Alice Wheeldon

Alice Wheeldon

Alice Marshall, the daughter of William Marshall, a railway engineer, was born in Derby on 27th January, 1866. After leaving school she worked as a domestic servant.

In 1886 Alice married William Wheeldon, a widowed engine fitter some fourteen years her senior, at the Register office in West Derby. The couple moved to 87 Marsh Lane, Bootle. Over the next few years Alice Wheeldon gave birth to Nellie (1888), Hettie (1891), William (1892) and Winnie (1893).

In 1901 Alice and her family moved to 91 Stanhope Street, Derby. William Wheeldon was now working as a commercial traveller whereas Alice Wheeldon ran a second-hand clothes shop at 12 Pear Tree Road. The Derby & District Directory records that she bought and sold the contents of people's wardrobes.

Alice Wheeldon became active in politics. She was a socialist and a member of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) . She was also active in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Her daughters, Hettie Wheeldon and Winnie Wheeldon, shared her feminist political views.

The outbreak of the First World War caused conflict between Alice and the WSPU. Alice was a pacifist and disagreed with the WSPU's strong support for the war. Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard established the Women's Peace Army, an organisation that demanded a negotiated peace. Alice, Hettie Wheeldon and Winnie Wheeldon, all joined this new political group. Other members included Helena Swanwick and Olive Schreiner.

Alice and her daughters also joined the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF). Other members included Clifford Allen, Fenner Brockway, Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Bruce Glasier, Robert Smillie, C. H. Norman and Rev. John Clifford.

In 1915 Alice's daughter, Winnie, married Alfred Mason. The couple moved to Southampton, where Mason worked as a chemist and continued to be involved in the socialist and anti-war movement. Alice's son, William Wheeldon, was also active in the cause. On 31st August 1916, he appeared before Derby Borough Police Court charged with "wilfully obstructing police officers in the execution of their duty." The previous week he had attempted to stop the police move five conscientious objectors from the prison to the railway station. William was found guilty and sentenced to a month imprisonment.

Over 3,000,000 men volunteered to serve in the British Armed Forces during the first two years of the First World War. Due to heavy losses at the Western Front the government decided to introduce conscription (compulsory enrollment) by passing the Military Service Act. The NCF mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. About 16,000 men refused to fight. Most of these men were pacifists, who believed that even during wartime it was wrong to kill another human being.

Alice Wheeldon, Willie Paul, John S. Clarke and Arthur McManus, established a network in Derby to help those conscientious objectors on the run or in jail. This included her son, William Wheeldon, who was secretly living with his sister, Winnie Mason, in Southampton.

On 27th December 1916, Alex Gordon arrived at Alice's house claiming to be a conscientious objectors on the run from the police. Alice arranged for him to spend the night at the home of Lydia Robinson. a couple of days later Gordon returned to Alice's home with Herbert Booth, another man who he said was a member of the anti-war movement. In fact, both Gordon and Booth were undercover agents working for MI5 via the Ministry of Munitions. According to Alice, Gordon and Booth both told her that dogs now guarded the camps in which conscientious objectors were held; and that they had suggested to her that poison would be necessary to eliminate the animals, in order that the men could escape.

Alice Wheeldon agreed to ask her son-in-law, Alfred Mason, who was a chemist in Southampton, to obtain the poison, as long as Gordon helped her with her plan to get her son to the United States: "Being a businesswoman I made a bargain with him (Gordon) that if I could assist him in getting his friends from a concentration camp by getting rid of the dogs, he would, in his turn, see to the three boys, my son, Mason and a young man named MacDonald, whom I have kept, get away."

On 31st January 1917, Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason were arrested and charged with plotting to murder the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson, the leader of the Labour Party.

At Alice's home they found Alexander Macdonald of the Sherwood Foresters who had been absent without leave since December 1916. When arrested Alice claimed: "I think it is a such a trumped-up charge to punish me for my lad being a conscientious objector... you punished him through me while you had him in prison... you brought up an unfounded charge that he went to prison for and now he has gone out of the way you think you will punish him through me and you will do it."

A photograph taken in January 1917. Left to right: A prison wardress,Hettie Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alice Wheeldon.
A photograph taken in January 1917. Left to right: A prison wardress,
Hettie Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alice Wheeldon.

Sir Frederick Smith, the Attorney-General, was appointed as prosecutor of Alice Wheeldon. Smith, the MP for Liverpool Walton, had previously been in charge of the government's War Office Press Bureau, which had been responsible for newspaper censorship and the pro-war propaganda campaign.

