Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

Edith Jessie Thompson (25 December, 1893 – 9 January, 1923) and Frederick Edward Francis Bywaters (27 June, 1902 – 9 January, 1923) were a British couple who were executed for the murder of Thompson’s husband Percy. Their case became a cause célèbre.

Early life and events leading to the murder

Edith Thompson was born Edith Graydon at 97 Norfolk Road in Dalston, London, the first of the five children of William Eustace Graydon (1867–1941), a clerk with the Imperial Tobacco Company, and his wife, Ethel Jessie Liles (1872–1938), the daughter of a police constable. During her childhood, she was a happy, talented girl who excelled at dancing and acting, and was academically bright, with a natural ability in arithmetic. Upon leaving school, she found employment as a bookkeeper for a fabric importer. She quickly established a reputation as a stylish and intelligent woman and was promoted by the company several times, until she became their chief buyer and made regular trips to Paris on behalf of the company.

In 1909 she met Percy Thompson, and after a six-year engagement they were married in 1916. They bought a house in the fashionable town of Ilford in Essex and with both their careers flourishing, lived a comfortable life.

The couple became acquainted with Freddy Bywaters in 1920, although Bywaters and Edith Thompson had met nine years earlier when Bywaters had been a school friend of Edith’s younger brother. By 1920 Bywaters had joined the merchant navy. Edith was immediately attracted to Bywaters, who was handsome and impulsive and whose stories of his travels around the world interested Edith. By comparison Percy was a staid, conventional person, and Bywaters represented a more dashing figure to her, and more closely resembled her romantic ideal. He was welcomed by Percy, and the trio, joined by Edith’s sister Avis, holidayed on the Isle of Wight. Upon their return, Percy invited Bywaters to lodge with them.

Edith and Bywaters began an affair soon after, and when Percy realised this he confronted them. A quarrel broke out and when Bywaters demanded that Percy divorce Edith, Percy ordered him from the house. Edith later described a violent confrontation with her husband after Bywaters left, and said that her husband struck her several times and threw her across the room. From September 1921 until September 1922, Bywaters was at sea, and during this time Edith Thompson wrote to him frequently. Upon his return, they met again.

The murder

On October 3, 1922 the Thompsons attended a performance at the Criterion Theatre in London’s Piccadilly Circus and were returning home, when a man jumped out from behind some bushes near their home, and attacked Percy. After a violent struggle, during which Edith Thompson was also brutally knocked to the ground, Percy was stabbed. Mortally wounded, he died before Edith could summon help. The attacker fled. Neighbours later reported hearing a woman screaming hysterically, and shouting “no don’t” several times, and by the time police arrived she had still not composed herself. At the police station she appeared distressed and confided to police that she knew who the killer was, and named Freddy Bywaters. Believing herself to be a witness, rather than an accomplice, Thompson provided them with details of her association with Bywaters.

As police investigated further they arrested Bywaters, and upon discovering a series of more than sixty love letters from Edith Thompson to Bywaters, arrested her too. The letters were the only tangible evidence linking Edith Thompson to the murders, and allowed for the consideration of common purpose, namely that if two people wish to achieve the death of a third, and one of these people acts on the expressed intentions of both, both are equally guilty by law. They were each charged with murder.

The trial

The trial began on December 6, 1922 at the Old Bailey. Bywaters co-operated completely. He had led police to the murder weapon he had concealed after the murder, and consistently maintained that he had acted without Edith’s knowledge. The love letters were produced as evidence. In these Edith Thompson passionately declared her love for Bywaters, and her desire to be free of Percy. She said on one occasion she had ground a glass light bulb to shards and had fed them to Percy mixed into mashed potato, and on another occasion had fed him poison. Not only had he failed to die, he had failed to become ill, and Edith now implored Freddy to “do something desperate”.

