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