IT was a trial which shocked 1920s’ Britain; it was a court case which contained all the elements to spark a media frenzy – the unhappy wife who persuaded her lover to murder her husband.
It took a jury just two hours to find Edith Thompson guilty following a five-day trial which had dominated the newspapers and she was subsequently executed.
But a new play which opens at The Lowry next week suggests that Edith’s biggest crime was being a woman who did not fit into the perceived norm.
Edith has been written by Harriet Madeley and is set over the five days of Edith Thompson’s trial.
In a groundbreaking twist the audience will be given time to discuss what they have seen ‘in court’ at the end of each day – effectively a short break between scenes where the cast will remain visible but don ear defenders so as not to hear the discussions taking place.
The court scenes themselves will use the verbatim transcripts from the trial. But there will also be additional material by way of flashbacks, news reports and commentaries to help create a more rounded picture of someone who was essentially branded a scarlet woman.
“I first found out about Edith Thompson on Wikipedia,” said Harriet. Not very exciting I know but the more I started to look at her case the more I discovered this really layered and interesting case.
“Everyone knows about Ruth Ellis, probably because she was the last woman to be hanged, but hardly anyone knows about Edith. Once I started to look into it I became completely obsessed by her.”
Edith Thompson was 28, from a working class background who had ‘done well’ for herself, becoming chief buyer for a millinery company. She was married to Percy and had no children.
She also had a lover, Freddie Bywaters, who murdered Percy – a fact that was never disputed. But it was Edith who became the centre of attention with the prosecution claiming that she had persuaded her lover to get her out of her unhappy marriage in the most dramatic way.
“When you start to look at all the media interest and massive scandal it caused at the time you start to see so many parallels with cases more recently,” said director Madelaine Moore. “You begin to realise that things have not changed too much.”
Harriet believes that Edith was very much a victim of the time.
“Even if this had happened five years later, there might well have been a different public reaction. It was in the years after the First World War and there was a fear that women were getting above their station. There was Edith who earned more than husband, had no children and was working her way up socially – she embodied a lot of these fears.
“Having said that, it’s a very complex story and the play explores that. Yes, we are very much on her side and it is a feminist piece but it’s not a play that puts her up there as this totally innocent victim.”
Madelaine agreed. !”In many ways she was her own worst enemy,” she said. “What she did was stupid but I don’t think she ever sat down with Freddie and told him to do it – but that’s something we’ll never know.”
At the trial, Edith took to the stand, a move which with hindsight may have cost her dearly.
Getting a ticket to the court became the hottest ticket in town. This was the celebrity trial of 1922 and the amount of comment, speculation and theories was unprecedented.
“Edith insisted in taking to the stand,” said Madelaine. “What she should have done was shut up and let the prosecution prove their case. What condemned her was her own foolishness and the letters.”
These were letters she had written to her lover Freddie and which the press took great delight in printing in full as they were read out in court. Back in 1922 court cases were one of the few ways in which the press could print salacious stories without incurring the wrath of the Lord Chancellor and so they took full opportunity to go to town with the Edith trial.
Harriet said: “The letters talk about wishing that her husband was dead and even infer she has been trying to poison him. There is some really apparently incriminating stuff in there.
“But Freddie maintained the whole time that was not what she was saying. They even had husband’s body exhumed to see if she had ever tried to poison him- she hadn’t. But those letters were used as a key piece of the prosecution case.”
Madelaine said: “They were certainly part of some elaborate role play. The problem is all Freddie’s letters were destroyed so we can only see one side of the correspondence which looks awful.”
“Given the evidence, Edith would be absolute hate figure if this happened today.,” said Harriet. “As it was, at the time women would rally against her. She wouldn’t be executed today but still would be all over the press and all attention would be on her, which is one of the questions the play raises.”
As well as being staged in an unusual way, the play’s development was also very different. Helped by funding from Arts Council England, the John Thaw Foundation and Unity Theatre Trust, Harriet worked with women at Styal Prison during the development of the play.
“I went in their with an early script and a couple of actors and the women played the judge and the lawyers. I was very interested to get the reaction from women who had actually been through a trial process.
“I was a bit worried as it’s quite a heavy story and I didn’t want them being triggered. but the women really got into it as a story. At end of each day they had a different feeling about her and at the end they had this feeling ‘even if she did do it, I’m on her side’.
“Certainly none of them seemed shocked at the way she had been treated and the way the case had been covered. Its never hard to find people in prison who have experienced an injustice either real or perceived.”
Whether Edith is guilty of the charge against her is not what the play is about. That’s very much for the audience to ponder having been given the facts – as presented at the time – plus additional material which perhaps should have been taken into consideration but never was.
“Edith was not blameless in whatever happened,” said Harriet. “But there is a much wider question to look at.”
Last year marked the centenary of the trial and there was a move to have Edith pardoned, a plea which was turned down by Dominic Raab.
“There is now a lot of interest in Edith’s case,” said Harriet, “and hopefully this play will add to the debate and may help provide impetus to the movement looking to have her trial reassessed and in turn will get us to look more closely at the workings of the justice system, particularly as it pertains to women.
“It may be a trial from 100 years ago, but you don’t have to try too hard to find similarities to events happening today.”
Edith, The Lowry, Salford Quays, Wednesday, February 1 to Saturday, February 4. Details from www.thelowry.com