special service in Brookwood Cemetery on 13th November 1993. We then move back in time to retrace and readdress some of the issues raised in the main part of the book. We learn more of Avis Graydon (Mrs. Thompson's sister), whilst the author has also tracked down more contemporary accounts of the case and its aftermath. One is an article published in 1924 by the hangman, there are more sympathetic accounts written by friends of Mrs. Thompson, and the more offensive accounts by Richard Thompson (Percy Thompson's brother). Reference is also made to developments since 1990. This includes the placing of the permanent memorial at Brookwood, where the Brookwood Cemetery Society is praised for becoming the "driving force" behind this project. The new Preface concludes with a newly discovered letter written by Mrs. Thompson in Holloway Prison on 23rd December 1922, and a letter from her mother describing her very last visit to the Prison after the execution had taken place.
(This review is reproduced from the Society's quarterly newsletter The Brookwood Express of May 2001 © The Brookwood Cemetery Society.)
Photographs courtesy of René Weis and John Clarke
This site was last updated 24-02-06 © The Brookwood Cemetery Society