Thompson’s counsel urged her not to testify, stressing that the burden of proof lay with the prosecution and that there was nothing they could prove other than that she had been present at the murder. By this time Thompson seemed to be enjoying the publicity she was attracting and insisted that she would take the stand. Her testimony proved damning, and she was caught in a series of lies. Her demeanour was variously flirtatious, self pitying and melodramatic and she made a poor impression on the judge and the jury, particularly when she contradicted herself. In answer to several questions relating to the meaning of some of the passages in her letters, she said “I have no idea”. Her counsel later stated that her vanity and arrogance had destroyed her chances for acquittal. Her testimony negated the positive testimonies of neighbours who had heard Thompson crying out in horror during her husband’s murder, and the statements from police who dealt with the immediate investigation stating that Thompson appeared to be in a genuine state of shock and disbelief and attested to her assertions of “Oh god, why did he do it?” and “I never wanted him to do it”.

Bywaters stated that Edith Thompson had known nothing of his plans for the simple reason that he had not intended to murder Percy Thompson. His aim was to confront him, and force him to deal with the situation, and when Thompson had reacted in a superior manner, Bywaters had lost his temper. Edith Thompson, he repeatedly stated, had made no suggestion to him to kill Percy, nor did she know that Bywaters intended to confront him. In discussing the letters, Bywaters stated that he had never believed Edith had attempted to harm her husband, but that he believed she had a vivid imagination, fuelled by the novels she enjoyed reading, and in her letters she viewed herself in some way as one of these fictional characters.

On December 11, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and both Thompson and Bywaters were sentenced to death by hanging. Thompson became hysterical and started screaming in the court, while Bywaters loudly protested Thompson’s innocence.

Imprisonment and execution

Before and during the trial, Thompson and Bywaters were the subjects of a highly sensationalist and critical media commentary, but after they were sentenced to death, there was a dramatic shift in public attitudes and in the media coverage. Almost one million people signed a petition against the imposed death sentences. Bywaters attracted admiration for his fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards Thompson. Thompson was regarded as a foolish woman, but attracted sympathy as it was generally considered that to hang a woman was abhorrent, and no woman had been executed in Britain since 1907. Thompson herself stated that she would not hang, and when her parents were allowed to visit her she urged her father to simply take her home. Despite the petition, and a new confession from Bywaters in which he once again declared Thompson to be completely innocent, the Home Secretary, William Bridgeman, did not extend them a reprieve. A few days before their executions Thompson was told of the date which had been fixed, and lost her composure. She spent the last few days of her life in a state of near hysteria, crying, screaming and moaning, and unable to eat. On the morning of her execution she was heavily sedated, but remained in an agitated state. On January 9, 1923 in Holloway Prison, Thompson was half carried to the scaffold where she had to be held upright while the noose was fitted to her. In Pentonville Prison, Bywaters who had tried since his arrest to save Thompson from execution, was himself hanged. They were hanged simultaneously at 9.00 am, only about half-a-mile apart - Holloway and Pentonville prisons are located in the same district. Later, the bodies of Thompson and Bywaters were buried within the walls of the prisons where they had been executed.

Edith Thompson was one of only 17 women hanged in the United Kingdom during the 20th century.

Reactions to the executions

The hanging of Edith Thompson shocked British society. It was unthinkable that a young, attractive, middle class woman could be executed, and many of her supporters argued that she had been hanged for no more than adultery. An autopsy on Percy Thompson had failed to reveal any evidence that he had been fed ground glass or any type of detectable poison. Grave concerns that Thompson’s letters were the work of a bored, imaginative and immature housewife who fantasised about a life without her husband, without ever intending him harm, had been insufficient to save her, but her supporters continued to speak on her behalf. After her death, they became more vocal and critical of the manner in which her case was handled. The Home Office files were marked not to be opened for 100 years, which helped to stifle examination of the case, while adding fuel to the growing rumours. Many of the letters were censored by the court during the trial, because they dealt with subjects such as menstruation and orgasm, subjects that were not considered fit for public discussion and which may in part account for the decision to keep them from public scrutiny for 100 years. At the trial, the jurors were presented with only snippets from the letters, and were prevented from placing them in the context of her extended writing.

