I first heard of the Wheeldon case in July 2017, on The Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Radio National.
The story looked back to a day in 1986. Retired Macquarie University professor Peter Mason had gestured his daughters Diedre and Chloë to play an old video. He could only gesture because he was dying from a brain tumour, and had lost the ability to speak.
The video was the reconstruction of a trial at London’s Old Bailey in 1917. The defendants, on trial for conspiracy to murder, were member’s of Peter’s family; his parents Win and Alf Mason, his grandmother Alice Wheeldon, and his aunt Hettie Wheeldon. Diedre and Chloë were utterly shocked. They had been aware that their relatives had spent time in gaol, but always believed it was for relatively minor crimes associated with political activism, particularly their stance on anti-conscription. They were also very moved by the fact that their father somehow managed to speak during the video, so anxious was he to explain details of the case.
ACTIVISTS AGAINST WAR
During WWI the Wheeldon family were committed pacifists. The matriarch of the family was Alice, an avowed socialist and suffragette. She ran a second hand clothes shop from her home in Derby. Profits from the business helped fund what was known as the Underground Railway, which hid conscientious objectors on the run from the army. Alice’s son William and her son-in-law Alf Mason were both refusing to serve. Not surprisingly, as the war ground on the British government became very worried about the rise of conscientious objection. It was also considered important that women spent their energy assisting the war effort rather than championing women’s rights.
In December 1916, a man going by the name of Alexander Gordon knocked on Mrs Wheeldon’s door and introduced himself as a conscientious objector needing safe haven. He was immediately taken in, but in reality he was an MI5 secret agent.
According to Alice, having gained her confidence Gordon told her he was hoping to release some German friends of his who were interned as enemy aliens. The problem was, there were guard dogs at the camp. Alice suggested that if she procured some poison to kill the dogs, Gordon could return the favour by helping her son and two other youths flee England for America. At this point, Gordon’s superior Herbert Booth became involved, masquerading as an army deserter known as Comrade Bert.
Alice’s son-in-law Alfred Mason was a chemist living at Southampton. He duly supplied the poison in phials containing strychnine and curare. Curare is the poison once used on hunting arrows by the indigenous tribes of South America. Mason had enclosed instructions for use; injection by dart, rusty nail or air gun for the curare. Soaking in bread or meat was recommended for the strychnine. He also noted that the poisons would leave traces, but commented, ‘…but if the bloke who owns it does suspect it will be difficult to prove it, As long as you have a chance to get at the dog, I pity it! Dead in 20 seconds.’
Despite Mason’s reference to a dog and its owner, the ‘poison plot’ was represented by agents Booth and Gordon as a plan to assassinate Prime Minister Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson. Henderson was a Labour MP, and member of the War Cabinet..
Letters intercepted between Alice and her daughter Winnie were produced to add credence to the accusations. Now these were feisty women, passionate about their cause. Their anti-establishment sentiments and salty language were considered shocking, especially as Winnie and her sister Hettie were schoolteachers.
A letter from Winnie to Alice read; ‘I hope that the man gets a chance. That will be joy. But keep mum and trust absolutely no-one with even the faintest breath of anything. I am not thinking of anyone in particular, but you know what slimy cowards the pious Christian English are if their dirty skins are in danger. The only ones to trust are ourselves. I don’t want you to involve yourself in any useless risk of anything.’
Alice insisted that her threats to kill Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and others were simply uttered as reproaches, never meant to be taken literally or seriously . ‘I did not want to murder anyone’, she said. ‘As a Quaker, I always objected to the shedding of blood.’
However, she was stridently anti-establishment and freely admitted saying of the king, ‘George of Buckingham Palace is a sponger on the people.’
Comrade Bert would claim Alice also told him, (expletives removed) , ‘Lloyd George has been the cause of millions of innocent lives being sacrificed. The……….shall be killed to stop it. And as for that other …………Henderson, he is a traitor to his people. But Asquith is the ………..brains of the business. He [Lloyd George] is fit neither for heaven nor ……….hell.’ According to the agents the plan was to fire a curare smeared dart at Lloyd George while he played golf at Walton Heath. It does sound rather fanciful.
