Friends of Alice Wheeldon: The Anti-War Activist Accused of Plotting to Kill Lloyd George

Friends of Alice Wheeldon: The Anti-War Activist Accused of Plotting to Kill Lloyd George

by Sheila Rowbotham


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781583675540
Publisher: Monthly Review Press
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Sheila Rowbotham is the author of the widely acclaimed A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States and Promise of a Dream.

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Radical Politics in Derby

Alice Wheeldon left no political statement, no autobiographical notes. She made no individual testimony to history. The lives and opinions of Alice Wheeldon and her family before the trial can only be pieced together from diverse snippets and fragments of information. Sylvia Pankhurst states that Alice had been a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) before the war. The former Labour MP for Rusholme, Manchester, Lester Hutchinson, recounts being told how, when speaking on women's suffrage in Derby market-place, Alice once tapped one of her hecklers on the head with an umbrella in a burst of indignation. The woman Sylvia Pankhurst describes as a 'hard-working', kind-hearted, generous, woman, clearly did not suffer fools gladly. As a rank and file WSPU activist, Alice Wheeldon diligently tried to sell The Suffragette and other feminist literature. Perhaps takers were not always as numerous as she hoped, for copies of the paper were still there when the police raided her house at 12 Pear Tree Road in 1917. Sylvia Pankhurst praised her as the 'kind of zealous, energetic voluntary worker who is the backbone of any movement', but she says Alice Wheeldon did not take part in any 'serious militancy'.

It is not clear how Alice, Hettie and Alice's other daughters, Nellie Wheeldon and Winnie Mason, who lived in Southampton, felt about the arguments and divisions within the suffrage groups over issues such as the degree of internal democracy or the tactics of the movement. Though the great body of suffrage supporters believed in using constitutional methods, and some sought an alliance with Labour, the Women's Social and Political Union adopted militant direct action. By 1914, this had escalated into outbreaks of decentralized attacks on property that left the militant hard core an isolated grouping, operating as a kind of underground. In June 1914, a church at Breadsall, near Derby, was burned down, apparently by suffragettes, though this was never proven. It evoked much consternation in the local press, and panics erupted when women were observed near churches. Then a false bomb scare at Aston-on-Trent caused panic. Further outcry arose over suffrage supporters indoctrinating young girls at school. A letter to the Derby Daily Express on 8 June 1914 illustrates the depth and ferocity of the hostility aroused by the direct action campaign for the vote. 'I would commence by shearing off the tresses and shaving the heads of every militant suffragette justly convicted of any and every offence against law and order; if that failed to subdue them I would give such cats – the cat o' nine tails.' Echoing the suspicion directed at teachers, another writer was worried that:

So many single women with extreme notions of female emancipation have been in charge of our daughters at school during the past twenty years, and the atmosphere has not always fostered the best attitude towards men, home, marriage and motherhood. Probably at the root of the matter, the suffragette frenzy is largely a sex question and springs from the fact that unmarried and childless women must have some outlet for their free energies.

Opponents of feminism did not distinguish between the political views and tactics of the various suffrage bodies. So whatever Alice Wheeldon's opinions, as a known suffragette she would have encountered hostility, while the outcry against feminist indoctrination in schools would have put pressure on Hettie. Thus, even before the war, both women would have known what it felt like to be in a disliked minority. Though there is no evidence that they ever took part in suffrage militancy directly, they were part of a movement in which it was used. This meant they were up against direct state coercion as an everyday event. Such experiences bred a spirit of intransigence, which was also developing in the Irish agitation and in the waves of industrial unrest, which erupted before the First World War.

