Sunday, 11 April 2021

The piratess wore Marigolds


Picture: Debbie England doing her show on pirate Radio Atlantis, c 1974. 

Picture by Steve England.

... Or rather, she would have worn rubber gloves, had been available on board her rusting old ship. 

So I found out when interviewing Debbie England (now Royle), in land-locked Cheshire this week. She was Britain’s first woman DJ on Radio Caroline and Radio Atlantis, in the great days when pirate radio ships rocked the airwaves. 

Debbie was aboard these North Sea music heavens because she was accompanying her husband, DJ Steve England.  They had run a mobile disco service together in Deal, with Steve’s sister Paula and brother Rick. 

But in 1973 when Steve got his Big Chance – to go off and DJ in this exciting new world of pirate radio – he took it. Debbie and Paula continued the disco business in Deal for a while as the Disco Dollies.


A few months later Debbie was allowed a quick visit to Steve aboard this semi-co-operative on Mi Amigo. So she went the 5 miles out to the old ship anchored off Scheveningen in Holland.

Getting from tender to ship could be alarming. Big Dutch crew members virtually hauled her on board when the waves allowed her near enough. 

The most exciting-sounding pirate radio ship in the world was a dump.  It was scruffy, basic and ad hoc. ’I was shocked when I saw inside. But you got used to it.’ 

And she stayed on even though ‘I’m not that brave and I was usually too scared to even ride a bike. I certainly couldn’t swim.’  Sometimes they were aboard for weeks at a time. She learned ‘The North Sea can get pretty rough.’

Debbie’s main role was in the galley, cooking ‘mainly stew.’  She admits that as a young untrained woman of 23 ‘I wasn’t much good’ with the food. But she coped when fresh supplies from shore didn't arrive in time and even in wild weather when the big pots threatened to slide off the galley stove and scald the poor chef. 

Aside from cooking, Debbie DJ’ed from around 1973. She was on Radio Caroline, and then on Radio Atlantis when Steve moved there in 1974. 

Radio Atlantis was an old trawler stationed off Knokke on the Belgian coast. The trip out from Vlissingen in Holland was about 14 miles.

Picture: Debbie and Steve at the Astor Theatre in the 1970s. Picture by Steve England.



And in the studio she succeeded because, she told me unassumingly, ‘I’ve always been good at chatting.’  The technical skills she’d acquired when running the disco ashore meant she needed no techie to help her broadcast to the millions on land. And her knowledge of pop music must have been huge.

She graduated to doing two-to-three hour-long shows, which she remembers were called something obvious like ‘The Debbie Show’. But ‘I don’t think I thought I must play songs because they’re  by women.’ 

If she’d been too assertively feminist that might have meant she couldn’t carry on. It was very much a situation where it was crucial to muck in with your peers, to be a co-operative shipmate..

Today Debbie doesn’t recall the first number she played. But she can’t forget the last track she placed on the turntable as Radio Atlantis was finally towed into Sheveningen in 1974: the Three Degrees singing When will I see you again?

‘It was fun’, she sums it up. ‘It was just all about having a good time’ in trying circumstances. ‘ A bit like wild camping. ‘Hard and quite tough. But an experience.  You’d never get it again. It makes you a stronger person.’


This modest pioneer’s story sounds almost like the Ann Bonny story of 1719, aboard Captain Calico Jack Rackham’s vessels. You can read about Ann’s situation in Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 classic, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates.

Because I’ve written a history of women pirates throughout history I can see ways that being a woman ‘camping out’ on a grubby pirate radio ship in the 1970s had similarities with being a woman on a real pirate ship in the early 1700s. 

1. You were part of an off-shore team who were outlawed. The ‘rebels’ felt themselves to be fairly legit – and mis-perceived. That sense of ‘us against them’ sometimes bonded them (and you).

2. You were usually the only woman in a masculine culture, living with men who were essentially techies.  Few of them cared to do domestic roles but they appreciated home comforts e.g. palatable food.  

3. You cooked and cleaned – because that’s what women traditionally were expected to do.

4. Often you were the partner of a senior-ish man on board.  That meant the rest of the  men aboard saw you as out-of-bounds sexually. Men were not rivalling each other for access to you, so the ship was not a powder keg. And no liberties taken, unlike today on ships where sexual harassment is a major problem.

5. You could sometimes grab the occasional opportunity to play a more active ‘masculine’ role when it was a case of all hands to the pump. Such openings including DJ-ing in Debbie’s case, and fighting enemy vessels in Ann Bonny’s case.

6. The ship you were on had been ‘acquired’; it was not purpose-built for the task. So the team were always coping ad hoc with an imperfect situation.

7. Rough weather really mattered. So did your ability not to be seasick.  (Some studies think women are more liable to suffer mal de mer). 

8. Sometime you and your team were up against force of law and order, as when law enforcers circled round threateningly, or attacked the ship (took radio masts down) and towed the ships into port. 


Of course there were also difference between the Anne Bonnys of the 1720s world of piracy and Debbie’s offshore radio life in the 1970s. Here are nine key points:

1. Debbie and her shipmates were not roving the seas but anchored in one place. 

2. They weren’t there to attack enemy vessels and plunder doubloons, but to relay music to land – a kind of public service. DJs did not plunder other vessels. However some opponents think pirate radio abused musicians’ rights but not paying for each disc spun.

3. She was in the cold North Sea, not far away in the sunny Caribbean.

4. 250 years on, the women’s liberation movement had started. Women were just starting to glimpse that their talents had been habitually overlooked and their rights restricted.

5. Pirate DJs are never punished by hanging, as pirates were.  So Debbie was not at risk of being widowed because of her husband’s job, although sometimes prison was on the cards.

6. Your pirate radio ship was sometimes one that had no motor. You had to be towed, whereas a pirate ship of the past had sails and could move.  Those pirates had a sense of collective agency. Motility was taken for granted. 

7. Debbie’s ships had chest freezers that trundled up and down the corridors in bad weather.  Tins fell off shelves. But cooks in Anne Bonny’s time contended with brine barrels, kidnapped turtles, and ship’s goats.  Like Anne’s cook (as the captains’ wife, Anne was above such things)  Debbie also had to deal with limited fresh water supplies and lack of green veggies.  

8. A pirate vessel tries not to reveal its presence. A pirate radio does the opposite. Its reason for being is that it is widely audible, and visible to visitors. 

Picture: Debbie (left) and Lynda doing the cleaning on Radio Atlantis, 1974. Image by Steve England, supplied by Pirate Radio Hall of Fame. 


Not at all. See my blog of 15 March 2021:

Debbie adds other women were involved in offshore radio too, after the mid-1970s. 

Dutch women were sometimes on Radio Caroline.

Kate Cary, who was married to DJ ‘Spangles Muldoon’ (Chris Cary), was working in the land-based side of Radio Caroline’s operations with him in 1972-73.

Lynda Anderson (c. 1953-2014) was involved in 1974. She was married to Radio Atlantis DJ and sound engineer Andy Anderson. Mainly Lynda did the cooking, sharing it with Debbie. 

Steve England says ‘Lynda did one show on Atlantis but, after we gave her some advice and criticism, refused to ever do another show... [However] she did speak on air from time to time in other people's shows and on the farewell show.’ 

Is it possible that some pirate DJs were not very tactful about the ways they gave advice to newbies? Could there be a possibility of jealousy or sexism when women stepped from galley to technology-filled studio?

Picture: Lynda Anderson, photo by Steve England, loaned by Hans Knot to


‘Did you think of yourselves as piratical?’ I asked Debbie. She thought that was funny. Being on her pirate radio ships was more like living in a shambolic shack at sea. 

But, she said ‘Yes, Sometimes. We were not trespassing but we were outside the law.’ There could be a feeling of joyous rebellion, like a waterborne version of the new counter-culture.

Women pirates sound so excitingly swashbuckling. But maybe it pays to think more realistically. A woman on ‘pirate’ vessel was a woman in a man’s world of a very specific kind.

Is there a non-glamorous way of seeing women’s role in kinds of piracy, as part of a team of defiant co-creators ?

Is there a missing sign somewhere proclaiming ‘A piratess’s place is in the galley – expect exceptionally.’ 

Debbie’s story suggests that when women were allowed to be involved in the ship’s main activity – relaying music in this case – they rose to the task. 

Training, role models and men who were generous  helped. Debbie must have inspired so many girls on land. 

Learning more about pirate radio 

Go to the encyclopaedic and picture-rich The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame at

For more reading see my blog about other pirate women DJs at 

With many thanks to Steve England, Jon Meyer, Simon Prentice and Debbie Royle.

Monday, 29 March 2021

Women of colour, naval men and naval wives: exploring stories of slavery and abolition

Guest blog by Mary Wills.  

Honorary Fellow, Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull

After the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Britain turned to the Royal Navy to carry out the unenviable task of enforcing an end to the still prolific trade in enslaved people from Africa to the Americas.

My book, Envoys of Abolition, explores the personal and cultural experiences of the naval officers serving on the West African coast in the nineteenth century.

This story of pursuing slavers is most often told through the lens of a male, military operation. 

However, this blog item examines some of the different ways I found that gender impacted on the lives of women and men in the course of Britain’s abolitionist campaign.

(Pictured: Mary Wills).

Women and abolitionism

Many people were involved the pressure for an end to the transatlantic slave trade (1807) and to slavery in British colonies (1833). 

Women of all classes played a significant role. 

