Little slices of London's history

Pardons (or not) and justice in street names

In the news at the moment is the case of Edith Thompson and her young lover, Frederick Bywaters, both hanged for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy Thompson. A request to pardon Edith was rejected last year by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, but it appears that errors were made, so the pardon is now being reconsidered.

Before I look at the widely acknowledged travesty of justice that was Edith’s trial and execution, I thought we could consider the themes of ‘pardon’ and ‘justice’ in London street names. First we have Pardon Street in Clerkenwell, which takes its name from a churchyard, established in the 14th century by Ralph de Stratford, Bishop of London.

During the ravages of the 1348 Black Death, victims of the disease were dumped into large communal pits when gravediggers eventually refused to bury the bodies properly. The bishop was so shocked at this unsanctified treatment of bodies that he bought a piece of ground called No Man’s Land, which was then consecrated and set aside for the bodies of plague victims. A small chapel was also erected for prayers to be said for the pardon of their souls, and the graveyard was thus named Pardon Churchyard.

There is also a Pardoner Street in Southwark, which was covered in a much earlier post that you can read here. It may take its name from Chaucer’s Pardoner, or maybe pardoners in general; given that even Chaucer was not a fan of his creation (the Pardoner was, essentially, a con man), he seems an unlikely character to inspire a street name. The street was once called Henry Street, but I cannot find exactly when or why the name was changed.

But back to Edith Thompson, whose main crime, according to the BBC, was to be “attractive, independent, working class and unfaithful – the victim, according to one expert on the case, of a societal intolerance of women who did not obey the moral codes of the day”.

The novelist and screenwriter Edgar Wallace wrote a magazine article (apparently unpublished) in which he railed against the execution, saying that, “If ever in the history of this country a woman was hanged by the sheer prejudice of the uninformed public, and without the slightest modicum of evidence to justify the hanging, that woman was Edith Thompson.”

The judge at Edith’s trial, Justice Sir Montague Shearman, was clearly prejudiced against her, as was pointed out in the original, rejected, application for her pardon. Regarding that rejection, the solicitors acting for Professor Rene Weis, who was made Edith’s heir and executor by her family, stated that the reasons given by the Ministry of Justice to turn down the application demonstrated a misunderstanding of the law about pardons.

I would like to be able to say there is no justice in London’s streets either, but there is a Justice Walk in Chelsea. I’m guessing that it takes its name from an 18th-century courthouse, the only surviving local courthouse-jail in London – according to the website where I found it; having been converted to a 5-bedroom house, it is being sold off for £15 million. Or perhaps it was sold; there wasn’t a date that I could see on the site.

Before I go, a couple of asides and a belated thank you.

First of all, according to Murderpedia, Alfred Hitchcock commented several times that the Thompson and Bywaters case was the one he would most like to film. There was a family connection: at the start of the 1920s, Hitchcock had been taught to dance by Edith Thompson’s father, while Hitchcock’s sister and Edith’s sister became close friends. Hitchcock instructed his authorised biographer, John Russell Taylor, not to touch on the case of Edith Thompson in case it caused her sister distress.

Second, my husband told me once that his was somehow connected to, or related to, Ruth Ellis. I’ve never, alas, been able to find out any more. Ruth, like Edith Thompson, was executed for murder; the last woman in the UK to be hanged. Although she did shoot her lover David Blakely, there was a great deal that was overlooked at her trial, including the potential involvement of another, jealous, lover, and the fact that she had been physically abused by Blakely (he punched her in the stomach and caused her to miscarry).

It’s been a long time coming, but my blog buddy Pete (read his blog here) gave me a metaphorical kick up the backside a while ago by pointing out how long it had been since my last post. Thanks again for the nudge, Pete. I finally got back here.

2 responses to “Pardons (or not) and justice in street names”

  1. I was happy to nudge you, and delighted to see you back!
    Not a street, but The Old Justice pub on Bermondsey Wall East was owned by the parents of one of my best friends at school. I spent many happy hours in there. It was named for Judge Jeffreys, the famous ‘Hanging Judge’. Now sadly closed, like so many others.
    I had recently been reading about the case of Edith Thompson. It seems the trial judge turned the jury against her with his remarks, and they also read out the letters to her lover, suggesting killing her husband with poison or broken glass in his food. Her defence that they were a ‘lover’s fantasy’ was dismissed out of hand by the judge. She was so distressd by her exection, that she was heavily sedated before the hanging, and carried to the scaffold by four warders.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Yes, Pete, it truly was a shocking miscarriage of justice. The judge and his comments are reminiscent of that judge not so long ago who said women who dressed provocatively had only themselves to blame if they were assaulted. Thanks for your comments, nice to know you’re out there! Elizabeth

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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