The case was tried at the Old Bailey instead of in Derby. According to friends of the accused, the change of venue took advantage of the recent Zeppelin attacks on London. As Nicola Rippon pointed out in her book, The Plot to Kill Lloyd George (2009): "It made for a prospective jury that was likely to be both frightened of the enemy and sound in their determination to win the war."

The trial began on 6th March 1917. Alice Wheeldon selected Saiyid Haidan Riza as her defence counsel. He had only recently qualified as a lawyer and it would seem that he was chosen because of his involvement in the socialist movement.

In his opening statement Sir Frederick Smith argued that the "Wheeldon women were in the habit of employing, habitually, language which would be disgusting and obscene in the mouth of the lowest class of criminal." He went on to claim that the main evidence against the defendants was from the testimony of the two undercover agents. However, it was disclosed that Alex Gordon would not be appearing in court to give his evidence.

Basil Thomson, the Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, argued in his book, The Story of Scotland Yard (1935) that Gordon was an agent who "was a person with a criminal history, or he had invented the whole story to get money and credit from his employer."

Herbert Booth said in court that Alice Wheeldon had confessed to him that she and her daughters had taken part in the arson campaign when they were members of the Women's Social and Political Union. According to Booth, Alice claimed that she used petrol to set fire to the 900-year-old church of All Saints at Breadsall on 5th June 1914. She added: "You know the Breadsall job? We were nearly copped but we bloody well beat them!"

Booth also claimed on another occasion, when speaking about David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson she remarked: "I hope the buggers will soon be dead." Alice added that Lloyd George had been "the cause of millions of innocent lives being sacrificed, the bugger shall be killed to stop it... and as for that other bugger Henderson, he is a traitor to his people." Booth also claimed that Alice made a death-threat to Herbert Asquith who she described as "the bloody brains of the business."

Herbert Booth testified that he asked Alice what the best method was to kill David Lloyd George. She replied: "We (the WSPU) had a plan before when we spent £300 in trying to poison him... to get a position in a hotel where he stayed and to drive a nail through his boot that had been dipped in the poison, but he went to France, the bugger."

Sir Frederick Smith argued that the plan was to use this method to kill the prime minister. He then produced letters in court that showed that Alice had contacted Alfred Mason and obtained four glass phials of poison that she gave to Booth. They were marked A, B, C and D. Later scientific evidence revealed the contents of two phials to be forms of strychnine, the others types of curare. However, the leading expert in poisons, Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, under cross-examination, admitted that he did not know of a single example "in scientific literature" of curate being administered by a dart.

Major William Lauriston Melville Lee, the head of the PMS2, who employed Herbert Booth and Alex Gordon, gave evidence in court. He was asked by Saiyid Haidan Riza if Gordon had a criminal record. He refused to answer this question and instead replied: "I have already already explained to you that I do not know the man. I cannot answer questions on matters beyond my own knowledge." He admitted he had instructed Booth to "get in touch with people who might be likely to commit sabotage".

Alice turned the jury against her when she refused to swear on the Bible. The judge responded by commenting: "You say that an affirmation will be the only power binding upon your conscience?" The implication being that the witness, by refusing to swear to God, would be more likely to be untruthful in their testimony." This was a common assumption held at the time. However, to Alice, by openly stating that she was an atheist, was her way of expressing her commitment to the truth.

Alice admitted that she had asked Alfred Mason to obtain poison to use on dogs guarding the camps in which conscientious objectors were held. This was supported by the letter sent by Mason that had been intercepted by the police. It included the following: "All four (glass phials) will probably leave a trace but if the bloke who owns it does suspect it will be a job to prove it. As long as you have a chance to get at the dog I pity it. Dead in 20 sec. Powder A on meat or bread is ok."

She insisted that Gordon's plan involved the killing of the guard dogs. He had told her that he knew of at least thirty COs who had escaped to America and that he was particularly interested in "five Yiddish still in the concentration camp." Gordon also claimed he had helped two other Jewish COs escape from imprisonment.

Alice Wheeldon admitted that she had told Alex Gordon that she hoped David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson would soon be dead as she regarded them as "a traitor to the labouring classes?" However, she was certain that she had not said this when she handed over the poison to Gordon.

