Alexander Wilson (British writer)

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Alexander Wilson
Alexander wilson spy and writer.png
in uniform
Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson[1]

24 October 1893
Died4 April 1963 (aged 70)
Other namesGeoffrey Spencer, Gregory Wilson, Michael Chesney
Occupationwriter, teacher, spy, hospital porter
EmployerIslamia College, MI6
Known forbigamy, fabricator

Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson[2][3][4] (24 October 1893 – 4 April 1963) was an English writer, spy and MI6 officer.[5] He wrote under the names Alexander Wilson, Geoffrey Spencer, Gregory Wilson and Michael Chesney. He was an undiscovered bigamist, and lied to many people who discovered some of his secrets only after he died. As of 2018, the truth of some of his life is documented in files classified as "sensitive" by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958.[6] His family's story was dramatised in the 2018 BBC miniseries Mrs Wilson, in which his granddaughter, actress Ruth Wilson, portrayed her grandmother, his third wife.


Early life[edit]

Wilson was born in Dover, to an Irish mother and an English father. His father had had a 40-year career in the British Army from 15-year-old boy bugler to Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps when he died in 1919. His father served throughout the Boer War, receiving the Queen Victoria and King Edward VII medals. He was mentioned in despatches for his managing and supplying of hospital ships and trains from the Western Front. In the final year of World War I he was responsible for all medical supplies to the British Army in Europe. In his childhood Alexander Wilson's family followed his father to Mauritius, Singapore, Hong Kong and Ceylon. He was educated at St. Joseph's College, Hong Kong, a prestigious public school, and St Boniface's Catholic College in Plymouth where he played amateur football.[7]

First World War[edit]

He served in the Royal Navy at the start of World War I. A reference in a War Office document indicated he had been in the Royal Naval Air Service and crashed his aircraft. He was then commissioned in 1915 in the Royal Army Service Corps escorting motor transports and supplies to France. He received disabling injuries to his knee and shrapnel wounds to the left side of his body before being invalided, and received the Silver War Badge. He was in the merchant navy in 1919, serving as a purser on a requisitioned German liner SS Prinzessin, sailing from London to Vancouver via South Africa, China and Japan. In the early 1920s, he was running a touring repertory theatre company.[8]

Academic and intelligence career in India[edit]

Wilson left his first wife Gladys and son Dennis in England in 1925 and went to British India to become Professor of English Literature at Islamia College, the University of Punjab in Lahore (now part of Pakistan). He began writing spy novels while in India and received his first contract for The Mystery of Tunnel 51 from Longmans, Green & Co. in 1927. There is no documentary evidence that Wilson had any connections at this time with MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), MI5 (the Security Service), IPI (the Indian Political Intelligence in London), or the Indian Intelligence Bureau in Delhi.

While in the post at Lahore, he travelled around the North-West Frontier, learned Urdu and Persian, and was appointed an honorary Major in the Indian Army Reserve while in command of Islamia College's University Training Corps, which amounted to half a company. He stated in his application for the Emergency Officer War Reserve in 1939 that he also spent time in Arabia, Ceylon, and Palestine. He had a leading role in Lahore's only all-Muslim College which educated and trained sons of Waziristan Chiefs and farmers from the North West Frontier for the British Indian Army. The Soviet Comintern was active in subversion and insurrection, and the British authorities were combating an increasing number of terrorist plots and assassinations between 1928 and 1932.[9] Tensions were raised by hunger strikes and the Lahore Conspiracy Case, during which pro-independence activists died and were sentenced to death.

Wilson was interviewed and appointed as an English professor by Islamia College's principal Abdullah Yusuf Ali, an author and educator who translated the Quran. Wilson provided a portrait of Abdullah in his second novel The Devil's Cocktail (1928) as principal of the fictional Sheranwalla College in Lahore.[10] He succeeded Yusuf Ali as principal of Islamia College in 1928, then resigned in 1931.[11] In his 1939 application to join the Emergency War Officers' Reserve, Wilson said that he had been editor of a daily newspaper in Lahore between 1931 and 1934.[12]

Writing career[edit]

A scan of the front dustcover of the spy novel Wallace Intervenes by Alexander Wilson, published in 1939.

