‘A gang of desperate persons poisoned by revolutionary doctrines and obsessed with an insensate and vile hatred of their own country’ 

On the anniversary of the arrest of Alice Wheeldon, Archives Assistant Vicky takes up the story of a dramatic tale …

The title of the blogpost is not a modern newspaper quote, but the description applied to one Alice Wheeldon and her family and friends by an Old Bailey court prosecutor in 1917.

Alice was a clothes dealer from Derby, who aligned herself to suffrage and pacificism, which did not endear her to the establishment. Alice, her daughters, Hettie and Winnie, and her son-in-law, Alfred Mason, all found themselves in the dock for plotting to murder war-time Prime Minister David Lloyd George. A poison-laced airgun pellet was the weapon.

In ‘Friends of Alice Wheeldon’, Sheila Rowbotham explores the story and the effect of Derby-based politics in relation to national radical movements during the First World War. This claustrophobic play passionately presses a powerful case for clearing the Wheeldon family name, exploring the competing rivalry in early British intelligence agencies whilst shining a light on the character of Alex Gordon, the government agent sent to entrap Alice.

The publication can be found in the Local Studies collection at Derbyshire Record Office, and several more libraries across the county.

The trial began on 6 March 1917; the Attorney-General, leading the prosecution, refused to call Gordon as a witness or divulge his name or whereabouts, thus preventing him being cross-examined.

Alice was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude, Alfred Mason seven years and Winnie five years. Hettie was acquitted.

Wheeldon was released from prison on 31 December 1917 at the request of Lloyd George. Her health was permanently weakened, and she died of influenza in 1919. At her funeral, Alice’s son placed a red flag over her coffin and her friend John Smith Clarke, still on-the-run as a conscientious objector, was the only speaker. Wheeldon’s grave was not marked as there was concern it would be defaced.

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