They joined anti-slavery societies and organised campaigns, such as boycotts of slave-grown sugar produced on plantations in the Caribbean.  (The Gillray cartoon (left) shows the significance of sugar politics in women's lives). 

Writers such as Hannah More and Elizabeth Heyrick (pictured)  published works against slavery. 

Campaigners of African descent campaigned with effect. Enslaved four times, Mary Prince wrote the only known autobiographical account of enslavement in the Caribbean from a female perspective. 

Her influential account, published in London in 1831, testified to the horrors of slavery. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slavealso revealed enslaved Caribbean people’s various resistance efforts against slavery.

By the very nature of their task - intercepting slave ships and releasing enslaved people - naval officers engaged with abolitionist convictions. 

The image below shows an artist's version of the capture of a large US slave barque, the Orion, by the Royal Navy's small HMS Pluto. (Illustrated London News, 1860). There were 847 slaves aboard, and this was the Navy's biggest capture ever. 

"On seeing the naval officers look down the main hatch, the liberated slaves sent up a most hearty cheer, which can never be forgotten by those who heard it." 

Many testimonies by naval officers aboard ships like the Pluto reveal how they were driven by non-conformist religious belief, and particularly by the rise of evangelicalism. 

Some naval wives were involved with their husbands in networks of interest between anti-slavery and religious societies on one hand, and the very masculinist Royal Navy on the other.

Mary Grey (pictured) and George Grey are a good example. Sir George had been immersed in Navy life since he was 14 and served in the West Indies in the 1780s and 1790s. He was younger brother of MP Sir Charles Grey. As Prime Minister Charles oversaw the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean in 1833.

Captain George Grey was married to Mary Whitbread, whose father was the brewer and anti-slavery supporter Samuel Whitbread. George and Mary were committed evangelical Christians. They counted the abolitionist MP William Wilberforce among their friends. 

However, British women were also among the large number of owners of Caribbean slave-worked plantations identified in Britain in the 1830s. This is revealed by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database:

Britons were absentee slave owners at the very same time as the Royal Navy was attempting to suppress the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. This contradiction demonstrates the tensions and complexities regarding anti-slavery within British society at this time.

White wives in West Africa

The majority of naval officers on the West African coast were absent from home for up to three years while serving there. But others travelled to the coast with their families, particularly to the British colony of Sierra Leone. 

After 1807 Sierra Leone became the centre of British anti-slave trade operations, with a community of European officials, military representatives, missionaries, and their families. 

Waterloo Market, Sierra Leone. Illustrated London News, 1856.

Anne and Charlotte Columbine, the wife and daughter of Captain Edward Columbine, are examples of this. They died from yellow fever after going out to join him when he was governor of the colony in 1809-11. He resigned from his post
after they were struck down. 

Columbine later died on the voyage home. He wrote in his journal that he had ‘a heart broke down with grief’.

Mrs Henry Grant Foote published her recollections of life in West Africa in 1869 (see picture of title page). She was the wife of Captain Foote, who served on the anti-slave trade squadron.

Black women connecting with naval men in West Africa

Naval officers’ letters and journals from the West African coast reveal encounters and relationships with West African peoples. Naval officers met West African women in a variety of circumstances, employing washerwomen, for example. 

The sketch of ‘Officers of HM Brig Bonetta on board a Hulk, Sierra Leone, Africa in ‘37’ (see likely drawn by a crew member of the Bonetta, which was used to police the slave trade. 

An African woman depicted there seems, from her stance, to be a slave kept for the sexual satisfaction of British sailors or someone who sold sexual services. The hulk was probably the Conflict, which was allegedly used as a floating brothel for crews of British naval vessels visiting Sierra Leone during this period. 

Sailors’ letters rarely discuss specific interactions with enslaved women encountered on captured slave ships. The interception of slave vessels was their official duty, and the emotions expressed are typically pity and compassion. 

By contrast, the African women met on shore were often written about in romanticized or sexualized contexts. 

This was reflective of travel or exploration writing of the time. British middle-class women were characterized by virtuousness and submissiveness while Asian and African women were often admired for their perceived exoticism.

Lieutenant Francis Meynell touched on this allure in a letter, writing to his father from the Atlantic island of St Helena in 1846, that ‘[m]any of our officers loose [sic] their hearts here’ (letter held by the National Maritime Museum).

Pictured: Lt Francis Meynell’s sketch of Africans released from the slave ship Albanez, aboard the British naval ship Albatross, 1845

Women as gifts

A girl was dubiously presented ‘as a wife to comfort him, & to wash his clothes & cook his meals’ Captain Luce said of his Commodore, Arthur Eardley-Wilmot.

This human gift was proffered on their mission to negotiate an end to the slave trade from the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Nigeria) in 1863. They’d stayed in the capital, Abomey, for many weeks. 