His first spy novel, The Mystery of Tunnel 51, featuring the character Sir Leonard Wallace, was published in 1928.[13] Eight subsequent novels featured the struggle by Wallace, his intelligence officers and his agents, against terrorism and subversion in the British Empire, the influence of the Soviet Union, the tentacles of global organised crime, and Nazi Germany. In total, Wilson wrote and published 24 novels and three academic books; he also authored four unpublished manuscripts. The Sir Leonard Wallace character appears to be closely based on the first "C" of MI6, Mansfield Smith-Cumming.[3]

Wilson's first four books were published by Longmans, Green & Co. from 1928 to 1931. In addition to the two spy novels first featuring Sir Leonard Wallace and the British Secret Service, were two crime thrillers, Murder Mansion (1929) and The Death of Dr. Whitelaw (1930). In 1933, Confessions of a Scoundrel was published under the pseudonym "Geoffrey Spencer", the same surname as that used by the first "C", Mansfield Smith-Cumming, when renting the MI6 headquarters at 2 Whitehall Court. In 1933, Wilson was first published by Herbert Jenkins, and the novels included titles in the Sir Leonard Wallace series and others in the crime, romance, comedy and thriller genres. He also published under two other pseudonyms. Under the name "Gregory Wilson", writing for The Modern Publishing Company, he authored The Factory Mystery and The Boxing Mystery in 1938. Between 1938 and 1939, under the name "Michael Chesney", he wrote a trilogy of further spy novels of imperial adventure, featuring Colonel Geoffrey Callaghan, Chief of Military Intelligence as the central character. Callaghan of Intelligence, "Steel" Callaghan, and Callaghan Meets His Fate were published by Herbert Jenkins. It would appear that his last two novels were published by Herbert Jenkins in 1940.[14]

Wilson wrote "forceful, exciting, thrilling, vibrant, vivid, intriguing, daring" stories, all adjectives used by reviewers in the Telegraph, Observer, Scotsman and Times Literary Supplement, with the Mail saying his work was "among the best".[15] In January 1940, the Observer reviewer Maurice Richardson said Wallace Intervenes: "... is another spy story featuring Hitler in person, if not name. This time he is kidnapped, put in a trunk, and successfully impersonated by Sir Leonard Wallace, Chief of the intelligence service. This comes at the end of an exciting love-duel in which one of our younger agents has to seduce a beautiful Austrian baroness, who fortunately turns out to be on our side all the time".[16]

In 2015–16, Allison & Busby republished nine of Wilson's Wallace of the Secret Service novels.[17] The Daily Mail said of the re-issue of The Mystery of Tunnel 51 "prepare for a romping read", and that it was the "first of nine fast and furious adventures".[18]

Second marriage[edit]

On the way out to British India in October 1925, Wilson met the touring actress Dorothy Wick. They were sailing together in the SS City of Nagpur, bound from Liverpool to Karachi. It is believed they bigamously married in Lahore some time in 1928. When they returned to England in 1933, Wilson left Dorothy and their baby son Michael in London and returned to his first legitimate wife and family, now in Southampton.[19]

He stayed with them for only 18 months. In 1935, Wilson moved to London, telling Gladys and family that he would find a place for them all to live. Instead, he returned to Dorothy.[5]

In 2005, Michael, at the age of 73, began an investigation into his father's past. When setting out on his career as an actor and poet, Michael had changed his name by deed poll to "Mike Shannon". When he was only nine years old his mother and her family told him his father had been killed in the Battle of El Alamein and he did not discover the truth until 2006.[20]

Third marriage and intelligence career in World War II[edit]

Alexander Wilson's son by his second marriage, Michael, suspected his father was involved in intelligence activities as an agent in the 1920s and 1930s. He based this supposition on his memory of seeing his father meet Joachim von Ribbentrop at the German Embassy in Carlton House Terrace,[21] London in the spring of 1938, and other meetings with mysterious men to whom his father spoke fluent German.[22] It is certain that Wilson was working for MI6 by 1940, by which time he had left Michael's mother Dorothy and met his third wife, Alison McKelvie, a secretary in MI6.[23] They had two sons, Gordon and Nigel.