However, over 1913-14, the militant wing of the suffrage movement was faced with a fundamental clash of political views among the Pankhursts, which resulted in the expulsion of Sylvia's East London Federation of the Suffragettes from the WSPU. The immediate issues were Sylvia's links with socialism and the labour movement. When the Dublin workers were locked out, their leader, Jim Larkin – described by Sylvia as 'a tall, red-haired young man who had learned in America the methods and phraseology of the Industrial Workers of the World' (IWW) – was imprisoned. Sylvia Pankhurst came to his defence. On 1 November 1913, to Christabel Pankhurst's fury, Sylvia spoke to a meeting of ten thousand with the socialists James Connolly and George Lansbury to demand Larkin's release. Christabel believed that the suffrage agitation must be kept apart from socialism and syndicalism. Sylvia was equally resolved 'to keep our working women's movement in touch with the main body of the working class movement'.

There is no record to show what Alice and Hettie, as rank-and-file activists in the WSPU, had thought of these conflicts. But because they were also involved in the Independent Labour Party in Derby and part of the left-wing current which was growing more and more rebellious just before the war, it is likely they inclined towards Sylvia's position.

The Labour Party still lacked a local organizational base in these early days. (Until 1918 there were no individual members, merely affiliated organizations.) But there were Socialist Societies affiliated through the Independent Labour Party, and one of these existed in Derby. A member of the Derby Socialist Society, Reuben Farrow, preserved his memories of the group in a series of manuscript letters, which provide valuable glimpses of both their everyday activities and the political divisions within the local socialist movement. Reuben Farrow was a railway clerk and a Christian Socialist, involved in the Adult Schools as well as in the Pleasant Sunday Afternoons aimed at workers and organized through the churches.

He and his wife Florence knew several of those in the labour movement who were becoming national figures, including Ramsay Macdonald, Phillip Snowden, Margaret Bondfield and J.H. Thomas. Indeed baby sitters were needed, because by 1912 Reuben and Florence were intensively involved in establishing the local Independent Labour Party branch, which invited J.H. Thomas to be its parliamentary candidate. Derby was moving from Liberal to Labour. Reuben Farrow, as one of the first three socialist town councillors, was at the centre of this historical shift. He represented Pear Tree Ward, where the Wheeldons lived.

But, the development from local Socialist Society into a section of a national party seeking office was not a smooth affair. Reuben Farrow was aware of losses as well as gains. Though a political colleague of Jim Thomas, his approach to socialist politics was fundamentally different. Farrow disapproved of what he saw as Jim Thomas' 'opportunism, and Jim Thomas was impatient with Farrow's ethical pacifism. Farrow wrote:

The expression 'close colleagues' only applied to public affairs. I found 'personal friendship' very difficult. I had become a 'Christian Pacifist' – it was evident that he considered this a hindrance in political 'fights' something to be hidden away. All my political activities stemmed from my Christian principles; it seemed to me that he was an 'opportunist' whose prevailing endeavours were based upon the idea 'how can we score a victory?' Ethics seemed to take second place.

The extent of the influence of the ethical socialism Reuben Farrow describes has been underestimated. The development of the Labour Party and the rise of the Communist Party marginalized the view that socialism was not simply about external changes but about living differently by creating a new culture of everyday life. Its supporters were increasingly dismissed, on the left as well as the right, as cranks or hypocrites. The ramifications of ethical socialism, however, enabled socialists to envisage a wider transformation of social relationships than was possible simply by voting for a party or by changing economic ownership. It was a means of imagining a freer, happier way of living in a co-operative commonwealth, at peace with the natural world. In Sheffield, the socialist writer and lecturer Edward Carpenter described ethical socialism as the 'broader socialism'. It could embrace vegetarianism, nudism, the emancipation of women, sexual liberation, anti-pollution campaigns, the design of furniture and dress, magnetism, spiritualism and progressive schooling.

Reuben Farrow's opposition to social inequality and injustice, extended to a commitment to women's participation. His own wife, Florence, took part in the socialist and co-operative movements and he highlights the presence of 'an ample reservoir of baby sitters' in his reminiscences of Derby socialism. This was advanced thinking indeed in the early twentieth century.

While Farrow's ethical socialism was mild and moderate, it was nonetheless deeply felt and he stuck to his principles. His unease with leaders like Jim Thomas was submerged by a more clear-cut battle that split the Derby Socialists. He recalled that the membership:

Fell into two distinct camps. One was frankly atheistic and Marxist, the other was sincerely 'socialist', but based upon Christian ethics. The latter were numerically a majority – but were not so regular in attendance as the others, because we were busy with other activities, such as our Trade Union branches and Ward Election Committees. In our absence, the extremists would pass resolutions in favour of disaffiliating from the Independent Labour Party (ILP). We insisted that, as the resolutions had not been announced to all members beforehand, they were invalid. So, at a subsequent meeting we reasserted our loyalty to the ILP. This happened several times. We got tired of this – so it was privately agreed that we ILPers should simply hand in our separate resignations; leave the others 'in possession' and meet on other premises. There, we formed a new branch of the ILP, the National H.Q. accepted us as the continuation of the previous Socialist Society, and that trouble was settled!

The neat organizational manoeuvre worked, but it did not quell the rumbling dissatisfaction on the left with the Labour representatives in Parliament. This extended beyond Derby. The Osborne Judgement in the House of Lords in 1909 had prevented trades unions putting forward candidates and giving funds to political parties. It struck effectively at the financial basis of the new Labour Members of Parliament and left them effectively tied to the coat-tails of the Liberals.

Outside, left opposition grew. G.D.H. Cole comments:

Rising prices, with wages lagging behind, were leading to a growth of industrial militancy and to a preaching of 'direct action' doctrines which denied the effectiveness of parliamentary proceedings and denounced the Labour parliamentarians as 'collaborationists' whose compromising tactics blurred the realities of the class war. Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism were in the air, and owed their vogue not only to the lag in real wages but also to the catchingness of the militancy of the women suffragists and of the Ulster diehards and their English conservative allies.

Sylvia Pankhurst presents this conflict as a clear-cut contest between 'revolutionary Marxism ... against the old trade unionism, and the opportunist political Labourism of Macdonald'. But this was a retrospective view, and from a particular vantage point. At a local level, stances and assumptions did not fall neatly on one side or another.

Moreover some of the ethical aspirations towards a new life crossed over the divisions between the reformist and the revolutionary left. Reuben Farrow describes his Derby Christian Socialist friend, Bert Parker, as, growing a beard and being, 'very unorthodox in dress'. He was committed to a diet of 'fruits and vegetables, chiefly uncooked' and drank water rather than coffee. Advocating the 'thorough mastication of simple foods', he taught Reuben Farrow unusual exercises, which sound like yoga.

Vegetarianism, alternative approaches to diet and equality between the sexes were part of the broad 'new life' to which many feminists and socialists, including some of Alice Wheeldon's friends, Lydia Robinson and her daughter Dorothy Groves, aspired. Lydia Robinson was a member of the Socialist Labour Party, her daughter ran a health food shop, selling fruit and vegetables in which the eldest Wheeldon daughter, Nellie, worked. They were all keen members of the Clarion cycling club. Hettie believed in rational dress and she and Winnie were pioneers of short hair in Derby, a mark of being a 'modern' woman long before the 1920s flappers turned it into a fashion. So, while Alice and Hettie were inclined to denounce Reuben for being a 'pale pink socialist' in the Derby Socialist Society and did not share his religious views, they, too, wanted changes in everyday life especially in women's position.

The pre-war rebel milieu to which they belonged was eclectic, open to ideas, in favour of women's suffrage, welcoming socialists of all kinds and suspicious of Parliament – without dismissing it completely The social and recreational worlds of the Herald League and the Clarion Clubs (organized around the socialist newspapers, the Herald and the Clarion) created a network in which an alternative politics to parliamentary Labour could thrive. Alice, Hettie and Nellie Wheeldon lived among working-class and lower-middle-class women and men in Derby who identified with a radical culture in which all manner of advanced ideas were being eagerly debated, but was quite apart from upper-class metropolitan politics and values.

This world was given a rude shock by the outbreak of war in 1914. Old alliances were shaken up and new ones forged in the struggle to maintain and develop an opposition to the war.


The Socialist Labour Party and Marxism

Quite when Hettie Wheeldon met Arthur McManus, the man she was to marry in 1920, is unclear. Tom Bell recalls that his friend Arthur McManus 'had been frequenting Derby in connection with the shop stewards' movement' and that Arthur McManus was a 'welcome visitor at the Wheeldons, but does not say precisely when these visits occurred. McManus addressed meetings in Derby in January 1916, on the Clyde Workers' Committee's organization and policy. Moreover two of his friends in the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), the small Marxist group to which Arthur McManus belonged, were in the area. John S. Clarke was working on the Turner's farm at Arleston and Willie Paul came to stay at nearby Littleover. Together, they kept the SLP paper The Socialist going. Paul set up a clothing stall in the market, with help from an eccentric SLP businessman, W.R. Stoker of Wigan, and he consulted Alice Wheeldon because she was in the second-hand clothes business. But there is no evidence that McManus knew the Wheeldons personally in 1916. While Hettie would have known of McManus as a prominent figure on the left, their love affair developed after the trial.

Raymond Challinor stated that Arthur and Hettie were 'engaged' at the time of the trial in 1917 and I followed his account in my play and in 'Rebel Networks in the First World War'. We were both in error. The oral testimonies of the descendants of Alice Wheeldon's friend, Lydia Robinson, Fay Kidger and Betty Keeling, along with the letters in the Metropolitan Police Files, reveal that Hettie was seriously involved with a man called Walt Goodman in 1916 — 17. The first explicit references to a link between McManus and the Wheeldons are in 1919. He attended the funeral of Alice Wheeldon and was living with Hettie later in the year.

Tom Bell has left us an affectionate portrait of his friend in his autobiography Pioneering Days (1941). Arthur McManus' Irish Catholic parents had intended him for the priesthood, but he 'fled' to the factory instead. His father was a committed Fenian; his mother idolized her younger son, a small, wiry boy, but he 'was at the same time the despair of her heart on account of his waywardness'. Like many other women of Irish descent in Scotland, Bell says she 'had known what it was like to harbour men "on the run" from the police, in the midst of a grinding struggle to get ends to meet'

McManus' first job was at the Singer sewing machine factory at Kilbowie, Clydebank, which was run on American lines according to Frederick W. Taylor's 'Principles of Scientific Management' Taylor was enthused by a crusading spirit against 'autonomous and inefficient' work groups. The techniques of time and motion study, which he developed were used to analyse the craft skills in the production process. Once grasped by management, these were broken up into simpler, less skilled operations thus polarizing mental and manual labour as well as undermining the trade union organization of the craftworkers. Rebellion against this 'dilution' of skilled work came in the form of individual resistance, going slow, sabotage and absenteeism. It also produced a new form of political organizing, through the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States – the 'committee from the base. 'Shop stewards' were thus directly elected by the work force.


Excerpted from "Friends of Alice Wheeldon"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Sheila Rowbotham.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, viii,
Introduction, xi,
Abbreviations, 1,
1. Radical Politics in Derby, 2,
2. The Socialist Labour Party and Marxism, 8,
3. Industrial Rebellion in the First World War, 22,
4. Resisting the War, 30,
5. Intertwining Discontents, 37,
6. Spies and the Shop Stewards' Movement, 43,
7. The 'Poison Plot', 51,
8. Divisions within the State, 63,
9. Rival Intelligence Agencies, 71,
10. Prison and its Aftermath, 85,
11. Bearing the Burden, 90,
12. Preparing for Power, 105,
Playscript, 113,
Afterword, 186,
Glossary, 191,
Notes, 194,
Index, 216,

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