Pictured: King Gezo of Dahomey, illustration from the published journals of Lt Frederick Forbes, 1851.

The story of Omoba Aina, a young Egbado princess intended as a diplomatic ‘present’ for Queen Victoria from King Ghezo of Dahomey, offers evidence of a more long-lasting, familial relationship. 

In 1850, Lieutenant Frederick Forbes brought the seven-year-old back to Britain under instructions from the King (Forbes later published his journals from the anti-slavery mission). 

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (as she was later christened) lived with the Forbes family in Windsor. Queen Victoria paid for her education. 

And Sarah‘s daughter was named Victoria after her godmother, the Queen: See images at

Pictured: Sarah Forbes Bonetta's gravestone, Madeira.


It is difficult to learn more about these encounters. Were they exploitative? Did meaningful relationships develop? 

Victorian notions of respectability prevented most officers from including detail. What we can ascertain is that many officers became immersed in their experiences of West African societies, even though they were briefly passing though.

Naval men away from home had a range of relationships with women of colour at a time when race was a complex issue. White women in Britain were vocal allies of the abolitionist movement but could also be slave-owners. 

These are just some of the countless and complex stories of the part played by gender in Britain’s history of slavery and abolition.

Learning more

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

MTF seafarer tells her transition story

Transgender Pride flag, designed by Monica Helms

When even just one trans seafarer tells their story it changes global understanding of maritime pasts. It challenges oppressive normativity.

So it's useful that you can now read online, free, Michelle Clarke's interview about her transitioning. Go I wrote it.

Michelle (born 1955) was trained at Plymouth School of Maritime Studies  and became a First Officer in the Merchant Navy.Her story is just published in Nautilus International Telegraph  21 March 2021. 

Michelle Clarke today.
 Image courtesy of Michelle.

Here's an extract:  "it was not until her marriage ended in 2016 that Michelle truly became herself, changing her name by deed poll and wearing feminine clothes full-time.

"The years leading up to this had been very tough for Michelle, with many physical and mental health problems ...

"Since 2016 she has been healthier and happier. She is educating people about transitioning on a range of  courses run by her new business, National Gender Training:

And she's hopeful about the future for gay and trans seafarers.

"'There's still bullying and a masculine culture at sea,' she acknowledges.

"'But it's very enlightening to see the shipping community embracing the LGBT+ spectrum, and organisations like Maritime UK and Nautilus pushing the drive for greater acceptance. I want everyone to know that trans people are just like anybody else.'"

See From Ship to Shore and a Whole Lot More, her autobiography, which is due out later this year.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Women DJs on pirate radio: pioneers' timeline

I was inspired to review some of my previous  research on women as offshore radio DJs when the National Maritime Museum put on a talk today about women in pirate radio. Speakers covered the 1980s and 90s.

Pirate radio does not, of course, mean that women maraud and swashbuckler like pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read. But working in off-shore radio does mean the crew live outside the law; their home is a mainly male vessel, out at sea; and they have a glamorous image.

Here’s my summary of the earlier history. It includes the news that – as with many areas of seafaring  women gained job opportunities at sea because of their connection with a man, and because they were prepared to take on traditional female domestic roles for a while. From galley to sound studio was not a big leap in these casual situations.

A timeline: 1960s-1970s

1960. Tineke on Veronica: the first

Dutch-born Tineke de Nooij  (1941-) was first female DJ on Radio Veronica (1960 -1974), the first pirate radio ship Norderney.  From when she was just 19 she worked here.

Picture: Radio Veronica ship Norderney at Scheveningen,1973.Picture by CH van der Niet, copyright holder Richard van der Niet

Possibly she DJ’ed from the studio on land (in Hilversum) as many pirate radio ship presenters did. Sometimes the ship was only the offshore base from which technicians transmitted the pre-recorded tapes. 

Tineke went on work to become a famous Dutch radio and TV shows. The pioneer she won  the prestigious Marconi Oeuvre Award in 2016.

Picture: Tineke in the early days. Image courtesy of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

1964. Candy and Susan on Shivering Sands 

As teenagers Candy and Susan Calvert they were very early British women DJ’s on Radio Sutch/Radio City (1964-67). The station began two months after Radio Caroline in March 1964.

Their father Reg Calvert ran it, not from a ship but from Shivering Sands. This was a WW2 Maunsell army fort on stilts in the Thames estuary, 14 km from land.  

Picture: Maunsell Forts today by Hywel Williams, Wikemedia Creative Commons.

Susan recalls: The seven forts near Herne Bay ‘had narrow, very rocky, catwalks between them, some of them dangerous, high above the rough sea below ... if you fell in you would probably not survive.

“I became the first pirate female DJ.... I can remember quite well that first trip out to Radio Sutch. The station was just being set up - not professional - that came later. It was like a holiday camp and great fun. 

‘Not many DJs, just anyone who went – including me –became a ‘disc-jockey’ for the day.... There were mattresses, camp beds, sleeping bags, a makeshift kitchen which became my domain while I was there.’ 

By contrast Susan's younger sister Candy had her own show, Candy's Pop Shop. 

When Radio Sutch's became Radio City in autumn 1964 she broadcast during her school holidays. 

Candy thinks Susan  probably didn’t present live from the fort  but mainly recorded the show on land. 

Picture. Candy Calvert  being winched aloft to the radio station, 1964

Your man aboard helps

I’m interested in the way women get non-traditional work on ships.  On Radio Caroline (1964-today) Debbie England and Samantha Dubois both began their career as seagoing women had for centuries: they were living with a man aboard, did support work while they were there, and came to be trusted and given opportunities.

From as early as the 1750's ship’s steward’s wives assisted the steward did. As the man’s less prestigious half these stewardesses served the food, made the beds and helped seasick people. Eventually from c 1821 shipping companies accepted solo stewardesses, often stewards’ widows, in their own right.

Similarly captain’s wives did not act as under-captains or co-captains. But in an emergency when crew were not fit enough to carry on these wives sometimes took on leadership – and were acclaimed for their skills.

January 1973. Debbie England 

Debbie England was actually the first woman to DJ on Radio Caroline. It was the most famous pirate radio  station at sea  and initially began on a converted Danish passenger ferry anchored off Felixstowe. 

There'd been nine years of male DJs. On 31 January 1973 Debbie did three shows. She was married to DJ Steve England and they had already run a mobile disco business on land together. Debbie was on ship as a cook.

They left in 1974. Debbie now runs Electromedia,  the Cheshire providers of video production and interactive media services. Steve continues to DJ for the pirate station Atlantis.

Picture: Debbie on Caroline, photographed by Steve England

March 1973.Samantha Dubois

Samantha Dubois (1955-1992) was the most famous  of the 20th century female DJs on  the pioneering 1960s pirate radio ships. Dave Thompson’s blog about Radio Caroline described her as ‘The First Lady's First Lady.’

Picture. Left: Samantha Dubois in April 1974 onboard  a tender heading out to Mi Amigo. Picture by Onno van Buuren, courtesy of  Right: engineer Peter Chicago on Mi Amigo.

Samantha was her usual name when DJ-ing. She was born Ellen Kraal in the Netherlands, but  grew up in New Zealand.  Her boyfriend was Peter Chicago, the engineer who worked as Mi Amigo’s transmitter engineer , and occasionally made broadcasts

Samantha initially got work as a cook. But then she graduated on 3 March 1973 and began broadcasting.  The relatively ad hoc culture offshore that meant it was possible to have somewhat relaxed ideas about role demarcation.

 Her strong mixed accents made her voice memorable. She worked aboard until 1976 and returned briefly in 1977, 1978, and then in 1984 to work on Caroline’s new ship Ross Revenge

Samantha then married and lived in New Zealand.  She is remembered today on her own Wikipedia page and in pirate radio websites. 


1985. US women become Laserettes

Several US women were DJs at the all-American Laser 558, aboard MV Communicator,  a former Lowestoft trawler in the North Sea. 

See mini-biographies by Jon Myer for Jessie Brandon, Chris Carson, Jonell, Erin Kelly, Holly Michaels, and Liz West.  They're in the 1980s section of the Pirate Radio Hall of Fame at

1986. Caroline meets Caroline 

Caroline Martin was actually named after the radio station, because her father was an early fan.  She began working there after being inspired by his tales. From May 1986 she made announcements but then went on to work as a DJ on the Ross Revenge, formerly a fishing trawler. 

Maritime drama including being winched off by RAF Revenge helicopter in December 1990 after power failures. She later married a DJ, Dave Asher. 

“The best years ever were spent on that ship. Through it, I of course met Dave (who is still one of my very best friends) and together we had a son Joshua so, all in all, a lot of good came out of it. 

'Also it gave me a knowledge/ appreciation of music that I would never have found anywhere else.' She went on to work for many stations as a DJ. 

Picture. Caroline Martin on Radio Caroline  1989. Courtesy of the Offshore Radio Guide and Martin van der Ven.

Pioneering pirates

Did the women DJs feel piratical? Who knows. No woman have left account of their time onboard. Certainly long stints stuck out at sea meant boredom and seasickness.

But being offshore in an informal organisation gave women opportunities that were much harder to get in BBC national and local radio, or in nightclubs.

The exceptional nature of a ship at sea had enabled people – yet again – to transcend role restrictions and become what they fancied, however briefly.

