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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Alexander Wilson

Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson was born in Dover on 24 October 1893, to an English father (Alexander Wilson, 1864-1919) and an Irish mother (Annie Maria, nee O'Toole, 1866-1936), who were married in Hong Kong in 1886. His father had had a 40-year career in the British Army from 15-year-old boy bugler to Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps when he died in 1919. His father served throughout the Boer War, receiving the Queen Victoria and King Edward VII medals. He was mentioned in despatches for his managing and supplying of hospital ships and trains from the Western Front. In the final year of World War I he was responsible for all medical supplies to the British Army in Europe.

In his childhood Alexander Wilson's family followed his father to Mauritius, Singapore, Hong Kong and Ceylon. He was educated at St. Joseph's College, Hong Kong, a prestigious public school, and St Boniface's Catholic College in Plymouth where he played amateur soccer.

Wilson was a Naval Cadet in 1911-12, training at Devonport. He served in the Royal Navy at the start of World War I. A reference in a War Office document indicated he had been in the Royal Naval Air Service and crashed his plane. He was then commissioned in 1915 in the Royal Army Service Corps escorting motor transports and supplies to France.

On 2 March 1916, Wilson married Gladys Ellen Kellaway (1896-1991), the daughter of Frank Herbert Kellaway, a retired postal clerk, and Ellen Mary (nee Collier). Gladys lived at Foxbury, Lyndhurst, and Wilson at the time was living in Princes Crescent, Lyndhurst, the two marrying at the local church.

That same year, Wilson received disabling injuries to his knee and shrapnel wounds to the left side of his body before being invalided, and received the Silver War Badge. He attempted to re-enlist, pretending he was perfectly fit when he arrived at a recruitment office in 1917. Wilson's first son, Adrian, was born that same year.

In 1919, Wilson joined the merchant navy, serving as a purser on a requisitioned German liner SS Prinzessin, sailing from London to Vancouver via South Africa, China and Japan. He was arrested on his arrival in Vancouver, accused of stealing £151 and sentenced to six months with hard labour at Oakalla Prison Farm, British Columbia.

Wilson and his wife were actor-managers of a world-renowned touring repertory company in the early 1920s, during which time they had two more children, Dennis (1921) and Daphne (1922).

Responding to an advert in The Times, Wilson—now using the name Alexander Douglas Gordon Chesney Wilson—went to India to become Professor of English Literature at Islamia College, the University of Punjab in Lahore (now part of Pakistan). He began writing spy novels while in India and received his first contract for The Mystery of Tunnel 51 from Longmans and Green Co. in 1927. His fictional chief of the British Intelligence Service, Sir Leonard Wallace, first appears in Chapter IX from page 59. There is no documentary evidence that Wilson himself had any connections with MI6 (The Secret Intelligence Service), MI5 (The Security Service) IPI (Indian Political Intelligence in London) or the Indian Intelligence Bureau in Delhi at this time.

While in the post at Lahore, he travelled around the North-West Frontier, learned Urdu and Persian and was appointed an honorary Major in the Indian Army Reserve while in command of Islamia College's UTC (University Training Corps) which amounted to half a company. In his application for the Emergency Officer War Reserve in 1939 he said that during these years, he also spent time in Arabia, Ceylon and Palestine. Wilson had a leading role in Lahore's only all Muslim College that educated and trained for the British Indian Army the sons of Waziristan Chiefs and farmers from the North West Frontier. The Soviet Comintern was active in subversion and supporting insurrection. Between 1928 and 1932 the British authorities were combating a heightening of terrorist plots and assassinations. Tensions were raised by hunger strikes and the Lahore Conspiracy Case during which pro-independence activists died and were sentenced to death.

He was interviewed and appointed as an English professor by the then principal of Islamia College, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (an author, academic and educationalist who went on to translate the Quran). Wilson provided a positive and sympathetic portrait of Abdullah in his second novel The Devil's Cocktail (1928), as the principal of a fictional Sheranwalla College, Lahore. He succeeded Yusuf Ali as principal of Islamia College in 1928 until he resigned in 1931.

His first spy novel, The Mystery of Tunnel 51, featuring the character Sir Leonard Wallace, was published in 1928. The struggle by Wallace and his intelligence officers and agents to battle against the Soviet Union, terrorism and subversion in the British Empire, the tentacles of global organised crime, and Nazi Germany would feature in eight subsequent novels. That same year he also published The Devil's Cocktail.

Wilson's first four books were published by Longmans Green & Co in 1928–1931 and in addition to the two spy novels first featuring Sir Leonard Wallace and the British Secret Service, Murder Mansion (1929) and The Death of Dr. Whitelaw were both crime thrillers.

