“Alice Wheeldon and her family were commie scum
Denounced World War 1, sheltered deserters on the run
Fitted up by MI5, died from the prison damp –
You won’t see Alice’s head on a stamp!”
(‘Spycop Song’, Dr Feelshite)
If you thought that revelations of the last few years about undercover police officers infiltrating campaigning and political groups, trade unions, families of people killed by racist and the police (just a few examples), and in some cases acting as agent provocateurs, had been going on for just 50 years, since the founding of the Special Demonstration Squad, and was some kind of aberration from our democratic traditions – think again. In one form or another, this practice has been an integral part of policing dissent and controlling or disrupting movements for social change – for hundreds of years. It is literally the norm, not a deviation.
101 years ago today, Derby socialists and war resisters Alice Wheeldon, her daughters Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, went on trial at the Old Bailey, all charged with conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.
In fact the supposed ‘plot’ was a fit up, set up by a spy working for the intelligence unit of the Ministry of Munitions.
Alice Wheeldon lived in Derby, with her four children Nell, Winnie, Hettie and Will; the family were all active campaigners for many social issues of the time, notably women’s rights, pacifism and opposition to conscription. Alice and Hettie were activists for women’s suffrage, members of the Women’s Social & Political Union before World War 1, as well being involved in socialist propaganda. To make a living she sold second hand clothes in the market and later from a shop.
If enthusiastic support for the pointless carnage of the First World War was still by far the view of the majority of the population, opposition had grown over the previous two and a half years. The mass deaths, privations, hunger and hardships at home, forced conscription into the armed forces, as well as mass government repression, had sparked hatred and demoralisation, resentment, and resistance. Soldiers were passively and actively avoiding combat and would soon by mutinying; strikes were multiplying, organised by grassroots shop stewards movements, (as the trade union leaders mostly supported the ban on workplace struggles during wartime); food riots and rent strikes had broken out in 1915 and 1916. And refusal to be conscripted, resistance and draft-dodging, had given birth to underground networks of war resisters, mostly young men on the run from the authorities, often sheltered by sympathetic pacifists, socialists and anarchists. A plethora of organisations – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, parts of the Union of Democratic Control, the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Socialist Federation in East London; parts of the Independent Labour Party, the Women’s Freedom League, the shop stewards networks, anarchist groups and christian pacifists… and so many more…
The government feared all these movements were linked, and to some extent there were rebel networks, with loose origins in the workers’ movements that had erupted before the war, the militant suffragettes who had rejected jingoism when war broke out, and the leftwing political groups who denounced the war on internationalist grounds. From the outside it could also appear that this opposition could link up to wider discontent among the ‘general population’, and that a serious rebellious threat could arise to the war effort and even to the state and the vast capitalist interests that had needed the war.
The government was determined to disrupt and discredit the growing opponents of the war, and pretty much allowed the secret state to operate freely, with carte blanche to use whatever methods seemed necessary. The press was already happy to trumpet that strikers, pacifists, etc were passively doing ‘the Kaiser’s work’, if not actually being paid by Germany; the more evidence could be drummed up that honest and peaceful opposition to the conflict was in fact a cover for more sinister, treasonous and violent intent, the more potential support for opposition they thought could be warded off.
The Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit, a branch of an organisation that was to partly evolve into MI5, faced with an immediate threat of being dismantled, conceived a strategy of discovering a treasonable plot in Derby, which with its munitions factories, was a heartland of Britain’s war effort.
The Wheeldons were on the one hand a typical anti-war family with William Wheeldon and Alf Mason (Winnie’s husband) both facing conscription, (William was an anarchist ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector), and all of the family including Alice’s sons-in-law were heavily involved in both overt and underground resistance: in the above ground activities of the No Conscription Fellowship, but also in hiding men on the run, helping them escape the country in some cases. They sat also in the middle of the networks the authorities and military intelligence an Special Branch had in their sights: Arthur MacManus, (then ‘courting’ Alice’s daughter Hettie, and a friend of her son William), was heavily involved in the shop stewards meetings and planning class struggle in the factories, particularly in nearby Sheffield, the stronghold of the shop stewards committees since the pioneering Glasgow stewards had been largely broken up by arrest and repression in 1916. Their friends and comrades spread across the midlands and the north of England.