Finding out more: 

  • Ray Clark, Radio Caroline: The True Story Of The Boat That Rocked
  • Caroline - A Story in Photos, Three Master Productions.
  • The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame:
  • Nigel Harris, Ships in Troubled Waters

With many thanks to 
 Steve England, Jon Meyer, and Simon Prentice

Sunday, 7 March 2021

To Marseille and beyond: avec amour and murder plans


L to R: The steward, the adulterous wife, and her husband, the
mariner's orphan whom they murdered

Sex, sea, stabbing, scented baths and ruthless day dreams. The 1922 Thompson-Bywaters murder trial at London's Old Bailey offers a new angle on the sea life, involving a ship’s steward and the daughter-in-law of a maritime family. 

The case also reveals the most scandalous exchange of letters in the gendered history of relationships between people far away at sea and those ashore who’ve barely travelled. 

In this blog I: 

  • bring out the maritime aspects of the participants' lives, which has never been done before
  • show that knowledge of a ship's timetable was nearly as central as knowledge of a railway timetables in an Agatha Christie whodunnit. 


Letters were crucial when emails and social media didn’t exist. And they’re a historian’s delight. Modern landlubbers can learn about past life on the seas partly through wives’ letters to officers, such as Fanny’s to her husband Edward, Admiral Boscawen. Migrant voyagers’ epistles to families  tell gendered tales too.

But the famously infamous correspondence - between glamourous vamp Edith Thompson and stylish Frederick Bywaters, a P&O steward, a hundred years ago this year - make very different reading. 

The couple were hanged for the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy Thompson, in 1923. Freddy premeditatedly leapt from bushes and stabbed Percy on the way home from the Criterion. 

Why? To enable the adulterous affair to bloom, as Edith wanted. Or did she really?  

Edith, fifth from left, at the wholesale milliners where 
she worked, Carlton &Weiss


Four portfolios of Edith’s hyperbolic letters – now typed up and five inches thick - were used in court. They were perused as evidence of ‘one of the most extraordinary personalities’ that courts had encountered in the history of female accomplices.  

Well, what can you expect of an adultress so shockingly unconventional that she continues to work after her marriage; of an almost-vamp who later stars under the chandelier in the ‘worlds’ most famous courtroom’ sporting ‘a black velvety hat with black quills curving forward from the left side in a scythe-like sweeping drop’. 

A vulgar older woman ensnaring an innocent mariner? An intelligent arty day-dreamer whose young lover gallantly helps her divest herself of a mismatched husband: a Presbyterian non-dancer who, ergo, had it coming to him?   

1922. Helpful sailor delivers teas to long queues
waiting outside the Old Bailey for the verdict  

No wonder that seafarers were part of the Old Bailey queues in the exciting ‘show’. 

Those heading for the public gallery members queued long before dawn in Newgate Street include two seamen.

 They told the Evening News that they had a ‘professional interest in the case’. Presumably they were P&O shipmates who’d take the gossip back on board.


Delightful melodramatic spectacle aside, there’s a bonus. People interested in the sea’s history can also use the letters to gain insight into the subjective history of seafaring labour and the emotions in relationships shaped by geographical distance. 

The milliner's letters were written alone in her rented downstairs flat at The Retreat, 41 Kensington Gardens, Ilford. They went to all points on P&O’s trek between the British Empire and the Antipodes. 

Her recipient was a lowly but cocky rating in a floating 24-7 community of thousands. He was on prestigious, not emigrant-laden, liners at a time when travel was seen as making voyagers prestigious.

It’s not just that, counter-intuitively,  these effusive, uneven torrents were so interlarded with discussions of doing away with a human hindrance: the limited Mr Thompson. (Tina Turner’s words, ‘What’s love got to with it’, could be the soundtrack for this melodrama.) 

But also it’s very interesting to see the side-story: how this woman on land knew precisely where her lover’s floating workplace would be, because accurate timetables were available, just like Bradshaw’s Railway Handbooks. 

Arrivals and departures on sea route had become a precise matter. You could set your wristwatch by them.

Courtesy of P&O Heritage.

Arithmetically adept, Edith understood exactly when his ships were due into Marseille and Gibraltar, Port Said and Plymouth, Colombo and Aden, Bombay and Melbourne, Sydney and Fremantle. 

Although she'd never sailed, this landlubber knew the very hour that faraway Freddy could be expected to dash off replies to catch a homeward-bound mail ship.

Also, here in the UK, to avoid her husband knowing about her adultery with their young ex-lodger, Edith physically collected the ship’s mail from the London sorting office.  

Freddy’s ship, RMS Morea, Leaving Royal Docks,London, 1911. (Courtesy P&O Heritage)

In this way we also learn about how a seafarer’s partner gains unusual knowledge of maritime mail handling. Edith explained how the system works in this letter to Freddy in Fremantle in July 1922: 

‘Darlingest Boy ... I went to the G.P.O for the Port Said Mail and encountered the first man that I saw before – he handed me a registered envelope from you 

'... and told me if I had an address in London I couldn’t have letters addressed to the G.P.O. – I told him I hadn’t – but I don’t think he believed me anyway he didn’t give me your Port Said letter and I hadn’t the patience to overcome (or try to) his bad temper.’


