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Historian Emily Cockayne reflects on the shocking content of the letters that led to her securing a film deal.

Historian Emily Cockayne reflects on the shocking content of the letters that led to her securing a film deal.


When Emily Cockayne, a social historian, stumbled upon a newspaper article discussing the distribution of disgustingly explicit letters to the people of Littlehampton in the 1920s, she was inspired to explore the topic further.

However, she never could have imagined that writing about the remarkable true events she had discovered in an academic publication about the past of those who live nearby would eventually lead to a film adaptation featuring Olivia Colman, Timothy Spall, and Jessie Buckley.

Penning Poison by Emily Cockayne.

“From Friday, Wicked Little Letters, a comedic thriller centered on the infamous “poison pen” letters and resulting defamation trials in Littlehampton, will hit theaters. The film is inspired by the strange events that unfolded in a seemingly normal neighborhood, which author Cockayne delved into while writing her book, Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours, in 2012. As an associate professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia and a consultant for the movie, Cockayne explored various conflicts between neighbors during her research.”

I came across legal disputes and police court proceedings in which neighbors bring trivial matters to court, such as “my neighbor stole my clothes from the line.” Then, while searching through newspapers from the 1910s and 1920s, I discovered this particular case in Littlehampton in 2008.

As she delved deeper, her fascination grew. She explained, “It provided a window into the world of obsession, focus, and discomfort among neighbors.” She realized, “I need to understand the inner workings of this community and how such occurrences can take place there.”

In the role of Edith Swan, Colman portrays a “proper” lower-class woman who, in 1919, begins accusing her crude and profane neighbor Rose Gooding of sending offensive letters to her and other members of their small English coastal community. Gooding, played by Buckley, is later taken to court for defamation. However, it is uncertain if Swan is truly the innocent party she claims to be.

The words used to describe Swan as a “seductive, vulgar and rural prostitute” in the letters provide some of the most comical scenes in the movie. However, they were deemed too offensive to be published in newspapers at the time and even considered too indecent for a jury to hear in one instance.

Emily Cockayne.View image in fullscreen

The message, directed at a shared neighbor of Gooding and Swan, says “To the elderly individuals,” and continues with derogatory language. It accuses them of being unclean and using profanity. It also calls them out for not maintaining their yard.

One person angrily complains about their neighbor’s foul-smelling drains, saying “You vulgar and disgusting people, go take care of your own problems.”

“It’s the way they’re living,” said Cockayne, who expanded on her earlier research and wrote in more depth about the Littlehampton libels in her 2023 book, Penning Poison: A History of Anonymous Letters. “Between 1919 and 1944, neighbours started to stop being so reciprocal and caring about each other’s idiosyncratic differences and became more privatised and more judgmental.”

The Littlehampton correspondence is unique as most letters containing vulgar language were penned by men during this era. “What sets these letters apart is that they also address issues related to unkempt backyards in the neighborhood. It sheds light on how neighbors, particularly women, interacted during that time.”

Swan, the youngest of 13 siblings, was raised in a cramped house with only two bedrooms. By the end of World War I, she was a 30-year-old unmarried woman still living in her childhood home. She spent her days caring for her two adult brothers, who according to Cockayne’s research, were unusual and possibly mentally unstable. Her room was shared with her aging parents. Swan’s father, portrayed by Spall, was described by the police as easily agitated and irritable. According to Cockayne, Swan had little room for personal reflection and felt trapped and frustrated by her inability to express herself. She was confined to her home, responsible for her odd brothers and aging parents.

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At that time, Gooding, who is 29 years old, moves into the neighboring house with her spouse, sister, and five kids (four of whom were born out of wedlock and were speculated to have different fathers).

The two households were compelled to reside in close proximity to one another. According to Cockayne, “Rose’s home was practically in the Swans’ backyard.” They also shared a store and had previously shared a toilet.

Certain letters bear the signature “RG”, which contributed to the local authorities’ belief that Gooding was the author. According to Cockayne, this is due in part to the assumption that someone like Rose Gooding would be foolish enough to sign her own initials.

Despite being from the same social class, the Goodings were seen as less respectable than the Swans due to the large number of illegitimate children in their family. The police viewed the Goodings as suspicious and believed that the appearance and behavior of the mother, Mrs. Gooding, made her an obvious suspect.

Gooding’s apparent irreverence for propriety might have made living in close proximity to her both abhorrent and attractive. “I think Edith became a little bit obsessed with this family in the garden,” said Cockayne. “I don’t think she wants to be who she is any more. She looks at Rose and she thinks she’s wild and exciting.”

Her favourite scene from the film occurs right at the start, when Gooding returns a washtub her family shares with the Swans by leaving it outside their front door, dirty and full of hair. “That, for me, sums it all up – what these neighbourhoods were like and what’s behind these letters: complicated, entwined lives, shared spaces and the annoyances that can come from that. If people are forced to live their lives like that, they’re going to fall out.”

Source: theguardian.com