How sham trial for 'PM murder plot' left family languishing in prison
By Derby Telegraph | Posted: October 14, 2013
Chloe and Deirdre Mason, who live in Australia, have joined forces with Keith Venables, chair of Derby Peoples' History Group, to write the story of the terrible injustice meted out to their great-grandmother, Alice Wheeldon. Here, they conclude their account.
HOW did a fairly ordinary Derby family find themselves at the Old Bailey in 1917, in the glare of international publicity?
Alice Wheeldon, 50, her schoolteacher daughters Hettie and Winnie, and Winnie's husband, pharmacist Alfred Mason, had been charged with conspiracy to murder by poisoning the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, another member of his war cabinet and unnamed others.
They were alleged to have hatched the plot at a time of growing popular resentment over the First World War and conscription. The attorney general, FE Smith, led the trial against the four and he vigorously presented the charges.
Despite supporters collecting sufficient financial resources to pay a barrister to defend the family, for a worrying time no one was prepared to take on the highly contentious case.
Then, Mr Riza, took on the brief. The attorney general and his team of senior prosecutors were formidable enough, yet they and the trial judge belittled Mr Riza in his valiant defence of the four people in the dock.
And, even at that time, doubts about the conduct of the trial were being raised.
It seems that the attorney general and the police realised that Alex Gordon (the alleged spy who had infiltrated Alice's house and set a trap for the family) was not a reliable witness; they packed him and his wife off to South Africa out of the way and only his MI5 superior, not Gordon himself, provided the "evidence" against Alice and her family.
The transcripts of the trial show Alice's honesty and naivete. She said: "Being a businesswoman, I made a bargain with him [Gordon] that, if I could assist in getting his friends from a concentration camp [for conscientious objectors] by getting rid of the dogs [with poison she had obtained from Alf, her son-in-law, the chemist], he would, in his turn, see that the three boys, my son, Mason and a young man named Macdonald, whom I have kept, get away."
Unsound in almost every way, the trial still led to Alice, Winnie and Alf being convicted; long sentences were handed down to each of them.
Alice's other daughter, Hettie, was found not guilty and returned to Derby to fight her family's cause.
The family was imprisoned despite their hopes for "a world where women have the vote and men don't have to fight", as folk singer Robb Johnson says in his wonderful new song "Alice Annie Wheeldon".
Alice was committed to universal suffrage and the trial also highlighted the divisions in the women's rights campaigns.
Some supported the war as well as the vote for women with property, whereas many supporting votes for all tended to oppose the war and conscription.
Emmeline Pankhurst, a conservative suffragette leader, who knew nothing about the case against Alice and her family, was allowed to speak in the court, condemning Alice on a political and personal level.
Other women's leaders threw their efforts in supporting conscientious objectors – such as Isabella Ford, Catherine Marshall and Sylvia Pankhurst!
Alice was a suffragist and a socialist, not a suffragette: for her, universal suffrage was more than just women's right to vote.
The family's appeal was denied in April 1917 and, in prison and sentenced to 10 years, Alice went on hunger strikes, which severely affected her health.
Historical records show that Prime Minister Lloyd George gave permission for Alice to be released on licence after she had served less than a year of her sentence. It seemed he did not want her to die in prison.
Once back in Derby, she contracted influenza during the epidemic that swept the country at the end of the First World War; she was cared for by local people and died in her new home in London Road in 1919.
The funeral was spectacular and reported internationally.
Poet, lion-tamer and parliamentarian John S Clarke said: "We are giving to the eternal keeping of Mother Earth, the mortal dust of a poor and innocent victim of a judicial murder."
Buried with her sister, Elizabeth Gossage, such was the intense feeling generated by the publicity surrounding Alice's trial and conviction that her grave was left unmarked for fear of attack, and remains so to this day.
Winnie was sentenced to five years but was released early nearly a year after her mother. Her husband, Alf Mason, was sentenced to seven years but he, too, was released early after an active campaign.
The controversy over the unsatisfactory nature of the arrests and trial has never gone away.
University of Canterbury researcher Dr Nick Hiley and Alice's Australian descendants, great-granddaughters, Chloe and Deirdre Mason, and many others have spent much time researching what really happened.
In August 2012, Derby library hosted an exploration of this extraordinary story, presented by the Derby Peoples' History Group.
Derby Civic Society and Derby City Council followed this with the dedication of a blue plaque to Alice in Pear Tree Road on May 1, this year.
The plaque reads: "Alice Wheeldon: anti-war activist, socialist and suffragist, lived here behind her shop." [pic http://static.squarespace.com/static/5170db32e4b09a3e33b0f3c0/t/518720f1e4b0999588619e78/1391928310929/?format=1500w ]
The dedication of the plaque was described in the first part of our story in Bygones last week.
Last month, a Festival for Peace and Justice welcomed almost 250 people to Derby's Guildhall to look at what happened 100 years ago and consider the implications for today.
After all, history is not just a thing of the past, it's something we should try to learn from.
While the campaign to clear the names of the Wheeldons and the Masons is enthusiastically telling the people of Derby, and the world, the true story of Alice Wheeldon, it must also take a legal course.
Her great-granddaughter, Chloe Mason, said: "We are looking at the grounds on which to base a review of the case as a miscarriage of justice: these need to be developed to make a strong application.
"A review is part of our efforts to clear their names. We welcome all support in our campaign. Derby is a proud city and should be proud of this daughter of Derby.
"Most people want the true Alice Wheeldon story to be told and, with the support of the people of Derby and others, the Derby People's History Group is making its contribution to this, especially through ongoing events.
"If you want to contact us to find our more about our on-going campaign, then e-mail: email@example.com or log on to our website at www.alicewheeldon.org.