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. 

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