Suffragette an Anti-War Campaigner
Born Alice Marshall in 1867 in Derby and started her working life a a house servant. She soon continued a conventional life as she married a local mechanic and had four children – Nellie, Hettie, Winnie and Willie – but she soon developed a different take on the world and continued life as a strong, political, single mother after she was estranged from her alcoholic husband. While her strong spirit was encouraged within the family home, it contributed to her downfall in 1917 and ensured that she would continue to divide opinion in the town for a long time after her death.
Alice Wheeldon the political activist.
She was certainly not shy when it came to her politics and she had a number of strong, controversial beliefs that caught peoples’ eyes. As well as being a feminist with connections to the suffragette movement, she was also an atheist, Marxist, left-wing member of the Socialist Labour Party and an active anti-war campaigner. One of her more notable actions was the harbouring of men fleeing conscription in the First World War – a group that could count her own son Willie in their number – but the family became an even greater concern to the MI5 when her own daughters continued the feminist, free-thinking trends of their mother. This attention soon placed the family in danger and the Wheeldon’s were caught up in an extraordinary scandal.
Her arrest and the plot to kill David Lloyd George.
Aware of the family’s connection with conscientious objectors, an MI5 agent called Alex Gordon was sent to Alice’s house to gather evidence in 1917. After she had taken him in and confided in him, a package of curare and strychnine was sent to her and, on their interception, it was claimed that they were going to be used in an attack against a work camp at the Home office for conscientious objectors. On January 30th 1917 the whole family, including Winnie’s husband Alfred, were arrested on the charge of conspiracy to murder a number of senior members of parliament including Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The trial was problematic from the start and made impossible for the defence when the key witness – Alex Gordon – was not called to the stand. Winnie and Alfred were sentenced to seven years, despite the pleas of the jury, and Alice received a 10 year penal sentence that saw her taken to Aylesbury Prison and later Holloway .
Alice Wheeldon’s death
At the request of Lloyd George, Alice was let out of prison due to her poor health on December 31 1917. Her hunger strikes, which had been the reason for her relocation, had taken their toll on her health and by 1919 things got even worse when the 52-year-old mother contracted influenza during the global epidemic and she eventually lost her battle. Her funeral was a poignant affair marked by the absence of her daughters Hettie and Winnie – due to illness – and the placing of a red flag over the coffin by her son Willie. Sadly, out of fear over its safety, her grave was never marked.
Alice‘s changing legacy and her current place in Derby’s history.
Alice’s life may have ended back in 1919 but her story lives on and is a major talking point in her native Derbyshire as a campaign continues to clear her name. Led by historian Dr Nicholas Hiley and direct descendants in Australia, the campaign is not aiming to get a simple pardon for Alice for her wrongful conviction but a complete clearing of her name of all charges. Hiley claims that there is plenty of evidence against the MI5 team that convicted her and that the whole case was just a fabricated plot against an easy target. The most notable piece of evidence against them is the fact that the agent William Rickard, aka Alex Gordon, had only recently been released from Broadmoor Mental Hospital and was declared criminally insane.
The case of Alice Wheeldon and her true involvement in the assassination plot is ongoing but it seems that while history may have unfairly marked her as a villain for her political beliefs and unconventional way of life, the people of Derby see her more as a hero and are keen to remember her as an anti-war campaigner and suffragette rather than a criminal. On May 1st a blue plaque will be unveiled at her former home to commemorate her work; a welcome step towards ensuring her true legacy.