It was during this period that Wilson met Dorothy Phyllis Wick an actress and singer who arrived in India with the Grand Guignol Theatre Company. As early as 1928, newspapers in Lahore were giving her name as Mrs. Dorothy Wilson, although no record has been found of a marriage. Her husband began editing a daily English-language newspaper in Lahore in 1931 while Dorothy returned to England.

Alexander followed in 1933 and, in October 1933, Dorothy gave birth to a son, Michael Wilson. The family lived in Little Venice in London W9, but after 18 months Alexander Wilson returned to his first wife and family, now living in Southampton. After a further 18 months, in 1935 Wilson moved to London, telling Gladys that he intended to find somewhere for them all to live. Instead, he returned to Dorothy.

Wilson's next novel, The Crimson Dacoit, appeared in 1933 from Herbert Jenkins, who thereafter became his main publisher of novels for the next seven years. The novel was well-received by The Scotsman, who described it as
... a romance of modern Indian politics and crime by a writer, Major Alexander Wilson, who has considerable knowledge of the field and the subject. A series of risings, accompanied by outrages, occur in a district of the Punjab in which Ian Hunter is a superintendent of police. They culminate, to his mind, in the abduction of an English girl in whom he takes a personal interest. In the quest, zealous and efficient help is rendered by another, but a native, member of the Indian police, Rai Bahadur Surdar Gopal Singh, and suspicion falls on a certain Ram Chandra Jawaya Pal, a graduate of Cambridge, as being a secret agent of the Revolutionaries, although behind him is perceived the mysterious figure of the "Crimson Dacoit," so called because he keeps his face partially covered by a crimson veil. Failing other means of tracing the headquarters of the gang, where they have hidden Vera Saunders, Hunter and his two friends, Lambert and Chesney, set out on a private quest, very ill provided, as quickly turns out, with the means of accomplishing their purpose. They succeed, however, in tracing the dacoits to a cave in a nullah in the hills, where a thunderstorm and flood come in a timely way to their assistance; and, as the acute reader of the story may have come to suspect, the real villain of the piece is discovered in the immaculate Gopal Singh. (The Scotsman, 23 March 1933)
Two months later, T. Werner Laurie published another story by Wilson, which could not have been more different. Confessions of a Scoundrel appeared under the pseudonym of Geoffrey Spencer, the same surname used by the first actual 'C' Mansfield Smith-Cumming when renting the MI6 headquarters at 2 Whitehall Court. The book was a dramatic autobiography of a jewel-thief, forger, burglar and murderer, which some reviewers took to be factual. "Ericus" of The Bystander offered his blunt opinion:
Villainy, unmitigated and unashamed, is the main-spring of Confessions of a Scoundrel by Geoffrey Spencer. This is, I imagine, fiction founded on a modicum of fact, though how much of it is fact and how much fiction, I would not like to say—and, anyway, who cares about that? The central figure of this autobiography was set on the downward path by a pious fraud of a parson and early acquired that craving for women and the excitement that goes, as he says, with making money unlawfully, which brought him inevitably to the stickiest of endings. A crude, callous, and somewhat naive record of the glittering underworld of Europe, Australia and America, of card-sharping and forgery and jewel-thieving and brothel-keeping, ending with the violent extinction of the clergyman who began it all. (The Bystander, 31 May 1933)
Wilson's biographer, Tim Crook, has noted that the book "bears very close resemblance to the text, plot and theme of a novel published a year later by Herbert Jenkins titled ‘The Sentimental Crook’." Wilson's 1934 novel featured Michael Granville, who specialises in card-sharping and forgery and shows considerable ingenuity in planning his 'coups'. The Scotsman (28 May 1934) thought it daring to make such a character the hero of the book, but "There was something to be said for the young man, but not much. The excitement of the game meant more to him than its rewards, and he had been brought up very neglectfully. At any rate, his exploits are thrilling enough, but it is a pity that his eventual reformation is caused by a realisation, following a spell in prison, that the game is not worth the candle, rather than on moral grounds."
Tim Crook notes that only one New Zealand journalist appears to have noticed the similarities between the two books:'s a case of two novels which, although the books have different titles, were brought out by different publishers, and bear different names of authors, are almost identical, except for some pages at the beginning and the end of the volumes.
The reviewer for the Evening Post (26 September 1935) noted that "Certain incidents have been given a slight 'twist' in detail, but generally the settings and characters are the same. When approached on the matter of this 'coincidence' neither publisher would make a statement; they were 'going into the question.'"