When Hettie Wheeldon gave evidence she claimed that It was Gordon and Booth who suggested that they assassinate the prime minister. She replied: "I said I thought assassination was ridiculous. The only thing to be done was to organise the men in the work-shops against compulsory military service. I said assassination was ridiculous because if you killed one you would have to kill another and so it would go on."

Hettie said that she was immediately suspicious of her mother's new friends: "I thought Gordon and Booth were police spies. I told my mother of my suspicions on 28 December. By the following Monday I was satisfied they were spies. I said to my mother: "You can do what you like, but I am having nothing to do with it."

In court Winnie Mason admitted having helped her mother to obtain poison, but insisted that it was for "some dogs" and was "part of the scheme for liberating prisoners for internment". Her husband, Alfred Mason, explained why he would not have supplied strychnine to kill a man as it was "too bitter and easily detected by any intended victim". He added that curare would not kill anything bigger than a dog.

Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women's Social and Political Union, told the court: "We (the WSPU) declare that there is no life more valuable to the nation than that of Mr Lloyd George. We would endanger our own lives rather than his should suffer."

Saiyid Haidan Riza argued that this was the first trial in English legal history to rely on the evidence of a secret agent. As Nicola Rippon pointed out in her book, The Plot to Kill Lloyd George (2009): "Riza declared that much of the weight of evidence against his clients was based on the words and actions of a man who had not even stood before the court to face examination." Riza argued: "I challenge the prosecution to produce Gordon. I demand that the prosecution shall produce him, so that he may be subjected to cross-examination. It is only in those parts of the world where secret agents are introduced that the most atrocious crimes are committed. I say that Gordon ought to be produced in the interest of public safety. If this method of the prosecution goes unchallenged, it augurs ill for England."

The judge disagreed with the objection to the use of secret agents. "Without them it would be impossible to detect crimes of this kind." However, he admitted that if the jury did not believe the evidence of Herbert Booth, then the case "to a large extent fails". Apparently, the jury did believe the testimony of Booth and after less than half-an-hour of deliberation, they found Alice Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason guilty of conspiracy to murder. Alice was sentenced to ten years in prison. Alfred got seven years whereas Winnie received "five years' penal servitude."

The Derby Mercury reported: "It was a lamentable case, lamentable to see a whole family in the dock; it was sad to see women, apparently of education, using language which would be foul in the mouths of the lowest women. Two of the accused were teachers of the young; their habitual use of bad language made one hesitate in thinking whether education was the blessing we had all hoped."

On 13th March, three days after the conviction, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, published an open letter to the Home Secretary that included the following: "We demand that the Police Spies, on whose evidence the Wheeldon family is being tried, be put in the Witness Box, believing that in the event of this being done fresh evidence will be forthcoming which will put a different complexion on the case."

Basil Thomson, the Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was also unconvinced by the guilt of Alice Wheeldon and her family. Thomson later said that he had "an uneasy feeling that he himself might have acted as what the French call an agent provocateur - an inciting agent - by putting the idea into the woman's head, or, if the idea was already there, by offering to act as the dart-thrower."

Alice was sent to Aylesbury Prison where she began a campaign of non-cooperation with intermittent hunger strikes. One of the doctors at the prison reported that many prisoners were genuinely frightened of Alice who seemed to "have a devil" within her. However, the same doctor reported that she also had many admirers and had converted several prisoners to her revolutionary political ideas.

Some members of the public objected to Alice Weeldon being forced to eat. Mary Bullar wrote to Herbert Samuel, the Home Secretary and argued: "Could you not bring in a Bill at once simply to say that forcible feeding was to be abandoned - that all prisoners alike would be given their meals regularly and that it rested with them to eat them or not as they chose - it was the forcible feeding that made the outcry so there could hardly be one at giving it up!"

Alice was moved to Holloway Prison. As she was now separated from her daughter, Winnie Mason, she decided to go on another hunger strike. On 27th December 1917, Dr Wilfred Sass, the deputy medical officer at Holloway, reported that Alice's condition was rapidly declining: "Her pulse is becoming rather more rapid... of poor volume and rather collapsing... the heart sounds are rapid... at the apex of the heart." It was also reported that she said she was "going to die and that there would be a great row and a revolution as the result."

Winnie Mason wrote to her mother asking her to give up the hunger strike: "Oh Mam, please don't die - that's all that matters... you were always a fighter but this fight isn't worth your death... Oh Mam, for one kiss from you! Oh do get better please do, live for us all again."