Several years later it was revealed that upon dropping through the scaffold, Thompson had suffered a massive haemorrhage. The large amount of blood spilled, combined with the fact that Thompson had gained weight during her imprisonment even while resisting food, led to conjecture that she had been pregnant. However, no subsequent post-mortem examination was made. John Ellis, her executioner, eventually committed suicide, with his closest associates stating that he had remained haunted by the horror of Thompson’s final moments. All women hanged in Britain after Thompson were required to wear special knickers made of canvas which would prevent a recurrence of the massive bleeding suffered by Thompson.


The body of Edith Thompson was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Holloway Prison, as was customary. In 1971 the prison underwent an extensive programme of rebuilding, during which the bodies of all the executed women were exhumed for reburial elsewhere.

With the exception of Ruth Ellis, the remains of the four other women executed at Holloway, i.e. Edith Thompson, Styllou Christofi, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were reburied in a single grave at Brookwood Cemetery. The new grave (in plot 117) remained unmarked for over twenty years. Finally, on 13th November 1993, a grey granite memorial was placed on plot 117 and dedicated to the memory of the four women buried there. Edith Thompson's details appear prominently on the face of the tombstone, together with her epitaph: 'Sleep on beloved. Her death was a legal formality'. The names of the other three women are inscribed around the edges of the tombstone.

Representatives of the Home Office did not inform Avis Graydon (Thompson's surviving sister) of the exhumation and the fact that she had the right to take control of her sister's funeral arrangements. Avis Graydon died in 1973, without ever knowing that her sister had been reburied in Brookwood. Consequently, she never had the opportunity either to visit the grave or to erect some form of memorial over it.

The remains of Frederick Bywaters still lie in an unmarked grave within the walls of HMP Pentonville, where they were buried shortly after his execution in January 1923. The precise location of the cemetery within the prison is coord|51|32|44.05|N|0|06|54.62|W|region:GB_scale:1000|display=inline.

The remains of Percy Thompson are buried in The City of London Cemetery, Wanstead. [cite web| title =Edith Thompson | work =Necropolis Notables | publisher =The Brookwood Cemetery Society | url =http://www.tbcs.org.uk/edith_thompson.htm | accessdate =2007-02-23 ]

Edith's parents are buried in The City of London Cemetery and her devoted sister Avis Graydon, who had previously dated Freddy Bywaters, is buried in St. Patrick's Cemetery, Leytonstone.

The case in popular culture

The couple were the subject of waxworks at Madame Tussauds and during the many years they were displayed, were highly popular with patrons. Alfred Hitchcock expressed the wish to make a documentary film on a real life case, several times commenting that the Thompson and Bywaters case was the one he would most like to film. Their story has provided the basis for several fictional stories, and plays.

In 1934, F. Tennyson Jesse published "A Pin to See the Peepshow", "a fictional account of the Thompson-Bywaters case despite the usual disclaimer at the front that all the characters are imaginary. The title refers to the children's entertainment at which (she) first met her lover-to-be."Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. "A Catalogue of Crime". New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8] .

A play by Frank Vosper, "People Like Us", written in the 1930s was originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain and remained unperformed until 1948 when it premiered at the Wyndhams Theatre, London, in the West End.

Both P. D. James and Dorothy Sayers have written fiction which has been based on their story.

In non-fiction, Lewis Broad wrote "The Innocence of Edith Thompson: A Study in Old Bailey Justice" in 1952. A study of the case titled "Fred and Edie" by Jill Dawson was published in 2000, and a biography of Thompson, titled "Criminal Justice : The True Story of Edith Thompson", by Rene Weis was published in 1988.

Weis' biography received a new edition in 2001 to coincide with the film "Another Life" which told their story. Natasha Little played Edith Thompson, Nick Moran played Percy Thompson and Ioan Gruffudd played Freddy Bywaters.

In 2006, the writer Molly Cutpurse published, A Life Lived, a novel on how Edith's life might have developed had she been allowed to live.

See also

* Capital punishment
* Capital punishment in the United Kingdom


External links

* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8231653 Photograph of Edith Thompson's grave]

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