Clearly Herbert Jenkins had no problems with the situation, as Wilson's books were proving very popular with the reading public and, one has to assume, none of the reading public had complained. Wilson had reintroduced Sir Leonard Wallace in a series of books that appeared throughout the 1930s, beginning with Wallace of the Secret Service (1933), a collection of stories which ranged through Egypt, Morocco, Russia, Greece and India, Get Wallace (1934), a novel involving the theft of national secrets in the UK, and His Excellency, Governor Wallace (1935), which saw Wallace solving a plot to undermine British control in Hong-Kong.

The following review of Wilson's next novel will give you an idea of how popular his books were with contemporary reviewers:
Alexander Wilson in “Microbes of Power” paints for us a picture of possibilities for a future war, when some ruthless power may utilise the  myriads of disease germs to cripple a rival nation.
    Certainly in this yarn,  when Sir Leonard Wallace, Head of the British Secret Service, and his subordinates get on the track of obscure events in Cyprus, they did not think they were being led up to a gigantic conspiracy to lay the world in ruins. The narrative is couched in the most exciting vein, with unexpected twists to the theme. It is hackneyed to say that it is impossible to put such a book down, but this only comes into this class. Adventures and death build up to a terrific climax in a burning house , and he will be a very exacting reader who does not get his money’s worth out of “Microbes of Power.” (Gloucester Citizen, 3 August 1937)
The next Wallace novel, Wallace at Bay (1938), took place in and around Little Venice, an area very familiar to its author, where Wallace tackles international anarchists. Wallace Intervenes (1939) dealt explicitly with Nazi Germany – even featuring a huge swastika on the cover – and concerned a British agent who has fallen in love with a confident of Marshal von Strom, who has him imprisoned and the girl sentenced to death.

This was followed by the collection The Chronicles of the Secret Service (1940), containing three novellas set in Hong-Kong, Afghanistan and London.

He also published under two further pseudonyms. Under the name Gregory Wilson, writing for The Modern Publishing Company, he authored The Factory Mystery and The Boxing Mystery in 1938. Under the name Michael Chesney he wrote a trilogy of further spy novels of imperial adventure featuring the central character Colonel Geoffrey Callaghan 'Chief of Military Intelligence' between 1938 and 1939. Callaghan of Intelligence, "Steel" Callaghan and Callaghan Meets His Fate were published by Herbert Jenkins. The novel Double Masquerade and the previously mentioned Wallace collection, both published by Herbert Jenkins in 1940, proved to be his last.

It was Michael, Alexander Wilson's son by his second marriage, who, in 2005 at the age of 73, began the investigation into his father's past. He had changed his name by deed poll to Mike Shannon when setting out on his career as an actor and poet. When he was only nine years old his mother and her family told him his father had been killed in the Battle of El Alamein and he did not discover the truth until 2006.

Michael suspected his father was involved in intelligence activities as an agent in the 1920s and 1930s and he based this supposition on his memory of seeing his father meet Joachim Ribbentrop at the German Embassy in Carlton House Terrace, London in the spring of 1938 and other meetings with mysterious men to whom his father spoke fluent German. It is certain that Wilson was in MI6 in 1940, by which time he had left Michael's mother Dorothy and met his third wife, Alison McKelvie, a secretary in MI6.

They were married on 8 September 1941 in Kensington, London (Wilson using the name Alexander Douglas Gordon Wilson), a few months after the death of Alison's father, George Lockhart McKelvie, a solicitor. The couple had been living together for some months and a son, Gordon, was born in January 1942.

In 1942, Wilson told his wife Alison that he was dismissed from MI6 to go into the field as an agent. He said his subsequent misadventures, including being declared bankrupt, though never discharged, and being jailed for petty crime, were part of the cover he had to adopt for operational reasons.

In May 2013 a second tranche of Foreign Office files connected with intelligence matters was released to the National Archives at Kew. This included a file marked 'The Case of the Egyptian Ambassador,' and concerned an MI5 investigation into alleged espionage by the ambassador and his staff in London from the beginning of the war. The papers refer to an SIS/MI6 translator who was accused of embroidering his record of eavesdropping on telephone calls to and from the Embassy. Although the translator's name is redacted it is likely to refer to Alexander Wilson since the details disclosed match those included in the first part of Alison Wilson's memoir written for her two sons and quoted from in Tim Crook's biography of Wilson, The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, published in 2010.

