The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

To witness the end of a life




‘Ilford Murder Trial’, News of the World, 10 December 1922, 10


I witnessed the end of a life this week: a coroner’s report of July 1940 tracked the months leading up to the death of the man who I have worked on for the past seven years. I knew he died, of course; I knew he died young — he was 36 — and in a fire and a washed-up alcoholic. Yet none of that prepared me for the visceral and immediate shock with which I encountered the moment of his death. Until reading this report I had known him as part of the warp and weft of interwar British society and culture — as a flamboyant, flawed characteristic product of his time. Now I see the manner of his life literally embodied at his death. I know the weight, colour and condition of his heart, lungs and liver; I know the strong smell of whisky that pervaded both his stomach and the post mortem room; I know the burns that covered his body. Thanks to a police officer’s sketch plan, I know exactly how his body was found sprawled on the Chesterfield in his lounge room.


I have been a historian for over fifteen years now, but only once before have I had the disorienting and gut-wrenching experience of witnessing the end of a life — or, rather, the end of two lives, because that experience came as I tried to understand the love letters written by Edith Thompson to Freddy Bywaters. Edith was hanged in Holloway Prison early on January 9 1923. Around the same time, her lover Freddy went to the gallows in Pentonville. Edith was 29, Freddy 21. She managed a milliner’s shop in the City of London; he was a ship’s writer with P&O. The couple had been found guilty of murdering Edith’s husband, Percy — stabbed by Freddy in a street near the Thompson’s suburban home in Ilford — after an affair lasting sixteen months. Edith did not participate in this attack; witnesses described her as shocked and shaken. Despite this, she was convicted on the evidence of letters she had written to Freddy while he was at sea. These, the prosecution argued, showed that Edith had plotted to poison Percy and incited Freddy to remove his rival. After one of the most sensational trials of the 20th century, judge and jury agreed. Their judgement was never universally accepted and the case is now considered a horrific miscarriage of justice.


I had not gone looking for a trial and execution. My interest was always in Edith Thompson in life and in her confident and vivacious letters. The letters range from brief telegrammed greetings to long expositions on love and desire, emotion and isolation, everyday gossip, and the anguish of a loveless marriage. Most striking is their serious engagement with popular culture. Edith writes at length about the novels she has read, teasing out intricacies of plot, debating characters’ moral worth and reflecting on resonances between her own life and those she encounters in print. As I became absorbed in this material, however, I also followed the letters forward through the archive; and forward took me into her trial, conviction and execution for murder. I witnessed the end of Edith and Freddy’s lives as an emotional trauma. Their tragedy appeared in the heartfelt letters they wrote to each other while in prison — his final letter ended ‘Goodbye, Peidi mia — B.B. — Always, Freddy’, the abbreviation encouraging her to be brave. Yet none of these letters was ever delivered; and a sense of overwhelming panic and desperation began to pervade the frantic telegrams the couple now sought to exchange. I also witnessed the end of Edith’s life in more violent and visceral form. A shockingly standardized document in a Prison Commission file on the case recorded her height and weight on the evening before her execution; on the back, a pro forma table allowed officials to calculate the length of the drop and the rope against those vital statistics. Such are the bureaucratic forms in which death is recorded.


Is it wrong to cry in an archive? The emotional work of studying the past is not something we are prepared for or expecting or, perhaps, even able to acknowledge at times. Time is life; but time also brings the end of that life. For most historians, our subjects are long dead. Their absence is both something we take for granted and — with some exceptions — a precondition for the work we do. All of this is commonplace and everyday. Yet there is something profoundly different about witnessing the end of those lives in which we become absorbed — something that retains a capacity to disrupt, to disturb and to move.




8 comments on “To witness the end of a life

  1. Pingback: Isn’t history a consolation and a solace? | The Trickster Prince

  2. benjaminthomaswhite
    July 2, 2013

    Matt, thanks for this story, and this reflection. It’s too rare for historians to admit the emotional effect of their work: a polished knowingness is the order of the day. To borrow from Steve Shapin, it would be nice if more of us acknowledged that what we write is “Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority”, and often struggling with our emotions too.

    My own recent experience of tracking, not a death, but perhaps a lucky escape in the archives was somewhat more diffuse, because it was collective, not individual. I was reading about the French withdrawal from their forlorn occupation of Cilicia in 1921, and the exodus of 50–60,000 Armenians that took place in the two-month handover period as the Turkish nationalists took over. I knew that they’d all left, and as I made my way through the microfilms from the start of November 1921 I was waiting to find out how. But the documents kept showing French diplomats making reassuring noises about how there was no need to leave, even as anyone who could get out under their own steam did. Right through November (that is, through microfilms of several bound volumes of documents) the French were still claiming Armenians should stay under the new authorities, until by early December more than half were gone, and of the remainder, thirteen thousand were gathered at the port of Mersin, seven thousand more around the village of Dörtyol on the railway near the new border with Syria. I was virtually biting my fingernails as the days ticked by, the bland utterances of French diplomats completely at odds with the ever more urgent dispatches from their own officials on the ground. But it wasn’t until the middle of December, nearly six weeks into the eight-week handover period, when just about every port in the Mediterranean had announced it would accept no more refugees, that Paris finally accepted that the Armenians weren’t going to stay, and they were France’s responsibility.

    In the next two weeks, 7,000 Armenians were brought over the border by rail from Dörtyol, while three hastily-chartered ships transported about 13,000 more (by the thousand or more). This was the most emotional thing: not a report on a single person—there were few of them—but sheets listing by family all those transported by ship, organized into groups of about fifty per sheet. A thick wad of them, well over two hundred, including seven or so near the end in a different format listing three hundred children from an orphanage, plus the staff. Not death, here, but bare life reduced to bureaucratic forms. I was pretty close to tears as I went through them. The (bureaucratic?) form of a journal article doesn’t leave you much space for dealing with this.

    • The Trickster Prince
      July 3, 2013

      Thank you for this Ben: it’s an amazing story in its content and the archival traces it has left behind–to say nothing of your reaction. It’s strange to think about the capacity of bureaucratic forms or long lists to both conceal and reveal / prompt and obscure our emotional engagement with the past.

      You’re right that these aren’t issues that historians talk about enough. I wonder if we should do something around these themes next year?

      • benjaminthomaswhite
        July 5, 2013

        Matt, that sounds like a great idea. The experience of the archive, actually richly textured and highly individual, too easily gets flattened out in historical accounts, where it isn’t—as usually happens—elided completely. I have a couple of other ideas in mind that focus on the archive itself: something for us to talk about.

  3. The Trickster Prince
    July 5, 2013

    Good stuff. I clearly have no idea how things work at Birmingham but it’s the kind of discussion that could lend itself to a department research afternoon or some kind of bigger symposium.

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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