The titular “wicked little letters” of a new profanity-laden comedy starring Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman were at the centre of a real scandal involving “filthy and disgusting libels” that circulated the seaside town of Littlehampton, Sussex, in the early 1920s.


Edith Swan (played by Colman) lives with her elderly parents at 47 Western Road. Having lost all hope of independence or marriage, she is stuck in a conservative existence controlled by her domineering father. Yet Edith has been suffering another abuse: a series of disturbing, anonymous letters in the post, filled with name-calling and graphic imagery. The Swans’ suspicion over the identity of the author is aimed squarely at their neighbour, Rose Gooding (Buckley).

Is Wicked Little Letters a true story?

Yes, although the film condenses the first wave of letters sent in Littlehampton and the case against Rose, focusing on the period 1920–21. In fact, Littlehampton would be plagued by obscene libelous letters for a further two years, eventually concluding, after four trials, in 1923.

Initially, Edith and Rose had been on friendly terms. Although the latter had moved to the street with a child born out of wedlock, before she married her partner Bill, the two women of similar age got on well. Neighbourly tensions bloomed, however, and they fell out when Rose was falsely reported for mistreating a child, and she believed Edith had made the allegation. Thereafter, they were at daggers drawn.

Jessie Buckley as Rose Gooding (right) and Olivia Colman as Edith Swan (left) and having a conversation in front of the beach a scene from Wicked Little Letters
Jessie Buckley as Rose Gooding (right) and Olivia Colman as Edith Swan (left) and having a conversation in front of the beach a scene from Wicked Little Letters (Photo by StudioCanal)

Soon, a “filthy postcard” appeared at 47 Western Road calling Edith a “bloody old cow”. Other anonymous letters followed, and not only to the Swans but to people in the neighbourhood and beyond. One recipient was Edith’s fiancé Bertie Boxall, a soldier stationed in Mesopotamia. The letter claimed that Edith was “committing immorality” with a police constable and had fallen pregnant, causing Bert to end the engagement.

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***spoilers for the plot of Wicked Little Letters ahead***

Was Rose Gooding arrested as the author of the poison pen letters?

In 1920, Edith obtained a summons against Rose, who was sentenced to ten days in prison. Then when letters continued to circulate in 1921, Rose was arrested again and tried for publishing obscene libels. In court, Edith testified that Rose used “filthy language”, although other witnesses disagreed.

On asking for evidence of Rose’s handwriting, the jury – which included one woman – was informed this would be impossible. Therefore, on weak circumstantial evidence, they found Rose guilty and sentenced her to a year with hard labour in Portsmouth. She would be released after four months.

That was not the end of the scandal, though. Edith produced a notebook filled, allegedly, with Rose’s writing, which roused enough doubt that an inspector from Scotland Yard, George Nicholls, was called in to investigate. He came to suspect Edith herself to be the author, describing her “stony expression” and her “remarkable memory especially for filthy phrases” that she could “reel off without hesitation”. She struck him as “being possibly wrong in her head”.

Who were the real Edith Swan and Rose Gooding?

Edith was the penultimate child of 13 (four of whom died in infancy) to a plumber and decorator named Edward and a laundress, Mary Ann. She had always lived in Littlehampton. After a stint as a servant, she worked for a decorating firm during the First World War, before settling into a closeted life at 47 Western Road. There, Edith was expected to care for her parents and two brothers, sleeping in her parents’ bedroom.

Rose had grown up in Lewes and moved to Littlehampton with her daughter, Dorothy, shortly after marrying Bill Gooding in 1913. The couple went on to have a son, Willie. By 1921, the Goodings’ cottage, tucked away in the backyard of the Swan property, also accommodated Rose’s unmarried sister, Ruth, and her three children. This unconventional and improper family situation forged the impression that the Goodings were less respectable than the Swans.

Olivia Colman as Edith Swan (left) and Jessie Buckley as Rose Gooding (right) having a conversation in a scene from Wicked Little Letters
Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley as Edith Swan and Rose Gooding in Wicked Little Letters (Image by Alamy)

Rose’s conviction would be quashed, and she was awarded a meagre compensation of £250 for wrongful imprisonment. From then on, she was “an altered woman”, suffering from insomnia and reportedly “unable to pick up the thread of her life”.

Wicked Little Letters: who was behind the poison pen letters?

With Rose exonerated, Inspector George Nicholls looked to build a case against Edith. A policewoman named Gladys Moss, a fairly new recruit from Worthing, was asked to observe the neighbours. Hiding in a florist’s shed, Moss watched Edith drop a letter on the doorstep of Violet May, who lived at number 49. Incriminating blotting paper featuring handwriting similar to the letters was also found in a search of the Swan house.

Edith was arrested and put on trial in late 1921. Yet despite compelling evidence, the judge steered the jury to acquit her, which they did.

Suspicion still settled on Rose. The following year, she was assaulted by a neighbour. Anonymous letters appeared too, stating Edith’s innocence and that she “could supply evidence to clear herself but feared consequences” from the Goodings. Early in 1923, Littlehampton became flooded by letters, targeting (among others) tradesmen, a police inspector and a “respected church worker”. Reports claimed that one letter had been enclosed in a parcel containing “refuse in a matchbox”, marked “Wedding Cake” and sent to a resident who had earlier paid sureties for Edith’s bail.

With one failed case against Edith, but increasingly certain of her guilt, the police needed to catch her in the act of ‘publishing’ (i.e. posting) a poison pen letter. The Post Office Investigation Branch spent a month observing the post office and peering inside pillar boxes with a “special periscope mirror”.

The key to the case, however, came in the plan to mark stamps with invisible ink, which were then sold to Edith. When she next posted a letter, the police could prove that the envelope bore one of those stamps.

Edith went to trial again. The News of the World described her as “a small unnoticeable woman of outward respectability, unattractive in face and complexion, with weak, peering eyes and no semblance of a figure”, and suggested that the letters were a form of “sex mania”.

Judge Horace Avory failed to accept that she was capable of using such foul language, but this time the jury found Edith guilty. She was sentenced to 12 months without hard labour. That was milder than what Rose received, despite Edith’s perjury and long-term campaign to see an innocent neighbour punished for her “wicked little letters”.


You can read more from Dr. Emily Cockayne and the history of hate mail with her feature on the rise of the poison pen: 6 cases of anonymous hate mail in Britain.


Emily Cockayne is associate professor in early modern history at the University of East Anglia