On 9 January 1923 Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were executed for the murder of her husband, even though there was no evidence she knew he would be stabbed. Why was she convicted, and how does the case still resonate a century later?
The hangman and his assistants arrived promptly at the condemned cell of London’s Holloway Prison on what was an icy Tuesday morning.
Before them 29-year-old Edith Thompson lay slumped, barely conscious following days of injections of a powerful sedative. She let out a moan as the execution team moved in.
“Come on, it’ll soon be over,” one of the men tells her as he raises her by the waist. Edith’s arms and ankles are bound and she is carried towards a shed where a gallows and trapdoor await. Within seconds, she is dead.
Half a mile away in Pentonville Prison, and at the same time, her 20-year-old lover suffered the same fate.
Three months earlier Freddy Bywaters had repeatedly stabbed Edith’s husband Percy as the married couple made their way home from a trip to the theatre. Freddy always insisted it was an attack his lover did not know was coming.
Edith’s crime was to be attractive, independent, working class and unfaithful – the victim, according to one expert on the case, of a societal intolerance of women who did not obey the moral codes of the day.
As the prolific novelist and screenwriter Edgar Wallace put it: “If ever in the history of this country a woman was hanged by the sheer prejudice of the uninformed public, and without the slightest modicum of evidence to justify the hanging, that woman was Edith Thompson.”
‘She wanted to be extraordinary’
Edith Graydon was someone who wanted a life that was different from the one working-class women were expected to accept.
Born in the east London suburb of Manor Park on Christmas Day in 1893, she was the first of five children. As the eldest, Edith would help her mother look after her sister and three brothers.
Once her schooling was complete, the ambitious and intelligent young woman headed into the City for work, joining wholesale milliners Carlton & Prior. She quickly rose within the ranks to become the firm’s chief buyer.
“She was a sort of so-called ordinary woman who wanted to be extraordinary,” says author Laura Thompson, who has written two books about the case.
In January 1916 Edith married shipping clerk Percy Thompson. They bought a house at 41 Kensington Gardens in Ilford, not far from where both had grown up. Edith earned more than her new husband – and also her father – and contributed more than half the £250 cost of the property, although the deeds had to be in Percy’s name.
As a newly married young woman she would have been expected to settle into domestic life and motherhood, but Edith had other ideas. An excellent dancer, she enjoyed nights out at London’s finest hotels and dance halls – places not intended for people of her social standing – and evenings were often spent with friends at West End theatres, cinemas and restaurants.
“I find her such a modern figure, she’s a sort of Grazia girl,” says Ms Thompson, who is not related to Edith. “She’s a girl about town. She’s ambitious, she’s aspirational. She wanted to own her own home which she did even though it had to be in her husband’s name.”
Unwilling to be bound by the conventions of the time, Edith was not an ordinary wife. What is more, she had a lover, a handsome and charming man more than eight years her junior.
‘I met a woman who lost three husbands’
Frederick Bywaters knew the Graydon family as he was in the same class at school as one of Edith’s brothers. At the age of 13, Freddy left London to join the Merchant Navy.
During a visit home in June 1921 he was invited to the Isle of Wight for a weeklong holiday with Percy, Edith and her sister Avis Graydon.
By the end of the trip a furtive romance had begun between the teenager and Edith, which only flourished when Freddy was invited to move in with the Thompsons for a few weeks. He would end up leaving 41 Kensington Gardens following a confrontation with Percy, who was sometimes abusive towards his wife. During the argument she was thrown across the room by Percy, leaving her badly bruised.
With Freddy often away, the lovers wrote to one other frequently in letters Edith instructed must be destroyed after reading.
“They’re remarkable documents,” says Ms Thompson, whose new book examines the letters in detail. “They’re so expressive, they’re sort of her other self poured on the page.”
In one letter, Edith jumps from describing the mundane ins and outs of daily life to expressing thoughts about sex, abortion and suicide.
She would often flit between fact and fantasy; on occasion there was content that was seemingly rather sinister. Edith, an avid reader of fiction, would sometimes imagine herself as a character from a novel and in doing so would hint at wanting to be rid of Percy, perhaps by adding small pieces of glass to his food.