Professor René Weis, the author of Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson, (Penguin, 2001) has made all the information, including transcribed letters, freely available on line. (I am very grateful to him for all his kind support).

The correspondence begins just short of a hundred years ago, on 11 August 1921. It continues while the two were in Holloway and Pentonville. Only the noose ends it.

Unfortunately, what remains is mainly one-sided. Most of Edith’s letters are available because Freddy kept them safe in his ditty box, the locked wooden box in which each seafarer placed their most precious objects, and which no honourable shipmate would broach. 

Replica ditty box.

When her mother later ask Edith why she has written ‘such letters’ she replied ‘No one knows what kind of letters he was writing to me.’

 Few letters by Freddy exist because Edith had to destroy them to keep her affair secret.  

I’m familiar with the idea that early 20C ship’s stewards could be rather flashy ne’er-do-wells. 

Freddy’s beautiful handwriting, impeccable phrasing, and use of Italian and French phrases in the several extant letters reveal that this purser’s writer (a kind of ship’s secretary) and later laundry steward, was strikingly adept at giving a stylish impression. 

After all, this handsome man of ‘smouldering masculinity’ and ‘studied arrogance’ had been picking up lessons from other Merchant Navy seafarers since he was 15. 

He’d been on the Nellore during WW1, when it was under torpedo and gunfire attack.‘Seasoned’ and ‘heroic’ might be words he’d use to describe himself. 

Plus he’d taken dancing lessons. This was a man who calculates how to perform, as some stewards did.  

(Courtesy P&O Heritage)

For six years Freddy had been working for one of the most prestigious companies in the world: on the Malwa in 1920, the Orvieto to Brisbane from Feb to June 1921, then the Morea.  And white ships’ servants often adopted the swagger of elite passengers, as well as regarding themselves as immensely superior to the ‘Lascars’. 

Although his record of service was stamped VG (Very Good) Freddy had, in fact, blotted his copy book by precipitately leaving the Malwa’s tender, off Tilbury in January 1921. 

Percy Thompson’s intervention (he was friends with the Orvieto’s purser) had led to the company taking Freddy back. But the faux pas may explain Freddy’s demotion from writer: he couldn’t quite be trusted.

In Freddy's letters he is nothing like as passionate, nor as grammatically challenged, as his 28-year old lover. 

The much-questioned tale of their shared role in killing Percy is well-known, not least because of all Edith ‘over-wrought’ letters. These were read out at the Old Bailey trial, to her family’s shame.  Several were censored because they mention such scandalous subjects as orgasm and her abortion, though very obliquely.

Mainly her letters are like those of any lover made anxious by the long separations and uneven silences.  ‘Why are you so late this time – oh I hate this journey, I hate Australia and everything connected with it – it will be 109 days since I’ve seen you – and you didn’t answer my question about China and Japan next time.’ 

She mithers about whether he still loves her, and how she’s performing: ‘Darlingest boy, when you get my letters and have read them are you satisfied? Do you feel that I come up to all your expectations? Do I write enough? Just don’t forget to answer this.’

Edith also passes on the East Ham gossip, including describing her day out at the local Seamen’s Orphanage Fete. 

The Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage. Courtesy of and Peter Higginbotham
She was probably attending because the Thompsons knew maritime life and may have been helped by charities since 1901 when Percy’s mariner father, Robert Conen Thompson, died leaving three orphans.  

Percy himself worked as a clerk for Commercial Road timber shipping agents Messrs Parker & Co. His sister Eliza worked for tea merchants. Brother Richard did accounts at a City paper merchants. 

(The under-funded Snaresbrook-based institution housed many child victims of P&O and British India Line shipping disasters, just as the Liverpool and Southampton seafarers’ orphanages were evidence of the shipping lines based there, such as Cunard and White Star respectively.  

Most of all Edith discusses novels with Freddy including Bella Donna, about a woman who slow-poisons her husband. (Edith had tried smashed lightbulb glass in Percy’s mashed potato – or was that just her fantasy?).

The 1911 film Bella Donna, based on the book that Edith 
discussed, as a model murder method, with Freddy far
away across the seas

Like so many millions of relatives of seafarers thinking ‘There but for the grace of God goes my man’ Edith feels alarm at the maritime fatalities that might befall him:‘Darlint I had a terrible shock when the Egypt went down Imagine what I felt can you?’

 (The Egypt was another P&O liner, but on the Tilbury-India route. It had sunk in just 20 minutes after fog caused a collision, causing some Asian and European crew to be lost).


