27 January 1866|
|Died||21 February 1919
Alice Ann Wheeldon (27 January 1866 – 21 February 1919) was a member of the Independent Labour Party, pacifist and anti-war campaigner. She was convicted in 1917, along with one of her daughters and her son-in-law, of conspiracy to kill the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. At least some of the evidence given in the case against them appears to have been fabricated by MI5 on behalf of "a government eager to disgrace the antiwar movement".
Wheeldon was born in Derby, England, the daughter of a locomotive driver who had worked as a house servant when young. She married and was subsequently estranged from a mechanic who became an alcoholic. They had three daughters, Nellie (born 1888), Hettie Wheeldon (born 1891) and Winnie (Mason) (born 1893), and a son, William Marshall Wheeldon (Willie) (born 1892), who was refused status as a conscientious objector when he refused to be conscripted in 1916.
Wheeldon was a socialist and a member of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in Britain. She and her daughters, who shared her feminist political views, also joined the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF). She was also active in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) until the outbreak of the First World War when she disagreed with the WSPU's strong support for the war. With her family, including her daughters Hettie and Winnie and son Willie, Wheeldon became involved in opposition to World War I.
It was known that the Wheeldon family was sheltering young men fleeing conscription. In 1917, Alex Gordon, a secret agent from the Ministry of Munitions (MI5), arrived at the Wheeldon home, claiming to be a conscientious objector on the run. Alice Wheeldon took him in for the night and confided in him. Gordon called his immediate superior, Herbert Wood, introducing him to Alice as an army deserter. A package containing two vials of curare and two of strychnine was sent to her. Gordon had invented the fiction that Home Office work camps were guarded by dogs. The package was intercepted and it was claimed that these chemicals were intended to kill guard dogs at a Home Office work camp for conscientious objectors. This claim formed the basis of the case against the family when the family were arrested on 30 January 1917. Alice, Hettie, Winnie and Winnie's husband, Alfred Mason, were all charged with conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.
The Attorney-General, F. E. Smith, went to Derby himself and used his influence to move the trial to London, where he prosecuted the case and appeared in person. At the trial at the Old Bailey, which began on 6 March 1917, Smith refused to call Gordon as a witness, thus preventing his being cross-examined on his own involvement in the "plot". Alfred Mason (aged 24) was sentenced to seven years and Winnie (aged 23) to five years, even though the jury recommended mercy on account of their youth. Hettie was acquitted. Alice was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude and was sent to Aylesbury Prison, where she went on hunger strike. She was later moved to Holloway.
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."
Review of the Wheeldon case
In January 2012 the BBC reported on a campaign to clear Alice Wheeldon's name, quoting Dr Nicholas Hiley of the University of Kent who said the case against her was "shaky". Hiley said that during the First World War MI5 had become "very fixated on political opposition to the war" and that the Wheeldons' beliefs, unusual for the time, as Marxists, atheists, vegetarians, supporters of the suffragettes and conscientious objectors, had drawn MI5's attention. Hiley described Alex Gordon (in reality William Rickard) as an "unbalanced fantasist" who was "spectacularly unreliable": a convicted blackmailer, he had twice been declared criminally insane and was released from the high-security psychiatric Broadmoor Hospital only two years before being employed by MI5. Hiley's suggestion is that Rickard's department of MI5 was facing closure at the time of Mrs Wheeldon's arrest and the case against her and her family was fabricated to justify the department's being kept open.
At the request of Lloyd George, Wheeldon was released from prison on licence on 31 December 1917. Her health permanently weakened, she died of influenza during the pandemic a little over a year later in 1919. Her daughters Winnie and Hettie were too ill to attend the funeral. Her son, Willie, placed a red flag over his mother's coffin. Her friend John Smith Clarke, still evading police, was the only recorded speaker. Wheeldon's grave was not marked as there was concern it would be defaced.
Hettie, who had married Arthur MacManus, first chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain, died in 1920.
William Wheeldon emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1921 and took Russian citizenship. He was arrested, sentenced to death and shot during the Stalinist purges.
- Rippon, Nicola, (2009) The Plot to Kill Lloyd George: The Story of Alice Wheeldon and the Peartree Conspiracy, ISBN 978-1-84563-079-9
- "Wheeldon, Alice Ann", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Rowbotham, Sheila, Friends of Alice Wheeldon, Pluto Press, 1986
- Jackson, John (2007) "Losing the plot", History Today, May 2007
- Wood, Val and Whitehead Bill (2013) "Alice Wheeldon" Derby, UCU
- Hochschild, Adam (2011). To End All Wars – a story of loyalty and rebellion, 1914–1918. Boston New York: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 252, 254, 261–2, 352. ISBN 978-0-547-75031-6.
- Alice Wheeldon biography, Spartacus Educational, retrieved 3 September 2012
- "Fight to clear Derby suffragette Alice Wheeldon's name". BBC News Online. 19 January 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2012. "video report"
- "Evidence 'clears' David Lloyd George murder plotters". BBC News Online. 3 September 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2012. "video report"
- Derby Evening Telegraph, 12 Feb 2013, "List Of Derbeians To Be Honoured"
- www.alicewheeldon.org/ Website of Deirdre and Chloë Mason, great-granddaughters of Alice Wheeldon.