In 2013 Derby City Council and Derby Civic Society erected a Blue Plaque as a memorial to Alice Wheeldon at her home on 29 Pear Tree Road, Derby. This was public recognition for the campaign, instigated by the Derby People’s History Group, to clear Wheeldon and her daughter and son-in-law, Winnie and Alf Mason, of their convictions for conspiracy to murder Prime Minister Lloyd George and his cabinet minister Arthur Henderson in 1917. Sentences of ten, five and seven years were imposed after a swift trial that gripped the nation.
Alice Wheeldon was a socialist who was active in the Women’s Social and Political Union until the outbreak of the First World War when along with the rest of her family she began sheltering young men fleeing conscription. In 1917, Alex Gordon, a MI5 secret agent with a lengthy list of previous criminal convictions, stayed the night at the Wheeldon home after claiming he was a conscientious objector. Gordon constructed an elaborate plot to fabricate evidence that the Wheeldon family were intent on murdering some of the most prominent politicians of the day.
When case came to the Old Bailey the Attorney General, F E Smith, led the prosecution and at the trial he refused to call Gordon, who had twice previously been diagnosed as criminally insane, as a witness. The agent later emigrated to South Africa. This prevented cross-examination of the key witness and a fair trial.
Following her conviction, Alice was sent to Aylesbury Prison, where she went on hunger strike in protest at her innocence. When her health quickly deteriorated the authorities feared she might die in prison and become a martyr in a period when increasing numbers of people were beginning to question the continuing slaughter in the trenches. She was released on 31 December 1917 but Alice never recovered from her ordeal and she died of flu during the 1919 pandemic. A red flag was placed on her coffin at the funeral. Her daughter and son-in-law were released at the conclusion of the War in 1918.
Two years ago a campaign was launched to clear the names of Alice Wheeldon, Winnie and Alf Mason. Counsel has been fully briefed to make an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and in early February 2014 the stage where the material upon which the application will be founded is only weeks away from completion. This preparation has been made possible through legal research by University of New South Wales, Australia where Deirdre and Chloe Mason; Alice Wheeldon’s living descendants live.
The case of the Wheeldon’s featured on 10 February 2014 in Jeremy Paxman’s BBC TV series Britain’s Great War and you can find out more on the campaign to clear their names at www.alicewheeldon.org