An MI5 agent, using the name Alex Gordon, and posing as a conscientious objector on the run from the authorities. He had turned up in Sheffield, just as 10-12,000 skilled engineers and other workers came out on strike against the conscription of a fitter, Leonard Hargreaves, at Vickers plant there, in what appeared to be a case of the employers breaking agreements with the unions to not force certain grades into the army. the strike terrified the government, who backed down and released Hargreaves. (It’s worth noting that bitter divisions were opening up in the working class, as unions representing skilled workers were prepared to strike over such actions, but less skilled workers were often not supported.) ‘Gordon’ was not the only spy around – several other ministry of munitions agents were reporting on the strike, the socialists and other workers opposing the war in Sheffield and nearby towns. The reports of the spies tended to focus on prominent individuals like the Sheffield shop stewards activist and later communist theorist, J. T. Murphy, Arthur MacManus, and others, as being largely responsible for anti-war and workers agitation – missing the point that both movements were made up of grassroots networks based on daily grievances and built horizontally, not hierarchically. But the spies fed into their handlers view that taking out some of the prominent faces would crush the movements entirely.
Alex Gordon was really Francis Vivian, who had been involved in the British Socialist Party before the war, so may have been known (if only by repute) to some of his targets, building trust. He moved across to Derby, in late 1916, supervised by another spy, known as Herbert Booth, who reported to Major Melville Lee at the Ministry of Munitions. Booth and Gordon seem to have played on the Wheeldon family’s angry desire to strike back at the warmongering government they hated, and a plot was hatched, according to the Wheeldons later, to poison dogs guarding prison camps where arrested ‘conchies’ and war resisters were being held, so they could be helped to escape. However, Gordon and Booth presented the poison, which was ordered, as evidence of a plot to poison the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They reported a succession of conversations, a mix of invented and real talk, no doubt, of threats and plans to off the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleague, Labour’s Arthur Henderson, who was widely vilified by anti-war socialists; as well as unnamed others.
Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, her daughter Win Mason and Win’s husband Alf Mason were all arrested at the end of January 1917. William Wheeldon was picked up but managed to escape and disappeared.
The four were tried at the Old Bailey with the Attorney General, the trial beginning on March 6th 1017; future Lord Chancellor, the rightwing politician F.E. Smith leading the prosecution. The legal profession was apparently leant on heavily not to defend them, and the lawyers who did were not very effective. The accused were brow-beaten and their case was not really presented; the dice were loaded against them. The government were determined to use them as a example. Whether or not the spies’ superiors believed the plot was real, or their political bosses really feared for their lives, the trial was a useful weapon to beat the anti-war movement with, at least to split moderate critics of the war from the more radical elements.
Gordon was not present to testify in the trial so the defence could not cross-examine him on his evidence. The court proceedings show that the evidence was flimsy and that the intention of the prosecution was to publicly destroy the reputations of the accused and then to convict them on that basis.
Hettie Wheeldon was acquitted but the others were sentenced to varying prison terms and their application to appeal was refused. Alice received ten years imprisonment, Alf Mason seven years, Winnie five years.
Alice went on hunger strikes in Aylesbury Prison, which severely affected her health. Conditions inside were harsh and she was over fifty. Given her failing health and officialdom’s fear that she might die in prison, which could rebound badly on them, she served less than one year of her 10-year sentence. Doubts had also started to arise about the trial and the authorities may have thought they would settle if she was quietly released. From Holloway Prison she was released on licence at the instigation of the Prime Minister – the same Prime Minister she was accused of conspiracy to murder. Her daughters Nellie and Hettie accompanied her back to Derby but her life was made impossibly hard. She was ostracised by many neighbours, and her clothes business was ruined. She and Hettie (who had lost her job as a teacher despite her acquittal) tried to grow and sell veg to survive. They tried to pick up their political activism, re-establishing links with some of the comrades. But both Hettie and Alice caught the flu in the terrible 1918-19 epidemic that struck at a weakened Europe after the war, and for Alice, worn out by prison, it was fatal. She died in February 1919.
Win and Alf Mason were released unexpectedly at the end of the war, having also gone on hunger strike. After their release, in 1919, Winnie and Alf moved to London where they lived for a number of years with Winnie’s other siblings. Eventually they moved to Hampshire where Winnie was noted for raising awareness of the rise of Fascism. In 1949, shifted to Welwyn Garden City where Alf had built a modern house in the new town. Win was diagnosed with lung cancer and died there in 1953; Alf died in 1963.