In 1942, Wilson told his third wife, Alison, that MI6 had decided he should go into the field as an agent. He said his subsequent misadventures, including being declared bankrupt, though never discharged, and being jailed for petty theft, were part of the cover he had to adopt for operational reasons.[24]

In May 2013, a second tranche of Foreign Office files connected with intelligence matters was released to The National Archives at Kew.[25] This included a file marked "The Case of the Egyptian Ambassador", and concerned an MI5 investigation into alleged espionage by the ambassador and his staff in London from the beginning of the war. The papers refer to an SIS/MI6 translator who was accused of embellishing translations of intercepted telephone calls to and from the Embassy.[26] Although the translator's name is redacted, it is likely to be Alexander Wilson, since the details disclosed match those included in the first part of Alison Wilson's memoir, written for her two sons, and quoted in his biography published in 2010.[2]

The file revealed that the translator of Hindustani, Persian and Arabic had joined the service in October 1939 and been dismissed from the SIS in October 1942. It was reported that he had faked a burglary at his flat and been in serious trouble with the police. The Director General of MI5, Brigadier Sir David Petrie, stated that the fact he was no longer in the service was "...perhaps some small compensation for the amount of trouble to which his inventive mind has put us all. A fabricator, such as this man was, is a great public danger".[27] The then Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Stewart Menzies wrote: "I do not think it at all likely that we shall again have the bad luck to strike a man who combines a blameless record, first rate linguistic abilities, remarkable gifts as a writer of fiction, and no sense of responsibility in using them!".[28]

Post-war career and fourth marriage[edit]

In the mid-1950s, when Wilson was working as a hospital porter, he met and married a nurse, Elizabeth Hill, with whom he also had a child.[20]

Wilson died of a heart attack on 4 April 1963, aged 69, in Ealing, and is buried in Milton cemetery, Portsmouth, with a tombstone describing him as an author and patriot, and the quotation from Shakespeare's Othello: "He loved not wisely but too well". The monument is feet away from the grave of fellow MI6 agent Commander Lionel Crabb.[29]


Wilson had seven children with his four wives.[30] These were, in sequence, three with Gladys, one with Dorothy, two with Alison, and one with Elizabeth:[30]

  1. Adrian Wilson (1917-1998)
  2. Dennis Wilson (b. 1921)
  3. Daphne Wilson (b. 1922)
  4. Michael Wilson, who later changed his surname to Shannon (1933-2010)
  5. Gordon Wilson (b. 1942)
  6. Nigel Wilson (b. 1944)
  7. Douglas Wilson, who later changed his surname to Ansdell (b. 1955)

It was only in 2007 that these half-siblings and their families began meeting each other. The actress Ruth Wilson, daughter of Nigel, is one of his grandchildren,[31] and discovered that the children of Mike Shannon were also professionals in playwriting, film-making and drama education.[32] Ruth's brother, Sam Wilson, a senior BBC journalist, wrote an article in The Times in 2010 that explored the impact of Alexander Wilson's complicated private life on his various families.[33]

Mrs Wilson[edit]

In November 2018, Wilson's married lives were the subject of a BBC drama entitled Mrs Wilson, starring Iain Glen as Alexander Wilson, and Ruth Wilson as her own grandmother, Alison Wilson. Ruth Wilson was also an executive producer of the series.[34]

Books by Alexander Wilson[edit]

Wilson wrote and published three academic books and 24 novels.

  • 1928: The Mystery of Tunnel 51. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • 1928: The Devil's Cocktail. Longmans, Green and Co.
  • 1929: Murder Mansion. Longmans, Green and Co.
  • 1930: The Death of Dr. Whitelaw. Longmans, Green and Co.
  • 1933: The Confessions of a Scoundrel (as "Geoffrey Spencer".) T. Werner Laurie.
  • 1933: The Crimson Dacoit. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1933: Wallace of the Secret Service. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1934: Get Wallace! Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1934: The Sentimental Crook. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1935: The Magnificent Hobo. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1936: His Excellency, Governor Wallace. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1937: Microbes of Power. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1937: Mr Justice. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1937: Double Events. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1938: Wallace At Bay. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1938: The Factory Mystery (as "Gregory Wilson".) Modern Publishing Company.
  • 1938: The Boxing Mystery (as "Gregory Wilson".) Modern Publishing Company.
  • 1938: Callaghan of Intelligence (as "Michael Chesney"). Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1939: Wallace Intervenes. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1939: Scapegoats for Murder. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1939: "Steel" Callaghan (as "Michael Chesney".) Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1939: Callaghan Meets His Fate (as "Michael Chesney".) Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1940: Chronicles of the Secret Service. Herbert Jenkins.
  • 1940: Double Masquerade. Herbert Jenkins.


