In many ways Alice Ann Wheeldon was an ordinary, middle aged woman, seen by her neighbours as a relatively unexceptional lady. Born in 1866 in Derby, Alice had four adult children, Nellie, Hettie, William Marshall and Winnie, and made her living as a dealer of second-hand clothes, working and living in her shop at 12 Pear Tree Road. However, Alice was anything but ordinary. A passionate socialist radical, Alice was a committed anti-war campaigner, a suffragette and provided safe houses to Conscientious Objectors (COs) during the First World War. She sheltered many COs above her unassuming shop, before helping them gain safe passage to America or Ireland.
Her children had inherited her political radicalness, Hettie was a secretary of the No Conscription Fellowship and a teacher, a member of the Socialist Labour Party and described as having ‘advanced revolutionary tendencies’. Winnie was a socialist and had moved to Southampton to attend teaching college, going on to marry Alfred Mason, a chemist. Alice’s son William was a socialist and pacifist, a CO who had spent a month in jail after a run in with the police. This political family used code in their letters, anticipating that their beliefs and activism could mark them as targets by the authorities during the war.
The family were correct to be worried. The Ministry of Munitions, in conjunction with the Parliamentary Military Security Dept. No.2 (a forerunner of MI5) infiltrated the family, posing two men as COs to be sheltered by Alice. These agents, Alex Gordon and Herbert Booth concocted a plot; they assured Alice that that if she and her family would help them release their friends from a CO Camp, they would arrange for Alice’s son William, and her two son-in-laws to travel to America, away from the threat of war or jail. But to do so, Alice would have to procure poison; strychnine and curare. This poison was to be used on the guard dogs at the CO Camp, said the two men. Alfred Mason, Alice’s son-in-law and chemist, dispatched the poison to Alice. The parcel was intercepted and Alice, Hettie, Winnie and Alfred were arrested for plotting to murder the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and the War Cabinet Minister, Arthur Henderson. The newspapers were tipped off, and Alice and her family became a sensational press story.
They were sent for trial in London, during which time the prosecution enforced the idea that Alice was of a ‘diseased moral condition’, due to her radical politics and her ‘foul language’; Alice liked to swear. She was deemed demented, a ‘dissolute woman’, corrupted by militant suffragism. During the trial, the ‘agent provocateur’ Alex Gordon was not called as a witness. Alice herself remained convinced of her political opinions, going so far as to call Lloyd-George a ‘bugger’ in court, which did not much help her cause. Alice, Winnie and Alfred were found guilty, Alf and Winnie of conspiracy and Annie of conspiracy and soliciting Gordon and Booth to commit murder. Hettie however, was found not guilty.
Alice and Winnie were sent to Holloway Prison, initially sentenced to 10 and 5 years respectively. They spent much of their time at Aylesbury Prison. Alice would still not back down, refused to eat and was be described as ‘dangerous and disruptive’ by the guards. Her health rapidly declined while she was in prison and she was permanently released on health grounds in December 1918. By February 1919, Alice had died, succumbing to the post-war influenza epidemic.
Alice was a motivated, committed political activist. She believed in her causes and was actively involved in them; she was not one to sit by whilst others did the work and would not back down in her beliefs. Her subversive activities made her a target of the state, her behaviours made her a media spectacle; a single, middle aged woman with a habit of swearing who had tried to kill the Prime Minister. Alice’s gender allowed the court to paint a caricature of her, to sway the jury by contrasting her behaviour with established ideas regarding femininity. Her story shows how policies enacted for the ‘national good’ could trample on the rights of individuals, something that continues to resonate in the present. Alice was implicated in a plot, but the true plot was against her. A miscarriage of justice was orchestrated against Alice Wheeldon and her family, for following their political beliefs and for fighting for the rights of men who did not want to go to war.
Written for Sheroes of History by Jessica Rowan, MA Student at the University of Sheffield
Find out more…
The great-granddaughters of Alice Wheeldon, have a really great website dedicated to telling the story of her life and seeking justice for her. Have a look here.
Alice’s life was turned into a play by Sheila Rowbotham called Friends of Alice Wheeldon, which is available here.
If you’re ever in Derby see if you can find Alice’s house, which now has a blue plaque. Find out more in this article.
Hear more about Alice & her daughters in this interview with Alice’s great-granddaughter, Chloe: