New Novel, “The Unrespectable Woman” Reveals The Story of The Last Woman To Be Hanged in Wales – Roger Griffin Interview

A new novel tells the true story of Leslie James, the last woman to be hanged in Wales. She was sent to the gallows in 1907 for allegedly smothering a baby in her care – but was she really a killer? The Unrespectable Woman sheds light on the life behind the crimes and shows that the reality of the case is much more complex. Entertainment South Wales sat down with South Wales author Roger Griffin to ask about the creation of the book.

What inspired you to write a book about Leslie James?

I came across an article in a local history publication, and it just said the bare facts: that a woman had killed a baby at Llanishen railway station in Edwardian times. That was all it really said, and I just got intrigued: there must be more to it than that. That’s where my research started.

The book is described as historical fiction, but clearly a lot of research has gone into it. How did you go about researching this subject?

I didn’t start out with a plan to write a novel; I was just interested in this piece of history. So, I started trying to find out more about the person who was ultimately convicted and hanged, and it grew from there. I’ve always been fascinated by the Edwardian period, and the research for this novel gave me some important new insights. Society was very sentimental about babies and motherhood, yet there was a darker side that people didn’t like to acknowledge. At the same time, women’s struggle for the vote was gaining ground, and yet society was still so male-dominated. It struck me that you could see this particular crime through the lens of gender, and also that there was so much that hadn’t yet been told. And I wanted to determine for myself whether it was a miscarriage of justice.

Roger Griffin, the author of The Unrespectable Woman, telling the story of Leslie James, the last woman to be hanged in Wales.

So do you feel that it was a miscarriage of justice?

I do. It’s easy to say: “If she was tried today, she would have had a lesser sentence.” But that’s not the point. Even then, by the standards and rules of the time she did not receive justice. She wasn’t allowed to defend herself in court. And there was this assumption, because of her status, because of her personal life and the fact that she was a sex worker and alcoholic, that anything she said could not be taken as credible. That’s really why the book is called The Unrespectable Woman. “Unrespectable” is an odd word in a way – we don’t use it much these days. But respectability was what was required of women. And she definitely did not have it. And that, in a sense, led her to the gallows.

You think she was tried for her failure to fit into social norms rather than for her actual crimes?

Absolutely. From the beginning, they really gave no credit to this woman. And it was based really on the chaotic life that she led. No-one is saying that she was right to do what she did. Trafficking in babies was an awful trade, and so risky. She was almost destined to find herself in a court. But she wasn’t judged on whether she intended to kill the child; she was prejudged, really, as unworthy of a fair trial.

A vintage photograph from the Edwardian era of a young mother and her child. Sadly, not all babies were as well loved as reflected in Roger Griffin’s new novel about Leslie James, The Unrespectable Woman.

You started out with a few facts about Leslie’s life, but there must have been quite a lot of detective work involved in filling in the gaps?

I followed what I knew about Leslie’s life: where she’d lived and some of the jobs that she’d done, and they were quite easy to fit in. But to build a narrative, I had to introduce other characters. I didn’t invent the character of Hettie Mackenzie – she was a real academic, actually the UK’s first female professor. There is no evidence that she ever met Leslie, but after researching her beliefs I could see that she would have stood up for someone that she regarded as being unfairly treated.

Then of course you have the Pierrepoint brothers, who are well-known historical figures and who actually hanged her. A lot is already known about them and their methods and so on. So, my job was just to bring out the reality of what they did as hangmen.

Obviously, the reports of Leslie at the time will focus on her crimes. During the course of your writing, how did you come to view her as a person?

She wasn’t someone that you would necessarily like. She was trying to survive, and when you’re in a desperate situation and you’re an alcoholic, you’re going to do things that are basically illegal. But I just became so sympathetic towards her because she was also a victim of society at the time. She’s lost her husband, she’s had an accident resulting in a head injury, she lapses into drinking – which is hardly an unusual response to trauma – and then what was there for her?

You might say “Well, she should have got herself a steady job.” But if you’re in thrall to drink, it’s not surprising if you end up in a chaotic life. A woman on her own, with no husband to support her, did not have the choices that other women might have had. If she’d been married, or if she’d had a decent education, things might have been different. But in the period of her life that the book covers, she was plunging downwards and couldn’t stop it.

The Unrespectable Woman by Roger Griffin is available now via Amazon.

Do you think that Leslie’s story has any lessons for today?

We’ve made huge strides in gender equality since the time of the story, but you can’t say “Thank goodness that this could never happen now.” A lot of the themes of the book are, unfortunately, still highly relevant today. Women are still judged on how they look and forced to meet higher standards than men in all sorts of contexts. Women like Hettie fought so hard for their rights and won so many battles but there is still so much work left to do.

How long did it take to write the book?

Including all the research, about five or six years. It was never my goal to write it quickly. I took my time. I read a lot around the case, and looked at writers who’ve commented on that period, on women’s suffrage and the plight of working women, which was pretty bad in those days. Time wasn’t an issue; I just wanted to get a real picture of that period and to explore the way that social and cultural factors affected legal decisions.

Roger Griffin researched The Unrespectable Woman for over six years. The new book tells the story of Leslie James, the last woman to be hanged in Wales.

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy reading?

I love non-fiction books that shed new light on history – I’m currently reading Roger Turvey’s excellent book about Llywelyn the Great. I also really enjoy historical fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is a masterpiece.

Are you working on any other books at the moment?

It’s very early, but I’m just getting started on another historical fiction novel, this time centring around the 1926 General Strike. There’s a lot of work to do on it, but I’ve got a plot emerging in my head. I will be reading about that period and seeing if I can put some flesh on the bones.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: