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Book Review: Rex v Edith Thompson

Updated: May 23, 2021

The execution of Ethel Thompson and Freddy Bywaters on 9th January 1923 signalled the end of arguably one of Britain’s most shameful episodes in its criminal annals. In her account, author Laura Thompson does not sit on the fence either: what happened to Mrs Thompson was a travesty and she does not hesitate to point the finger at those she holds responsible, most notably presiding judge at her Old Bailey trial: Justice Shearman.

In fact, the author’s finger is pointed at the whole male-dominated system which pursued Edith with such zealotry, from cold-eyed police officers to moralising prosecutors, sanctimonious newspaper editors and a hypocritical and bloodthirsty general public. Edith Thompson faced a battle she could not possibly have won. A scapegoat offered to the gallows by a holier-than-thou society, the poor woman was indeed condemned from the start. As Thompson demonstrates so well, her trial – if it can be called that – was a sham.

What makes Thompson’s book so engrossing is the use made of Edith’s letters. They’re all here: whimsical, childlike, other-worldly and yet with just enough in these flights of fancy for the censorious to extract what they needed from them. Underneath the stream of consciousness is an ill-defined sense of fatalism, a desire to die the death of a Shakespearean heroine, but not really to die – simply to imagine what death might be like. While her letter writing alter ego might have been half in love with easeful death, the real Edith had no desire to die.

It’s true, the letters are laced with cryptic comments which could easily be read as allusions to poisoning her husband. But that was Edith all over: naïve in the extreme. She could never have guessed that one day these intimate letters a 28-year-old woman wrote to her 20-year-old lover would be read aloud at the Old Bailey. But they were. Nor could she have ever foreseen that her letters would be used as ‘evidence’ to condemn her to death. Shocking as it now seems, a woman was indeed hanged because of meanings that ‘society’ sought to extract from a series of girlish letters written to a phantom lover.

Thompson shrewdly observes that the affair between Edith and Bywaters by its very nature was always abstract, ethereal. She, the suburban housewife and career woman, he the much younger ship’s steward, her bit of rough. For much of the affair’s 18-month duration, Freddy Bywaters was at sea – hence the letters. Had the two lovers not been parted for such lengths and had Mrs been Miss, then the affair would almost certainly have lost much if not all its allure.

It is almost certainly true that obstacles removed, the attraction between Edith and Bywaters might have been considerably less intense. For Edith, charming this handsome young man probably had several motivations. She was pretty and enjoyed attracting male attention but not enough to be called a flirt; the affair could be viewed then as an affirmation of the power of her femininity. But it was more than that as Thompson shows. Edith was an avid theatre-goer. She adored romantic fiction, closely identifying herself with its heroines. For her the affair was almost a role-play, pure Mills & Boons with Edith cast as the tragic heroine, caught between staid Percy and the rakish Freddy. It was a daydream that spilled over into reality.

While it had become somewhat of a tradition for condemned women to be pardoned – women who had, unlike Edith, actually physically murdered – society was always going to demand the full price from Edith. Vengeance. It wanted to show what happens to women who don’t conform, women who don’t defer to husbands, who confound it all by taking a younger lover - formerly the lodger! Simply not done. Above all else it wanted to punish her for an unpardonable sin: her independence. What kind of woman would not have a brood of children by the age of twenty-eight? A wrong un, that’s what type. She had to be made an example of.

When Bywaters ambushed the Thompsons late one night in the street stabbing Percy Thompson to death, reality suddenly and violently encroached into Edith’s make-believe world. Prior to that moment the world had been one in which she could fantasise about her husband’s imagined death, where she could tease Bywaters, lead him on, play the femme fatale. Similarly, it was only on the morning of her execution that she appeared to fully understand her predicament: she was going to be hanged. It really was happening. It wasn’t the heroine of her imagination to be executed either. No, the noose would be placed around the neck of the flesh and blood Edith, her real not imagined self.

Thompson’s book is a fascinating account of a tragedy that should never have happened. To read those letters is to hear a young woman struggling to come to terms with a character that was ahead of its time. She might have dreamed of life without Percy, but the moment he was gone it seems she was filled with regret. So they murdered her, the suits who judge others from their high perches, the oh so respectable men of letters.

What can one do? Not much. These men (and women) were determined that if Bywaters were to hang – which he was – then the wicked woman who allegedly held him under her spell should also hang. That was their logic, their justification in its entirety. The 2001 film version ‘Another Life’ had Edith carried from her cell to the gallows, such was the state of her terror and effect of the drugs injected into her that cruel morning. There is however some confusion about her last minutes as the author observes. It’s an almost unimaginable scene, Edith’s last hours and minutes.

The blood boils. Anger rises. As a reader it is impossible to understand how any sentient human being could have been complicit in this judicial murder. It beggars belief. Wherever you turn you hit a brick wall. What the police, Home Office, media and public did is almost too monstrous to comprehend: destroy the life of a vibrant young woman out of nothing more noble than pure malice and quite possibly some sort of twisted psycho-sexual revenge motif.

Thompson is right to point the finger at all those who contributed to this disgraceful act. Like the cowards they were and always will be it was left to others to do the dirty work of actual execution. The only consolation is to imagine the likes of Justice Montague Shearman who did so much to sway the jury and Home Secretary William Bridgeman who denied clemency somewhere deep inside Dante’s Inferno burning in Hell for all eternity.