Although Alice Wheeldon actually died before the Communist Party was technically formed, she deserves to belong to a Compendium of Communist biographies simply by virtue of what became of her. There seems little doubt, from the evidence of her family, associates, and her reading material that she would have joined the Communist Party had she lived another year.
Alice Ann Marshall was born in Derby on 27th January 1866. For many years, she was an active revolutionary socialist and later joined the Women’s Social and Political Union. With her daughters Hettie (an SLP member who married Arthur MacManus, the first chair of the Communist Party) and Winnie Mason, she became involved in opposition to World War I.
In January 1917, Wheeldon was sent four vials of curare. She later claimed that these were to be used to kill guard dogs at a concentration camp for conscientious objectors. When this package was intercepted, she, along with Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, were all charged under the Offences Against the Person Act 1862.
Extraordinarily, Alice was found guilty of conspiracy to murder the Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Labour cabinet member, Arthur Henderson. Supposedly, she planned to spike the Prime Minister’s boots with poison when he put them out in a hotel hall way for cleaning! Despite the ludicrosity of this, she was sentence to ten years’ imprisonment; Winnie and Alfred Mason to shorter terms, while Hattie was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Alice was sent to Aylesbury Prison, where she went on hunger strike. She was released on licence in December 1918, just as she was beginning to attract widespread attention for the injustice done to her, for fear that she would die in prison and this acquire martyr status. But she died of Spanish influenza on 21st February 1919. There is little doubt that her health had been weakend by prison and her hunger strike, whether – since the Spanish flu epidemic was so virulent – it is just to blame her death on her tribulations is anyone’s guess. (For the full story, see Chapter 8, `Class war or imperialist war? The Derbyshire labour movement and the politics of 1914-1918’ in Graham Stevenson’s `Defence or Defiance’ elsewhere on this site, first written in 1982.)
Pic right: (from left to right) Hettie, Winnie, and Alice in prison
It has taken many books, plays, radio and television stories to create a new mood about the Wheeldon case but even quite mainstream contemporary opinion has now arrived at a settled view that the Wheeldon trial and subsequent convictions were quite legally unsound and that the victims were framed by the security services in a move purely designed to discredit the anti-war opposition.
Sources: Graham Stevenson’s `Defence or Defiance’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; David Doughan ‘Wheeldon , Alice Ann (1866–1919)’ (2004); May 2007 History Today
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