My interest in Edith Thompson arises from research into the life of Caroline Spurgeon (1869-1942), which has been hampered by a lack of personal papers. While there is plenty of material about her literary, academic and international work, there is not much in relation to her private life. Key primary sources are letters she wrote to her aunt from the late 1890s to 1914, and the Visitors’ Book from the Sussex cottage she shared with her lifelong companion, civil servant Lilian Clapham, from 1927 to 1935. One of the most frequent visitors was Edith Thompson, often signing herself as “Edif”. Others included Winifred Gwyn Jeffreys and fellow academic Edith Morley. Letters to her aunt show Caroline staying with Thompson and her family in Aldeburgh and, in 1898, she recorded a hockey match:
‘I had a ripping time in Cambridge. We beat Girton 3-1. The Claphams, Florrie Heneage and self at the ‘Hoop’ Inn. It’s not a patch on Oxford.’
I thought I might find out more about Caroline through her closest friends, and Edith Morley’s autobiography, Before and After was the signpost. It describes how she, Caroline, Lilian, Edith Thompson, Winifred Gwyn Jeffreys and sister Dorothy, all met at King’s College Ladies Department in Kensington around 1895 and forged their lifelong friendships on the hockey field - namely the King’s Ladies Team ground behind Wormwood Scrubs prison - with Lilian going on to captain the England team.
Further study of Edith Thompson revealed an unsung heroine, with significant contributions to national and international hockey, the 1914-18 war effort, women’s employment, education and local government - while also playing a leading role in feminist and suffrage organisations. I realised I had to explore any material that she had left, hence the visit to Bath.
There is nothing to match the thrill of seeing original papers and feeling a direct contact with your subject. Seeing the very first photograph in Edith’s Collection, of these young friends in their hockey gear, was a delight, as is knowing what they all went on to achieve, and the mutual affection they retained over the next forty and more years. There are also tantalising puzzles - like uncaptioned photos, so who is who? No personal letters or diaries. Any disappointment is swept away by Hockey Jottings, the scrapbook compiled in 1898 by Edith and the Gwyn Jeffreys sisters, not only entertaining but also an insightful record of personalities, with Caroline featuring prominently. Exactly what I was looking for - a contemporary, intimate and informed portrait. As to other unanswered questions, the detective work goes on…