On 29th December David Lloyd George sent a message to the Home Office that he had "received several applications on behalf of Mrs Wheeldon, and that he thought on no account should she be allowed to die in prison." Herbert Samuel was reluctant to take action but according to the official papers: "He (Lloyd George) evidently felt that, from the point of view of the government, and in view especially of the fact that he was the person whom she conspired to murder, it was very undesirable that she should die in prison."

Alice was told she was to be released from prison because of the intervention of the prime minister. She replied: "It was very magnanimous of him... he has proven himself to be a man." On 31st December, Hettie Wheeldon took her mother back to Derby.

Sylvia Pankhurst, writing in the Workers' Dreadnought, claimed that Alice was "mothering half a dozen other comrades with warm hospitality in a delightful old-fashioned household, where comfort was secured by hard work and thrifty management." She added that Alice was forced to close her shop but had "made the best of the situation by using her shop window for growing tomatoes."

The campaign continued to get Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason released from prison. On 26th January 1919 it was announced that the pair had be allowed out on licence at the request of Premier Lloyd George."

Alice Wheeldon's health never recovered from her time in prison. She died of influenza on 21st February 1919. At Alice's funeral, her friend John S. Clarke, made a speech that included the following: "She was a socialist and was enemy, particularly, of the deepest incarnation of inhumanity at present in Great Britain - that spirit which is incarnated in the person whose name I shall not insult the dead by mentioning. He was the one, who in the midst of high affairs of State, stepped out of his way to pursue a poor obscure family into the dungeon and into the grave... We are giving to the eternal keeping of Mother Earth, the mortal dust of a poor and innocent victim of a judicial murder."

Primary Sources

(1) Alice Wheeldon, statement when arrested (31st January, 1917)

I think it is a such a trumped-up charge to punish me for my lad being a conscientious objector... you punished him through me while you had him in prison... you brought up an unfounded charge that he went to prison for and now he has gone out of the way you think you will punish him through me and you will do it.

(2) Alice Wheeldon, statement in court (March 1917)

Being a businesswoman I made a bargain with him (Gordon) that if I could assist him in getting his friends from a concentration camp by getting rid of the dogs, he would, in his turn, see to the three boys, my son, Mason and a young man named MacDonald, whom I have kept, get away.

(3) Amalgamated Society of Engineers, open letter to the Home Secretary (13th March, 1917)

We demand that the Police Spies, on whose evidence the Wheeldon family is being tried, be put in the Witness Box, believing that in the event of this being done fresh evidence will be forthcoming which will put a different complexion on the case.

(4) Nicola Rippon, The Plot to Kill Lloyd George (2009)

Riza declared that much of the weight of evidence against his clients was based on the words and actions of a man who had not even stood before the court to face examination.

(5) John S. Clarke, speech at Alice Wheeldon's funeral (26th February, 1919)

She was a socialist and was enemy, particularly, of the deepest incarnation of inhumanity at present in Great Britain - that spirit which is incarnated in the person whose name I shall not insult the dead by mentioning. He was the one, who in the midst of high affairs of State, stepped out of his way to pursue a poor obscure family into the dungeon and into the grave... We are giving to the eternal keeping of Mother Earth, the mortal dust of a poor and innocent victim of a judicial murder.

(6) John Jackson, Open Democracy (18th April, 2007)

In March 1917 the British attorney-general, FE Smith, led the prosecution of Alice Wheeldon (a seller of second-hand clothes), two of her daughters (both schoolteachers) and her son-in-law (a lecturer in chemistry) for conspiracy to murder the prime minister, David Lloyd George. Allegedly a dart tipped with curare was to be fired at him from an airgun whilst he played golf.

Smith, determined to secure a conviction, described the defendants to the magistrates in the town of Derby, in England's east midlands, as "a gang of desperate persons poisoned by revolutionary doctrines and possessed of complete and unreasonable contempt for their country". After a show trial in London presided over by an openly hostile judge reflecting patriotic fervour the jury retired for a half hour and found Alice, one daughter and the son-in-law guilty. They were all sentenced to long terms of penal servitude.

There was silent scepticism in many quarters at the time and it emerged from the release of MI5 records eighty years later that the main evidence against the accused had resulted from entrapment and false statements by an agent with a record of both crime and diagnosed criminal insanity employed by the secret service. Alice and her family were not guilty of conspiracy to hurt, let alone kill, anyone.

