Merely a Warning that a Noun is Coming

Bee Wilson in the London Review of Books:

Xthe-littlehampton-libels.jpg.pagespeed.ic.C_NCC_D8F_In July 1923 at the Lewes assizes, Mr Justice Avory handed an anonymous letter containing some ‘improper words’ to a respectable-looking woman. He asked her if she had ever used such foul language. ‘Never during the whole of my life, either in writing or talking, never,’ she replied. The woman’s father, a retired house painter with a grey beard, was asked whether he had ever heard his daughter use indecent language. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘She was brought up quite differently. I have never heard such language from her or any others of my family of nine children.’

Edith Swan, a 30-year-old laundress from the seaside town of Littlehampton in Sussex, was accused of sending a letter to a sanitary inspector called Charles Gardner that contained words of ‘an indecent, obscene and grossly offensive character’. The full letter has not survived, but the gist of it was that Mr Gardner would be very sorry that he had ever called Swan’s ‘dust boxes’ a nuisance. Three witnesses had seen Swan post this letter. Offensive letters had been circulating in Littlehampton for several years, and the police had taken the unusual step of installing a periscopic mirror in the post office’s mail drop. Whenever anyone posted anything, it was retrieved by post office staff and examined by two clerks from the Special Investigation Branch. Looking through the periscope, Edwin Baker, one of the clerks, saw Miss Swan’s hand posting the letter to the sanitary inspector along with a letter addressed to her sister in Woking. The stamps on both letters had been marked with invisible ink, and had been sold to Swan at the request of the police, who had long suspected her of being behind the rash of anonymous letters.

Despite all of this, Mr Justice Avory was not convinced that the slender, self-possessed woman in front of him was capable of writing such a letter. The Brighton Argusreported that he directed the jury to ‘consider whether it was conceivable that she could have written this document’ given that her ‘demeanour in the witness box was that of a respectable, clean-mouthed woman’. The judge said that the jury must ask themselves ‘whether there might possibly be some mistake’.

The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard is a short but dazzling work of microhistory. It uses the story of some poison pen letters in a small town to illuminate wider questions of social life in Britain between the wars, from ordinary people’s experience of the legal system to the way people washed their sheets, and is a far more exciting book than either the title or the rather dull cover would suggest.

More here.