The extracts that follow show that the structure of Edith and Freddy’s lives was created by the ship’s predictable schedule in 1922. By then steam ship voyages were so reliable that you could set your clock by them. 

Hopeful emigrants went out. Refrigerated cargoes, such as meat, came back, along with emigrants who'd made good. 

On 28 January Edith writes ‘Darlingest boy, its Wednesday now, the last for posting to Marseilles.I’ll be thinking & thinking, wishing such a lot of things tomorrow – late – when I shall know you have arrived.

‘Darlint is my letter to Bombay awaiting you on arrival, or do you have to wait a week for it, I believe you do,’ she enquired on 15 February. 

Marseille docks, P&O vessel and mail sacks.
Courtesy of P&O Heritage

To Freddy in Marseilles on 6  March she rejoices : ‘I was pleased to get letters from you last Monday I hadn’t expected any – as I got that note – after the Port Said letter & thought it must have been posted at Aden. Darlint if you were 1 ½ hour out from Port Said how did you post it?’

 ‘Will you tell me how many letters you have got at Marseilles. Wed. the last day for posting was fearful here – gales and now storms, and I believe the next day no Channel boats ran at all. I hope nothing went astray. I wrote three letters and one greeting, posted separately ... Altho’ it’s Monday darlint, the mail from Marseilles is not yet in, I’m expecting it every moment, I wish it would hurry up and come.’ 


Today’s e-correspondence is so virtually cost-free and instant that people contacting seafarers don’t usually have to think about communication methods in the way Edith did. 

For example, usually she put on five penny-worth of stamps.  But in Exhibit 17 she’s concerned: ‘I believe I insufficiently stamped the first Marseilles letter I sent. If I did darlint I [am] ever so sorry, I hate doing anything like that. You know don’t you.’

Long delivery delays brought worrying gaps, but also accumulations (which could impose oppressive duties on recipients).  You can see this in Edith’s letter to the Morea in Marseille in May:

‘By now darlint you will have heard from me several times. Yesterday [Sunday 14 May] you passed Suez and got my Port Said letters. I’m so sorry it’s a long time from Marseilles to Bombay, when you hear from me, but I can’t do anything to help it can I darlint? 

'You’ll be able to talk to me a long time this week to post at Marseilles because you’ll have all my letters to answer.’ 

(Courtesy P&O Heritage)

Infrequently cables are used instead of letters. She writes: About the Marconigram – do you mean one saying Yes or No, [that I have killed him?] because I shan’t send it darlint. I’m not going to try any more until you come back.’ 

Edith’s letter of 20 June reveals the classic obstacle to communication in the period: money. 

‘I have been looking at the mailcard and see you do not arrive in Australia until July 22nd – I’m so sorry – I wish I could afford to cable you a long long letter to somewhere before Sydney, or better still, to be able to phone to you and hear you say “Is that Peidi?”'

And the problem that besets seafarers’ digital communications today – signal range – beset Edith too. 

On Freddy’s 20th birthday she sends birthday greetings to Melbourne via Marconigram: ‘I sent you greetings by cable this time it was the only way I could celebrate darlint I wanted you to receive it on the exact day but I’m afraid you won’t it’s not my fault darlint its the fault of that ship of yours not being within radio range of either Aden or Bombay on the 27th [June].’

When autumn begins and Captain Garwood’s team is homeward bound again, on 21 September, Edith writes yet another date-aware letter:

 ‘I’ve not sent a wire to Plymouth to you ... I see you left Gibraltar on the 19th and perhaps you will get in Saturday morning – then I shall send you a wire to Tilbury to meet me in the afternoon – if it’s at all possible for you.’


Within ten days of landing back in England, on 3 October Freddy commits the murder of Percy Thompson that Edith had – sort of – longed for.  (People still argue that she had only been fantasising.) 

 The couple would exchange no more letters across the seas.  On 9 January 1923 Edith and Freddy were hanged, and then placed in separate graves. 

The cause celebre is the focus of books and films, including Another Life (2001) with Natasha Little playing an un-sultry Edith. Should the lovers have been hanged? Was justice miscarried?

Pola Negri, marketed as Hollywood’s most smouldering and exotic vamp, starred in Bella Donna three months later. Lookalike Edith would have been writing Freddy rapturous letters about it.

Until scrapped in 1930 the Morea kept ploughing from Tilbury to Australia, regular as clockwork.

 Outbound, Freddy’s former colleagues were busy with holidaying passengers using the summer season to explore beyond P&O’s mail routes. Increasingly P&O was marketing tours or broken journeys to passengers, while still sticking to the Mail schedules.

Stewards must have found passengers’ curiosity wearing: ‘Bywaters, your shipmate. What was he like, eh?’ 

But surely the jute sacks full of love letters to and from P&O crew were never again laden with murder plans.