Why was Smith so ruthless in his conduct of the prosecution - to the point of deliberately ignoring, even concealing (with the connivance of the director of public prosecutions) the suspect nature of the evidence? Alice and her daughters were politically active. They were militant suffragettes, outspoken feminist socialists, pacifists (angry about British rejection of peace overtures by Germany), friendly with Sinn Féiners and syndicalist shop-stewards and actively involved in networks helping conscientious objectors escape to Ireland and the United States. The son-in-law was similarly inclined. To a government worried by growing opposition to the war against Germany and the implications of revolutionary developments in Russia, they were "the enemy within" - unpatriotic, subversive dissidents with dangerous connections.

Their fate was a shocking example of what can happen when a government, determined to pursue "proper" policies in the national interest, gives its intelligence agencies free rein and tramples on the rights of individuals, particularly the rights to dissent, to freedom of expression and association and to fair trial. To Smith and his ministerial colleagues (and, sadly, the judiciary) what happened to Alice and her family was the consequence of dissent at a time of national emergency. They "deserved" what happened to them. There was no champion for the rule of law: its defeat was "collateral damage".

(7) John Jackson, History Today (May, 2007)

Very heavy casualties in the first weeks of the war had made it clear that compulsory military service was likely. In 1915 the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was set up. The fellowship contained many pacifists, particularly Quakers, who campaigned successfully for a conscience clause to be included in the conscription legislation of 1916. Conscientious objectors seeking exemption from military service were required to attend a tribunal to have their claim assessed. Each tribunal contained a military representative with the right to cross examine applicants to establish their sincerity. Those who could persuade the tribunal of their belief that any form of support for war was morally wrong could obtain complete exemption. Those who were prepared to do civilian work which would release others for war service could be exempted provided they did that work. And those who were prepared to be non-combatants working under military direction but not required to use weapons could be put on the military register on that basis.

The tribunals were, in general, composed of members, some of them women with sons or husbands in active service, who had little sympathy with conscientious objection. At their hearings, applicants were frequently subjected to abuse from the public galleries. Famously, Lytton Strachey was one such to be abused. Very few obtained exemption, either conditional or complete. Most were either classified as non-combatants and were drafted into the Non-Combatant Corps, the NCC (or No Courage Corps as the press dubbed it), or were rejected completely. The discipline in the NCC imposed by the soldiers in charge of the units was harsh and refusal to undertake a task or, particularly, to wear a uniform resulted in charge, court martial and imprisonment in foul conditions. Before long there were numerous conscientious objectors on the run, some of them escapees from what were effectively prison camps. Many of them went underground and were aided by networks composed largely of NCF members, suffragettes, feminist and other socialists, Sinn Feiners, left-wing shop stewards and IWW seamen.

Despite the ordinariness of their daily occupations, Alice Wheeldon and her two elder daughters were active politically: this they saw as part of their civic duty. Alice's husband, William, fourteen years her senior and a drunkard prone to violence, would have none of that and her youngest daughter Nellie, developing political awareness, concentrated on helping her mother in the shop. The three activists were members of the NCF and the Socialist Labour Party, long term militant suffragettes (members of the Women's Social and Political Union), pacifists and feminist socialists. Hettie Wheeldon, also a rationalist, believed in free love and a woman's right to birth control whether by contraception or abortion. Like many suffragettes she was, with some justification, suspicious of marriage which she saw as an institution devised by men to enshrine their right to own and dominate women. This did not deter her from becoming engaged to the deportee shop steward Arthur MacManus whom she met either while he was helping to stir things up in Sheffield or when he was on a fraternal visit to munitions workers in Derby.

MacManus, following his removal from Glasgow, had secured a job with the Cunard shipping line in Liverpool and by the end of 1916 was helping to smuggle deserters and conscientious objectors across the Atlantic, sometimes by way of Ireland where his former friendship with Connolly (who, dying of his wounds and strapped in a chair, had been executed by firing squad in Dublin in April 1916 for his role in the Easter uprising) ensured he had helpful contacts. Alice's only son William was a pacifist and devout socialist and, denied exemption by the tribunal which heard his application, was in hiding waiting for help to leave the country from Hettie's fiancee. Her sister Winnie's husband, Arthur Mason, the chemist, was also a pacifist and socialist and was expecting that, although he was a lecturer, his application for exemption would be similarly rejected. Given their backgrounds and NCF connections it is not surprising that the Wheeldon family was actively engaged in helping escapee conscientious objectors, an unlawful activity, and had been of interest to the authorities for some time.