Shelagh Stephenson was born in Northumberland and read drama at Manchester University. She has written several original plays for BBC Radio. These include Darling Peidi, about the Thompson and Bywater murder case, which was broadcast in the Monday Play series in 1993; a Saturday Night Theatre, The Anatomical Venus, broadcast in the following year; and Five Kinds of Silence (1996), which won the Writer's Guild Award for Best Original Drama. Her first stage play, The Memory of Water, opened at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in July 1996, and her second, An Experiment With An Air Pump, joint winner of the 1997 Peggy Ramsay Award, opened at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in February 1998. Also Life is a Dream, and Through a Glass Darkly in 2004.
On 9th January 1923, Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were hanged in London, she at Holloway, and he at Pentonville. They were both found guilty of her husband's murder in a quiet street in Ilford one late night in October 1922. Edith was 29 when she died, her lover only 20. The Crown "proved" at the trial at the Old Bailey that although it was Bywaters who stabbed the 32 year old Percy Thompson to death, Edith had set it up. She must have masterminded it because she was a successful businesswoman in London, whereas the much younger Bywaters was a mere merchant sailor.
But there was no solid evidence to connect Edith Thompson to the crime. Instead, there was a rash and fanciful wish, repeatedly expressed in her many letters to Bywaters, to be rid of her husband. From such references the Crown inferred poison, but the two most distinguished pathologists in the country independently concluded that there had been no attempt at poisoning.
Petitions for clemency were signed by almost a million people, who were convinced of her innocence. However, Edith and Frederick's appeal was turned down. The appeal judges called the murder 'a squalid and rather indecent case of lust and adultery', and seemed to think that it was only a small step from adultery to murder. There are many people alive today who regard Edith's sentence as a tragic and disgraceful mistake, and there is a group working now, eighty years later, towards achieving a posthumous pardon. This speaks for itself.
I am not very knowledgeable about the case, and am grateful to the novelist Molly Cutpurse for her assistance in improving the accuracy of this page. She goes on to say that for a complete and authorised account of these terrible events, only one recommendation is necessary: CRIMINAL JUSTICE by Professor Rene Weis - the superlative authority. It's published by Penguin.
Society has changed a lot since the Thompson-Bywaters case. In the twenties, and later, single women finding themselves pregnant might find themselves locked in an asylum. Tell teenagers about this and they think you're joking ... but it was not amusing to the families of those involved. There have been TV programmes about some of these unfortunate women recently.
On a related matter, you may
like to know that Molly Cutpurse writes
extensively about recent history, and her first book to be
published (The Last Winter) was a psychological fantasy about how a
young and modern, badly-educated single mother coped with suddenly
being dropped into March 1939 with no means of returning.
Her recent work includes a very unusual novel about Edith Thompson's life.
. Details can be found on
Molly Cutpurse's view of the play
I was intrigued to discover how this was going to be treated. Well, although I found the production rather sparse in terms of auditory clues for scene changes, I was moved to tears by the conclusion which I was dreading, by which I mean... how far were we going to be allowed to follow Edith to her doom? At least the producers didn't spare us from the horror, which is the point, although the intense and profound fear she experienced did not come across as strongly as I thought it could and should have been portrayed. However, a quality listening experience and the author had obviously done her homework.
Today, some eighty years after the event, the tragedy drags on; it feels like a wound in the side of British justice. It was a seminally shocking event which could so easily have been prevented if those with the power had shown some mercy.
The hangman later committed suicide. Almost everyone involved left their positions. Both the governor and the priest spent their remaining years protesting with great vigour against the death penalty. Edith was most probably pregnant at the time of her death; she had put on a stone in weight despite hardly eating while she languished in Holloway prison for three months. And when the death penalty problem came up again in the Sixties, Edith's name was mentioned once again in parliament such was the infamy of her passing.
Finally, when Edith's body was re-interred in Brookwood cemetery 46 years later, the authorities didn't even have the heart to inform her sister who had been prevented from placing any flowers on the grave. She died in the Seventies never knowing her sister had been moved.
Many thanks to Molly for this contribution - N.D.
LIFE IS A DREAM....2004
Sam Lazarus....Nathan Osgood
..... Sam awakes to find himself in a parallel reality where he is married to his childhood sweetheart. Rather different to the place he thought he was living in...this was an excellent imaginative drama, similar in style and quality to "Find Me", which went out about six months ago. Dir. Eoin O'Callahagn. ....-N.D.
Through a Glass Darkly....2004
Martha Jardine obsesses over the diaries of renaissance man John Collingwood, but in the 18th century, Collingwood's family are discovering his secret.
Shelagh Stephenson’s play for BBC Radio 3 is set both in 18th century Lincolnshire and 21st century London. In 1780, Sir John Collingwood is an eminent artist, engraver and landowner, recently returned from the Indies and America. In 2004, Martha Jardine has become an obsessive collector of Collingwood’s work. But why do his diaries reveal so little?
The cast includes John Wood as Sir John Collingwood, Emma Fielding as Martha and Dermot Crowley as Michael. Directed by Eoin O'Callaghan.
THE PEOPLE'S PRINCESS....2010
(Notes sent by Hans Olsson, Sweden...........many thanks...-ND)
Asterisked plays known to exist in VRPCC collections
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