  1. ^ England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915
  2. ^ a b Crook (2010).
  3. ^ a b Wiener, Cat (13 October 2010). "Secrets of real-life MI6 spook revealed in new book". East London Lines. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  4. ^ "Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) Decision notice" (PDF). Information Commissioner's Office. 7 September 2015. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  5. ^ a b Kirby, Terry (8 October 2010). "Writer, lover, soldier, spy: The strange and secretive life of Alexander Wilson". The Independent. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  6. ^ "Letter from Sir Alan Duncan, FCO, February 2018" (PDF). Alexander Wilson – Author, Adventurer and Spy. The Alexander Wilson Estate. Retrieved 16 December 2018.
  7. ^ Crook (2010), p. 77.
  8. ^ [/ Dennis B. Wilson Poetry: biography.] Retrieved 17 February 2019.
  9. ^ Terrorism in India 1917–1936. Intelligence Bureau, Home Dept, Govt of India, Simla, 1937. India Office Archives IOR: L/P&J/12/403.
  10. ^ Sherif, M. A. (October 2010). "New Light on Abdullah Yusuf Ali". Salaam Blogs. Archived from the original on 11 December 2017. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  11. ^ Hussain, Syed Sultan Mahmood (2009). 56 Years of Islamia College Lahore 1992–1947. Lahore: Izharsons. p. 107.
  12. ^ Alexander Joseph Wilson, Ministry of Defence Army Personnel File, P/92962/3, Application for Registration in the Officers' Emergency Reserve For Appointment To A Temporary Commission in His Majesty's Land Forces on Mobilization, Recd 25 May 1939.
  13. ^ Hubin, Allen J. (1984). Crime fiction, 1749-1980: a comprehensive bibliography. New York: Garland Pub. ISBN 978-0-82409-219-1.
  14. ^ Crook (2010), p. 591.
  15. ^ Crook, Tim. "Alexander Wilson (Estate)". The Blair Partnership. Archived from the original on 14 December 2013. Retrieved 16 November 2013.
  16. ^ Richardson, Maurice (7 January 1940). "Crime Ration". The Observer. p. 6.
  17. ^ "Alexander Wilson books". Allison & Busby. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  18. ^ Turner, Barry (9 April 2015). "Classic Crime". Daily Mail. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  19. ^ Crook (2010), pp. 112–113.
  20. ^ a b Curtis, Nick (12 October 2010). "Bigamist, writer, soldier, spy...the truth about Ruth Wilson's grandfather". Evening Standard. Archived from the original on 1 January 2011. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  21. ^ "The Inter-War Years". Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  22. ^ Crook (2010), p. 13.
  23. ^ Crook (2010), pp. 143–160.
  24. ^ Crook (2010), pp. 161–167.
  25. ^ "Latest document releases: Foreign Office and Cabinet Office files". The National Archives. May 2013. Archived from the original on 8 June 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  26. ^ FO1093/263, The National Archives, Public Record Office, Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
  27. ^ Letter from Sir David Petrie to Sir Alexander Cadogan, 26 June 1943, FO1093/263, National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
  28. ^ Letter from "C" Sir Stewart Menzies C357/1, 18 June 1943, FO1093/263, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
  29. ^ Mitchell, Peter (4 July 2007). "Commander Lionel 'Buster' Crabb". Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  30. ^ a b Griffiths, Eleanor Bley. "What is the real-life story behind Ruth Wilson's new BBC drama Mrs Wilson?". Radio Times. Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  31. ^ "Tim Crook Biography". Goldsmiths, University of London. Archived from the original on 9 September 2012. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  32. ^ "Richard Shannon Writer & Director". 2010. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  33. ^ Wilson, Sam (11 October 2010). "Four Wives, Seven Children and a Life of Lies". Features. The Times. London. pp. 55–56.
  34. ^ "MrsWilson". BBC One. BBC. Retrieved 2 December 2018.
  • Crook, Tim (2010). The Secret Lives of the Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson. Kultura Press. ISBN 978-0-95428-998-0.
  • Crook, Tim (2018). The Secret Lives of the Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, Second and Revised Edition. Kultura Press. ISBN 978-1-90884-206-0.
  • Crook, Tim (2019). The Secret Lives of the Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, Second and Revised International & US Edition. Kultura Press. ISBN 978-1-90884-207-7.