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Remains of Edith Thompson, hanged for murder of her husband, to be reburied in family grave

PUBLISHED: 14:00 21 November 2018 | UPDATED: 09:35 22 November 2018

Edith with her lover, Freddy Bywaters, and husband, Percy Thompson, in their garden in Ilford. Picture: Rene Wilson

Edith with her lover, Freddy Bywaters, and husband, Percy Thompson, in their garden in Ilford. Picture: Rene Wilson

Archant

A woman from East Ham who was famously sentenced to the death penalty in the 1920s is to be reburied in her family grave.

Edith, her husband and her lover on a bench in their Ilford garden. Picture: Rene WilsonEdith, her husband and her lover on a bench in their Ilford garden. Picture: Rene Wilson

Edith Thompson was hanged with her lover, Frederick Bywaters, in January 1923 after the pair were found guilty of murdering her husband, Percy Thompson, on his way back from the theatre.

René Weis, a professor at the University College London, has spent the last 35 years researching her life, and took it upon himself to carry out Edith’s mother’s final wishes – to have her daughter buried with her in the City of London Crematorium.

“What triggered my research was the debate on the death penalty in the 80s,” he said.

“There was a whole review of the death penalty in Britain. I was so baffled that we’d talk about it again. There were a couple of names that kept coming up when you researched it – Timothy Evans and Edith Thompson.

Professor Wilson's favourite photo of Edith, where she's competing in a sack race. Picture: Rene WilsonProfessor Wilson's favourite photo of Edith, where she's competing in a sack race. Picture: Rene Wilson

“Edith Thompson came up time and again and there’s not a single person who’s ever looked at this case who’s said that brilliant young woman should’ve hanged at Holloway.”

Edith lived in Kensington Gardens in Ilford with her husband, a shipping clerk, and her lodger, Freddy Bywaters. Edith was an intelligent, articulate woman. Despite her lower middle class background, she worked as a buyer in the city, even helping her husband with the books when he struggled.

She began her affair with Freddy, eight years younger than her, 18 months before her husband’s death. Freddy, 20, stabbed Percy, 32, while he was walking home with Edith from the theatre in October, 1922. The case that followed was awash with controversy.

“People campaigned, one million signed a petition, but it was all for Freddy, not for her,” prof Weis said.

Edith with her sister, Avis. Picture: Rene WilsonEdith with her sister, Avis. Picture: Rene Wilson

“People were outraged at the thought of a woman from a very ordinary background who had a good husband being innocent, while the poor boy that murdered him was going to die.

“The case was so obviously biased with male prejudice. Because she’d committed adultery, one young man was dead, and now another was going to die.”

Despite Freddy insisting he acted alone, Edith was found guilty of accessory to murder and hanged in Holloway in January 1923, when she was 29-years-old.

But a theory that’s come to prominence in recent years has made the case even more controversial – that Edith was pregnant.

Edith and her husband, Percy, a shipping clerk. Picture: Rene WilsonEdith and her husband, Percy, a shipping clerk. Picture: Rene Wilson

“In her last month in Holloway, she put on a stone even though she was not eating very much,” prof Weis said.

“A letter from the home secretary came to light a few years ago. It said he had a feeling she was pregnant, and he sincerely hoped she was, because it would mean he wouldn’t have to sign the death warrant.

“If she was pregnant, she was hanged illegally.”

Professor Wilson spent seven months trying to get Edith reburied. His efforts began with a trip to her grave.

“I went to the cemetery for the first time in 1982,” he said.

“I spoke to the owner, a retired colonial solder, who told me he went to her grave every week, because he was born in Ilford just streets from her. He spoke about her with compassion, I think of her and remember her, he said. Then he gave me a number of the Home Office to ring. It was like something out of a detective novel.”

Professor Weis lobbied the Home Office until he was allowed to buy Edith’s grave. Now, he’s holding a funeral service on November 22, where Edith’s mother’s wishes will finally be fulfilled.

“I feel like I’m doing what her mother wanted,” he said.

“It broke my heart when I first read about her. It’s too upsetting for words and that’s partly because her life was so full when she was alive.”

The funeral will take place from 12pm at City of London Cemetery. It’s an open ceremony, with people from East Ham and Ilford encouraged to attend.

For more on Edith’s story, you can buy professor Weis’ book, The True Story of Edith Thompson, here.

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