By Prof Lois Bibbings, Professor of Law, Gender and History (University of Bristol Law School).
History matters in the context of criminal justice; it matters that our criminal justice system lives up to standards of justice and upholds due process in respect of the past. The strength of support for this view is, for example, shown in the successful campaign to pardon men executed by British Forces during the First World War (the Shot at Dawn campaign).
Miscarriages of justice cases, such as those of the Birmingham Six and Judith Ward, also illustrate the importance of righting the wrongs of the past when it comes to crime. One hundred years ago today another such injustice occurred and efforts are now being made to right this wrong.
At the Old Bailey on March 10th 1917 Alice Wheeldon, her daughter, Winnie Mason, and her son-in-law, Alf Mason, were convicted of conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George along with the leader of the Labour Party Arthur Henderson and other persons unspecified. Alice was sentenced to 10 years of penal servitude, with Alf receiving 7 years and Winnie 5. Their efforts to appeal were rejected and so they were sent to prison. Alice went on hunger strike, was released early due to ill-health but died of influenza in 1919. Alf and Winnie were released unexpectedly at the end of the war.
Alice was 51 in 1917 and ran a second hand clothing shop. Alf (24) was a chemist and Winnie (23) a schoolteacher. The family were politically active, supporting female suffrage and pacifism and opposing military conscription. One of Alice’s other children, William, was a conscientious objector and in hiding from the authorities. At this point in history the family’s anti-war views would, of course, have made them unpopular with the pro-war establishment, something that forms a backdrop to the criminal case which was brought against them.
In 1917 Alice was approached by ‘Alex Gordon’ who claimed to be a conscientious objector on the run. In fact, he was a government spy. Gordon persuaded Alice to obtain some poison. Subsequently his story was that this was to be used in an assassination, whilst Alice, Alf and Winnie maintained that he had told them that it was to be given to given to guard dogs at a conscientious objector work camp. Gordon did not appear at the trial but his narrative, which was presented to the jury along with the Wheeldons and Masons political allegiances, led to their convictions.
Today the evidence carefully compiled by researchers suggests that, far from planning murder, Alice, Alf and Winnie, were merely bent on assisting the anti-war movement and conscientious objectors. However, in seeking to achieve this they had become implicated in a fictitious conspiracy which was the invention of a government spy.
Now a campaign to reopen the case and bring it before the Court of Appeal is underway with the aim of totally exonerating Alice, Alf and Winnie and a vigil for the three is being held outside the Royal Courts of Justice to mark the centenary of the convictions.
Amongst those attending this event will be Chloë and Deirdre Mason, great-granddaughters of Alice. Their powerful accounts of their family history demonstrate that history also matters in the context of criminal justice because it impacts upon people. The harms done by the criminal justice system to the Wheeldon/Mason family span a little over a century, they have been considerable and they continue.
I support the campaign, have done a little to assist it and am honoured to be attending the vigil. If you would like to know more and/or are keen to show your support more information is available at http://www.alicewheeldon.org/.
To learn more about WW1 conscientious objectors, you can read my previous blog.