THE MI5 VERSION OF THE WHEELDON CASE
To my great surprise, when I was researching this story I found an account of the Wheeldon/Mason case from MI5”s perspective. In January 1930, retired Intelligence Officer Major Frederick Douglas wrote an article about his involvement in the operation to entrap the Wheeldon family. It was published in The Western Australian. Of course at this time there was no Australian link to the case. Douglas portrayed himself as the chief of the operation, though whether this was true is debatable;
It was by pure accident that the plot was discovered. One of my agents, who was posing as a conscientious objector, reported the existence of an organization know in pacifist circles as ‘The Underground Railway.’ It consisted of a number of pacifists in every town in the country. These people were prepared to hide for a few nights any man who was ‘on the run’ as a deserter from the army, or who had succeeded in avoiding conscription……One morning the agent walked into the office in London and told us of the amazing plot he had discovered through this secret organization. There was, he said, a woman named Alice Wheeldon, who kept an old clothes shop in Pear Tree Road, Derby. In conjunction with her daughter Winne Mason, and son-in-law, Alfred George Mason, she had conceived a plot to murder the Prime Minister and Mr Arthur Henderson, Labour M.P. A member of the War Cabinet, Mr. Henderson was regarded as a traitor to the Socialist cause. The agent was instructed to continue his inquiries.
A few days later we heard from him again. It was a telegram marked ‘priority and urgent’. He needed immediate assistance. Precious lives were at stake. Two of my colleagues and myself left for Derby immediately in the office car.
The agent had not wasted his time……pretending to be an ardent Communist conscientious objector and traitor, he had wormed his way into the confidence of the Wheeldons. The story he told was so amazing that few would have believed him, but to me it had a ring of truth. Mrs Weeldon was expecting a certain poison to arrive by train at any moment. It had been procured by her son-in-law, Alfred Mason, a chemist, who lived with his wife at Southampton. The poison was so deadly, he said, that if a minute portion touched an open wound it would cause instantaneous death. If swallowed, it was harmless. The name of the poison, the agent said, was Curare.
The moment I heard the name of the poison I knew that the plot was serious.
Douglas said it was he who arranged for the Wheeldons’ letters to be intercepted;
Instructions were given to Comrade Bert to carry on his investigations, while I went along to the General Post Office to arrange with the postmaster to examine all the Wheeldons’ correspondence.
Comrade Bert reported to me daily of his progress with the Wheeldons. He now knew the final details of the plot.
NOTE – In a foreword to the article , Major Douglas was described as a former member of the Intelligence Department of the British Imperial General Staff. It was one of a series of pieces, supposedly sanctioned by the War Office, describing Secret Service operations in WWI.
The jury acquitted Hettie due to lack of evidence, but the others were found guilty. Alice, as ‘ring leader’ was sentenced to ten years gaol, while Alfred Mason received seven years and Winnie Mason, five.
In typical style, Alice protested her innocence by embarking on a hunger strike. Her health deteriorated rapidly and in December 1917 she was granted release on licence at the direction of Lloyd George himself. It was probably feared she might die in prison as a martyr. Oddly enough, the Masons were also released early, on January 26, 1919. Naturally this cast doubt on the legitimacy of their original convictions.
Adding to the weakness of the conspiracy case, it would be revealed that Alexander Gordon’s real name was William Rickard. He had a criminal background (including a conviction for blackmail) and had suffered from mental illness. Just two years before joining MI5 he had been discharged after a spell in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane. By the time of the trial, he had been spirited away to South Africa and therefore could not be cross-examined. There was no opportunity for the defense to expose him as an unreliable witness.
Winnie and Alfred’s son Peter Mason migrated to Australia in 1962. He was appointed as the founding Professor of physics at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Like his parents, he was a pacifist and spoke out against the Vietnam war.
In this centenary year, Deirdre and Chloë Mason are trying clear the names of their ancestors. They are supported by the people of Derby, who have honoured the life of Alice by marking her home with one of those famous blue plaques.
After the convictions a close friend and political ally of the Wheeldons, wrote a satirical epitaph for ‘Alex Gordon’, which he published in The Socialist
Stop! Stranger, thou art near the spot
Marked by this cross metallic,
Where buried deep doth lie and rot,
The corpse of filthy Alex.
And maggot-worms in swarms below,
Compete with one another,
In shedding tears of bitter woe.
To mourn – not eat – a brother.
Alexander Gordon, aka William Rickard, actually died in obscurity while living in South Africa.
In Sydney, 80 years later, the video of the re-enacted trial came to an end. Once again, Peter Mason was again unable to speak. He died in 1987. His daughters Deidre and Chloë are determined to clear the names of their ancestors. I’m sure their grandmother Alice would be very proud of them.
In March 2017 the sisters travelled to London to take part in a vigil outside the Royal Courts of Justice. The photo below was part of a BBC news report.
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