In 1993 I was involved with the Kate Magee case in Derby. It was “almost” a miscarriage of justice except that local people in Derby contacted organisations including the PTA Research and Welfare Association and the Irish in Britain Representation Group to organise a defence campaign for Kate. Other groups then became involved including trade unions and the Women and Ireland Group. Reading Sheila’s book reminded me of that time, the importance of networks of groups working together and that by challenging injustice we can make a real difference. For more information about Kate’s campaign read my book; Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women.
In the new edition of “Friends of Alice Wheeldon The Anti-War Activist Accused of Plotting to Kill Lloyd George” Sheila Rowbotham reminds us of the relevance of this case to 2015 “The story of the case and its political context is as relevant as it ever was…the use of undercover agents who not only spy on non-violent radical groupings, but actually provoke actions has been exposed.”
Alice Wheeldon was a 51 year old woman, married with three adult daughters and a son, who lived in Derby. She ran a second hand clothes shop, was active in the suffrage movement and known for going to meetings and selling papers. When the First World War broke out, she opposed it, like many socialists, and with her grown up daughter Hettie took an active part in the Derby No Conscription Fellowship, advising and supporting men who sought to get exemption from conscription.
Her openness and kindness meant that when she was approached by a government agent, “Alex Gordon”, to provide some poison which she thought was to kill dogs that were guarding the camps where men were held in detention, she didn’t realise that it was going to lead to her and her son-in-law and daughter being arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the Prime Minister Lloyd George. They were convicted and imprisoned.
Written in 1979, the play reflects Rowbotham’s own political activity in the women’s liberation movement. She defines herself as a socialist feminist, a term that is not so often used these days. For Rowbotham and many other women like her it was about being involved in grassroots activity, linking up community groups and trade unions, taking part in a network of women and men who wanted to change society through a variety of campaigns from shop steward to tenants groups.
Rowbotham was involved with the Greater London Council, investigating new ways of working class people getting democratic control of local council services. At the same time Margaret Thatcher came to power with her drive to reduce the state’s involvement in providing a welfare state. Reflecting on that period Rowbotham is astounded that today we are now desperately trying to hold on to services rather than try and change the system for the better.
Rowbotham’s own activism led her to research into radical women who were active not only in the suffrage movement but in left groupings in towns and cities across the country. Inspired by Raymond Challinor’s account of the myriad networks of opponents to the First World War, she decided to further investigate a period of history that was absent from present day accounts of that era. “It was evident that the war years saw an extraordinary shake up of ideas and political loyalties and the emergence of new connections among those who opposed the war” she says.
Alice Wheeldon and her comrades were to become a target of a state that was prepared to make their case not just a public witch hunt but one which would be used nationally and internationally to bolster British involvement in the First World War.
Since the first edition new secondary material has been published and some additional primary sources. Members of Wheeldon’s family have also come forward with new information about their family history while Derby Peoples History Group have campaigned locally to raise the case and reveal the true history of Alice Wheeldon and her comrades.
Central to the case is the question of why did the State throw all their weight at three people who were not central to the anti-war movement or the growing trade union discontent in industry? Rowbotham investigates the intrigues between politicians and government agencies and also highlights the particular treatment of the two women. “The Wheeldon women were portrayed as violating the accepted definitions of womanhood and the prosecution played on anxieties aroused by the suffrage campaign as well as women’s new roles in the war.”
The new edition provides a much more comprehensive view of the government’s attitude to the radical left: it also asks important questions about the role and response of the left to the workings of the state and how we can create alternatives that work.
It is in the play that the strength of Rowbotham’s research comes out with her recreation of the lives of Alice Wheeldon, her family and friends providing us with a window into a lost world where although life for a radical was tough, it was full of possibilities for the future.
For Rowbotham this vindicates the importance of researching an important aspect of radical history; “It carries a broader message; maintaining the precious right to make conscientious objection to injustice requires constant vigilance.”
Friends of Alice Wheeldon The Anti-War Activist Accused of Plotting to Kill Lloyd George. Published by Pluto Press. Buy it from
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