In one letter she wrote:
Yesterday I met a woman who had lost three husbands and not through the war, two were drowned and one committed suicide, and some people I know can’t lose one. How unfair everything is. Bess and Reg are coming to dinner Sunday.
I was buoyed up with the hope of the ‘light bulb’ and I used a lot – big pieces too – not powdered – and it had no effect – I quite expected to be able to send you that cable – but no – nothing has happened from it.
University College London professor René Weis, who has studied the case for decades, believes the letters show no more than the “workings of an overwrought romantic imagination”.
For Edith, these fantasies would prove to be deadly.
‘Why did he do it?’
On 3 October 1922 Edith and Percy spent the evening watching the comedy The Dippers at the Criterion Theatre near Piccadilly Circus. After the show they boarded a Tube to Liverpool Street before catching a train to Ilford.
As they walked along Belgrave Road towards their house, a man barged into the couple. He set upon Percy, who within seconds was lying motionless on the ground.
The 32-year-old shipping clerk had sustained several knife wounds to his neck. Daylight would reveal his blood splattered along a 44ft (13m) stretch of the road.
A murder investigation was soon under way.
Percy’s brother told police they should speak to Freddy. The 20-year-old’s room in his mother’s home was searched and the first of Edith’s love letters was found. She too was now under suspicion.
In a corridor at Ilford police station, detectives arranged it so that Edith and Freddy would set eyes on one other, in the hope she would incriminate herself. After this encounter, she wailed: “Why did he do it? I didn’t want him to do it. Oh God, oh God, what can I do? I must tell the truth.”
His cabin on his ship, the Morea, was searched and more letters were discovered locked in a box, including those that mentioned Edith’s apparent desire for Percy to be out of the picture.
Freddy did not deny stabbing Percy, but claimed the older man had struck out at him and he had acted in self-defence. When he was told that Edith was also to be charged with murder, Freddy replied: “Why her? Mrs Thompson was not aware of my movements.”
‘The atmosphere of a first night’
Details from the letters were splashed across the newspapers in reports of the pre-trial hearings. The defendants found themselves at the centre of a storm.
“They were glamourous. They had an almost film-star air to them,” Ms Thompson says. “He looked like a Rupert Brooke figure, almost, and she must have had a huge erotic charge about her.”
On 6 December 1922, Edith and Freddy were led into a packed courtroom at the Old Bailey for their murder trial.
Crowds had massed early outside the famous London court, with a place in the public gallery the premium seat in the capital.
Towards the end of the nine-day trial, unemployed men were lining up outside the building each night and then selling their places in the queue the next morning for more than the average weekly wage in Britain.
For writer Beverley Nichols, who was a young reporter at the time and was present throughout the trial, the case had the air of “the days of the Roman Empire when the Christians were thrown to the lions”.
Speaking on a BBC radio programme in 1973, he described how the Old Bailey “had the atmosphere of a first night”.
“You had all these people who might be in the dress circle or the stalls; a great many society women, sensation-seekers, and they were all treating it as if it were a thing for which they paid for their seats.”
Artists from Madame Tussauds were also in courtroom number one, sketching the two latest villains the attraction hoped to install in its Chamber of Horrors.
‘An uppity and selfish young woman’
As crucial evidence for the prosecution, extracts from the love letters were read out in court. Such was the vocal reaction from the public gallery, the jurors were instructed to read the passages to themselves.
“The horror of having them read out in court, that’s what kills me – those private, intimate words and the public gallery behaving like crazed lunatics listening to this private, private stuff – it’s like trying to torture someone, I think,” says Ms Thompson.
The timing of the case, in the aftermath of World War One, seemed to add to a brewing sense of hatred towards Edith, as Prof Weis explains.
“The narrative went that Britain was full of war widows and here was an uppity and selfish young woman, from a modest background at that, who had everything – looks, a lovely house, money, a good husband, dinners, dances, theatres. And look what she did. One good man wasn’t enough for her.