Hettie married Arthur MacManus, in 1920 and they had a stillborn child, but she died from peritonitis following on from appendicitis the same year. Arthur became a leading member of the new Communist Party of Great Britain (Alice’s other daughter Nellie also became a CPGB activist). William Wheeldon’s story is perhaps the most poignant in the story of the anti-war movement, in Britain and internationally, and where it ended; he became a communist, moved to the Soviet Union and made there, believing in and working for the Soviet project for many years, Until Stalin had him arrested and shot in the purges in 1937, where he was forced to confess to being a longtime British spy.
A hundred years after the frame-up of Alice and her family, after the profit-ridden carcass-fest of World War I, there is a campaign growing to remember the Wheeldons and the Masons. Derby people and the family have long been convinced that the impact of these outrageous charges has reverberated down the generations. Now Deirdre and Chloë Mason, great grand-daughters of Alice Wheeldon and the grand-daughters of Alf and Win Mason, are seeking to clear their ancestors names so history will record that this was a miscarriage of justice…
Check out the website of this campaign
A plaque was placed on Alice’s shop in Derby a couple of years ago to mark the plot.
Sheila Bowbotham’s excellent history/drama crossover, ‘Friends of Alice Wheeldon’ is a great book, and worth reading if you can get hold of it.
The machinations of the secret state that backed the fit-up of the Wheeldon family is complex and we would like to write about it, especially given the relevance of spies infiltrating movements for social change to our own time. This will have to wait for another time; but sufficient to say, spies sponsored by both Special Branch and the Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit were both operating against socialists, strikers, anti-war activists. But they were also competing against each other for influence, and reported to rival power centres in government. The spies themselves were part fantasists, part telling their handler what they wanted to hear, and part freelance self-interested opportunists. Some of them experienced half-regret for their actions: ‘Alex Gordon aka Francis Vivian attempted in some bizarre way to re-ingratiate himself with socialists after the trial, part-justifying and part apologising for his part in it. This dynamic is familiar to those of us targetted by modern spycops, some of who have publicly blown the whistle on their former bosses, some of who have returned to friends and lovers after their deployment ended, torn between their ‘job’ and the attraction of the life of rebellion and love that our movements at their best are capable of… But many more hide behind the walls built by the police and secret state, fearing exposure, claiming they are afraid of our revenge, or more honestly, the embarrassment of people they now finding out the glorious war they fought against environmentalists and families of racist murder victims, while deceiving women into sex.
As a heavily restrictive Inquiry into Undercover Policing attempts to cover up most of the history of political spying of the last half century, under the guise of pretending to uncover it, some of those spied on are attempting to push for as much information on those who spied on us and those who controlled them as we can get. Results so far are not encouraging; most of the names revealed so far have been brought into the open by us.
For more information about current campaigning vs undercover policing, check out:
The massive potential of the rising anti-war movement, the rebel networks of which Alice and all her family and friends were part of, was in the end broken, partly by the repression of the state, both open and secret, But also by the divisions of he movements themselves. The shop stewards movement launched strikes in 1917, but they were crippled by the splits between skilled and unskilled workers. The coagulating brilliant links that the conchies, suffragists, socialists and the class-conscious workers were forging did produce the Leeds Convention in June 1917, influenced and cheered by the Russian Revolution, attempting to unite trade unions and protest against the war. But it allowed itself to be dominated by the Labour Party and union leaders, who helped to derail its revolutionary potential. The powerful links developing through the war did continue to grow, and produced massive strikes in 1919, which in parallel with mutinies in the army could have led to a more fundamental social change – but was sold out by unions leaders, and hamstrung by people’s own doubts and lack of desire to push forward.
This post could have covered much more of this interesting period and the fascinating people and groups evolving at this time, and resisting the capitalist war machine with heroic but grounded love for each other, as well as clear-sighted hatred for the classes that profited from the slaughter.
Across the years we salute Alice, William and Hettie Wheeldon, Win and Alf Mason, their friends and comrades, and the movements they played a part in. If the world they hoped to build has not yet come about – tremble on your thrones, powers of the earth! Just you wait, you bankers!
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar