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The love affair that ended in murder



The screams, shrill and horrifying, echoed through the quiet suburban avenues awakening scores of sleepers and bringing them to their bedroom windows.  A chilling scene met their gaze. In the light of a gas lamp, a slim dark-haired woman of 28 stood by a man's motionless body.  Then she screamed again and ran wildly towards the nearest house.

It was midnight on an October evening in 1922 and Mrs Edith Thompson had become a widow and was already on her way to becoming the tragic victim of a notorious and hopeless love affair.  On the pavement in front of her lay her husband, Percy, a shipping clerk of 32, dead of stab wounds in the neck and heart.  The 18-month love triangle of which the Bywaters were two corners had been shattered by the man who made up the third.

But 20-year-old Frederick Bywaters, Edith Thompson's love and the man she longed to marry, was nowhere to be seen.  He was at that moment fleeing through the suburban streets with a bloodstained knife in his pocket. Freddie Bywaters was so different from the dour and moody Percy Thompson whom Edith had married in 1915 when she was 22.

Freddie was  young, good-looking, virile and well-travelled — he had been in the merchant navy since he was 16.

He had met the Thompsons the previous summer and had spent a week on holiday with them on the Isle of Wight.  It was there, while Percy Thompson was playing bowls or dozing behind a newspaper that Edith and Freddie walked together on the cliffs and exchanged their first kiss. Edith, bored and frustrated with her marriage, expected no more than a brief holiday flirtation.  But two days after the Thompsons had returned to their house in Kensington Gardens in the London suburb of Ilford, Freddie arrived on the doorstep. He was accepted as a lodger and a torrid love affair began which Percy Thompson ignored for six months. 

Finally there was an angry showdown during which Freddie asked Percy Thompson to agree to a divorce.  He refused — and ordered the young man out of the house for good.   But if Percy Thompson thought he had driven Freddie out of his wife's life he was mistaken. The couple met secretly every day in cafes and pubs to plan a future together.

By now Edith Thompson was very depressed and told Freddie that if she couldn't escape from her violent and loveless marriage she would commit suicide.  Later Freddie was to remember: "I told her to wait and not to give up hope.  I would talk to Percy again and persuade him that the marriage was over." The meeting was a disaster.

Freddie asked Thompson: "Why don't we come to an amicable arrangement.  Edie loves me, not you. You are making her life hell," to which Percy replied: "I've got her and I will keep her.  Get out before I kill you."

The young man now began to wonder if he was the unwitting pawn in some bizarre husband-and-wife game. Did Edith have any intention of leaving Percy or did she enjoy the frisson  of having a lover? When he put this to Mrs Thompson in a letter she was quick to reassure him.  "I love you more and more each day," she wrote. "You mustn't ever think of losing me but if you want me, you must be determined and brave and not be afraid of what you must do..."

Later in court, it would be alleged that these words were meant to encourage her lover to kill her husband. By Tuesday, October 3, Freddie had apparently decided what he must do.  He travelled to Ilford, arriving at Kensington  Gardens about 11.30pm. The Thompsons were out and Freddie waited in the shadows by their front gate.  

In his pocket he had a long sheath-knife and in his heart a bitter resentment against the man whom, he believed, was keeping him from the woman he loved. Later Freddie was to tell the police: "I waited for them to come home and then I pushed Mrs Thompson aside and pushed him further up the street. 

"I said to him: 'You have got to separate from your wife, and he said he wouldn't.  We struggled.  I took my knife out of my pocket and he got the worst of it. The reason I fought Percy Thompson was that he never acted like a man to his wife.  I loved her and couldn't go on seeing her leading that life. 

"I did not intend to kill him, but only to injure him.  Mrs Thompson knew nothing about my intentions and had nothing to do with the attack. He continued to plead Mrs Thompson's innocence when they stood together in the Old Bailey dock in December 1922, jointly accused of murder. " The Crown's case was that she had incited her young lover to kill the man she hated.

But the defence maintained that Mrs Thompson was a sensitive and imaginative woman seeking refuge in love letters which were largely part of a fantasy world. It was a world that the jury obviously did not share. They took less than an hour to find them both guilty of murder.   Amid court uproar, Freddie shouted: "The jury is wrong. Mrs Thompson is not guilty," and Edith cried: "Oh God, I am not guilty" as she was hurried to the cells.

They never saw each other again.  They were hanged within half an hour of each other in January, 1923, and Freddie had a note reading: "I love you, Edie", in his hand as he died.

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