“The public came to admire Freddy and intensely dislike Edith, a siren who had seduced a young man and thus set in motion a chain reaction that resulted in one man’s death and the certain execution of a ‘lad’,” Prof Weis says.
‘That woman is not guilty’
The public’s dislike of Edith was evidently shared by the judge, Mr Justice Shearman, who would repeatedly interject on the side of the prosecution.
During his summing up, he told the jurors – whom he would only address as gentlemen even though two were women – how he felt about Edith’s adultery: “I am certain that you, like any other right-minded person, will be filled with disgust at such a notion.”
The evidence against her was at best flimsy. Percy’s body was tested for poison and traces of glass but nothing incriminating was found. Witness accounts supported Edith’s assertion she had been taken by surprise on the night her husband was stabbed.
Despite her barrister’s desperate pleas, Edith took to the stand to give evidence. “That to me was a sign of innocence, that you would be so adamant that you would want to do that,” says Ms Thompson.
But Edith had made a dreadful mistake. The prosecution manipulated what she had written in the letters, finding false narratives and giving misleading time periods “to tie her up in knots”.
On 11 December the jury went out; a verdict was reached after two hours of deliberations. A terrified Edith was half-carried back into the courtroom to be told she and Freddy had been found guilty of murder.
“The jury is wrong. That woman is not guilty,” cried out Freddy amid a commotion in the courtroom. A black cap was placed over Mr Justice Shearman’s wig as he sentenced them to death.
Edith let out a guttural cry as she was taken down to the cells.
‘She really never stood a chance’
A petition to spare Freddy from the hangman’s noose received more than a million signatures. Edith, though, seemed not to inspire much sympathy.
“Women disliked her because they feared her; she was one of those women that other women think men fancy, and she was troubling and she couldn’t be pitied,” says Ms Thompson.
“She really never stood a chance.”
Opinion pieces appeared in the newspapers, the majority of them scathing. “There were no circumstances in the case to evoke the slightest sympathy,” the Times wrote. “The whole case was simple and sordid.”
Self-proclaimed feminist Rebecca West wrote that Edith “was, poor child, a shocking little piece of rubbish”. After the execution, women would write to Home Secretary William Bridgeman thanking him for defending the honour of their sex by not allowing the death sentence to be commuted.
Edith wrote letters from prison, highlighting the anguish of a woman facing obliteration. In one note to her parents she remarked:
Today seems the end of everything. I can’t think – I just seem up against a blank, thick wall, through which neither my eyes nor my thoughts can penetrate. It’s not within my powers of realisation that this sentence must stand for something which I have not done, something I did not know of, either previously or at the time.
Every woman sentenced to death during the previous decade had been reprieved, yet pleas on Edith’s behalf were rejected.
“When you see the contortions which the Home Office underwent to ensure that she was executed, it’s really quite terrifying,” says Ms Thompson, who believes Edith’s adultery was seen as “an attack on morality” – the sort of behaviour that risked “destroying the institution of marriage and destroying all that was good”.
‘Now at least she is with them’
In September 1923 an auction of the Thompsons’ household goods was held at the marital home, attracting huge interest.
One of the auction staff described how “the privet hedge was left bare of every leaf because the people who attended wanted to say to their friends they had something from the house”.
The waxworks of Edith and Freddy were the top attraction at Madame Tussauds, the fascination with the case seemingly inexhaustible.
They were removed from the Chamber of Horrors in the 1980s. The figures are today in storage; their wax degrading, the paint peeled away.
Prof Weis has for many years fought to have Edith pardoned. In 2018 her body was reburied alongside her parents at the City of London Cemetery in Manor Park. “I was hoping to fulfil her mother’s dying wishes,” he says. “Now at least she is home with them.”
For Ms Thompson, Edith’s fate remains relevant, even though it is more than 50 years since capital punishment ended in Britain. “It’s important to remind people nothing changes, prejudice always exists; it just shape-shifts.
“There is an awful warning in this story: check your worst impulses towards people to whom you feel prejudice. We live in a cancelling culture – she was literally cancelled – and it’s a very, very dangerous impulse but society finds it hard to resist.”