#whitefeather diaries

Convicted on the evidence of spies

Friday 30 October 2015

Howard was right to be worried about police spies in 1915. Two years later a group of anti-war campaigners were convicted of plotting to kill the Prime Minister in what most historians regard as an unfair trial. Alice Wheeldon and her family were convicted on evidence supplied by Alex Gordon and Herbert Booth, spies employed by the Ministry of Munitions who posed as peace activists.

The prosecution was led by the Attorney-General, F.E. Smith. While Booth was called to the witness box, Gordon was not. It seemed that the prosecution felt he could not be trusted to make a good witness. This outraged the defence counsel, who insisted his clients were being tried on hearsay.

This is an extract from the cross-examination of Alice Wheeldon by F.E. Smith in March 1917.

F.E. Smith Have you a strong feeling against ministers responsible for these acts, and in particular against Mr Lloyd George?

Alice Wheeldon Yes.

Smith You regard him as a traitor to the labouring classes?

Alice Wheeldon Yes.

Smith continues to challenge Alice about her views on Lloyd George.

Smith You are very frank. And you are not sure that you don’t think he ought to be killed now?

Alice hesitates.

Smith (loudly) What?

Alice No, I am not!

Smith reads out comments Alice has made about Lloyd George in letters that have been intercepted.

Smith Do you always talk like that?

Alice I have done recently.

Smith Ever since you became a Quaker?

Laughter from the public gallery.

Justice Low No, no, we don’t want that sort of thing!

Smith continues his questioning about what Alice had and had not said. She admits that she said that Lloyd George and the king should be killed but adds that she “meant it at the time in bitterness”. Smith asks if poison would be a suitable method.

Alice Well, it would if their death were decided. I did not desire the threat should be carried out.

Smith But you said they ought to be killed?

Alice I have said so frequently.

Smith You have admitted it.

Alice Wheeldon's daughter Hettie was called to the witness box after her mother. She told the court that Alex Gordon and Herbert Booth had suggested to her that Lloyd George should be assassinated but she had disagreed.

Hettie Wheeldon I said I thought assassination was ridiculous. The only thing to be done was to organise the men in the workshops against compulsory military service. I said assassination was ridiculous because if you killed one you would have to kill another and so it would go on.

Under cross-examination by F.E. Smith, Hettie said she opposed all war. She added that she had mistrusted Gordon and Booth from the beginning.

Hettie I thought Gordon and Booth were police spies. I told my mother of my suspicions on 28th December. By the following Monday, I was satisfied they were spies. I then said to my mother, “You can do what you like, but I am having nothing to do with it.”

Smith Did you think your mother might be led into a trap?

Hettie Yes.

Smith You would have nothing to do with it because you believed the two men were spies?

Hettie That was one reason.

In his closing speech, the defence counsel Saiyid Haidan Riza reiterated earlier comments about spies.

Riza I challenge the prosecution to produce Gordon. I demand that the prosecution shall produce him, so that he may be subjected to cross-examination. It is only in those parts of the world where secret agents are introduced that the most atrocious crimes are committed. I say that Gordon ought to be produced in the interest of public safety. If this method of the prosecution goes unchallenged, it augurs ill for England.

Alice Wheeldon was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. Her daughter Hettie was acquitted. Alice's other daughter Winnie Mason, and her son-in-law Alf Mason, were found guilty of trying to help her and sentenced to five and seven years respectively.

After going on hunger strike in prison, Alice Wheeldon was released on health grounds on 31 December 1917, on the condition that she did not engage in political activism. By this time there were widespread doubts about her guilt. Continuing to be very ill, she died in 1919.

Source: These are extracts from transcripts of the Wheeldon trial, as cited in The Plot to Kill Lloyd George: The story of Alice Wheeldon and the Pear Tree conspiracy by Nicola Rippon (Pen & Sword, 2009)

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