The file reveals that the translator of Hindustani, Persian and Arabic had joined the service in October 1939 and been dismissed from SIS in October 1942. It was reported that he had faked a burglary at his flat and been in serious trouble with the police. The Director General of MI5 Brigadier Sir David Petrie stated that the fact he was no longer in the service was: '...perhaps some small compensation for the amount of trouble to which his inventive mind has put us all. A fabricator, such as this man was, is a great public danger.' The then Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Stewart Menzies wrote: 'I do not think it at all likely that we shall again have the bad luck to strike a man who combines a blameless record, first rate linguistic abilities, remarkable gifts as a writer of fiction, and no sense of responsibility in using them!

During the war, with the publishing industry in chaos, Wilson, then living at 32 Craven Hill Gardens, London W2, went into bankruptcy in January 1944. He was receiving financial aid from his eldest son Adrian around this time, although his bankruptcy notice reveals that he is "temporarily employed in a Government Department".

On 2 October 1944, as Alexander Joseph Wilson, he was charged at Marylebone with masquerading as a colonel in the Indian Army with seven decorations, to four of which he was not entitled.A detective said that he stopped Wilson when he was wearing the uniform, R.A.F. wings, D.S.O., D.S.C., the laurel leaf for mention in despatches, and the Croix-de-Guerre, in addition to the three decorations from the Great War to which he was entitled. Wilson told the magistrate he hated being out of khaki at this time, and this masquerade was sheer madness. He admitted the charge of wearing the uniform contrary to the Defence Regulations, and was remanded.

During his trial at Marylebone later that month, Detective-Sergeant Manning said that the accused was living far beyond his income from writing and had been under police observation for some time because he had been posing as a colonel. Wilson said that he was keen to get back into the army and it played on his mind when he was not accepted. The Magistrate said it was a scandalous thing to do and fined Wilson £10.

Wilson found work as a cinema manager, but was prosecuted in 1948 for embezzling the takings from one of the cinemas. He subsequently worked as a porter in the casualty unit of West Middlesex Hispital. Whilst there, he met and, in January 1955, married a 27-year-old nurse, Elizabeth Hill, with whom he had another son, Douglas. Elizabeth and Duncan later moved to Scotland, although she kept in touch with her husband, who continued his parallel life, living with Alison.

She had suffered greatly from Wilson's fantastical lies, one of the earliest that he was a relative of Winston Churchill and his grand home had been requisitioned and would be returned once the war was over. His arrest in 1944 occurred as they were leaving Sunday Mass, Alison pregnant with their second son, Nigel. After his second period of imprisonment, they were forced to move regularly: 17 times in  17 years. His compulsion to lie continued: in later life he claimed he was returning to work for the Foreign Office when, in fact, he obtained a job as a clerk at Sandersons Wallpaper factory in Perivale, Ealing.

Wilson died at 13 Lancaster Gardens, Ealing, W13, of a heart attack due to atheroma on 4 April 1963, aged 69. While Alison was aware of his affairs, and knew of Dorothy (from whom she believed Wilson was divorced) and her son Michael, she only found out about Wilson's first wife and children whilst dealing with his papers. Wilson was buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth, where Alison first met Grace – pretending to be distant relatives to keep the truth from Alison's sons.

At first with no tombstone, although one was erected in 2008 following a gathering of Wilson's extended family.

Sam Wilson, a BBC journalist, wrote a lengthy article for The Times in 2010 that explored the impact of his grandfather's complicated private life on his various families."In total he had four families; four wives and seven children ... None of the families was aware of any other. But he tended to them all – lavishing the same love and attention on them [all] ... he was a loving dad, generous, fun and a sincere Roman Catholic."

Wilson made a number of attempts to revive his literary career in later life, four unpublished manuscripts surviving him: the thriller Murder in Duplicate, a western The Englishman From Texas, a spy thriller Out of the Land of Egypt (written in the late 1950s as by Col. Alan C. Wilson; the author previously used the title in Wallace of the Secret Service) and a handwritten MS dating from 1961.

In 2015–16 Allison & Busby republished nine of Wilson's Wallace of the Secret Service novels. The Daily Mail said of the re-issue of The Mystery of Tunnel 51 "prepare for a romping read," and that it was the "first of nine fast and furious adventures."


The Mystery of Tunnel 51. London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1928.
The Devil's Cocktail. London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1928.
Murder Mansion. London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1929.
The Death of Dr. Whitelaw. London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1930.
The Crimson Dacoit. London, Herbert Jenkins, Mar 1933.
The Confessions of a Scoundrel (as Geoffrey Spencer). London, T Werner Laurie, May 1933.
Wallace of the Secret Service. London, Herbert Jenkins, 1933.
Get Wallace! London, Herbert Jenkins, 1934.
The Sentimental Crook. London, Herbert Jenkins, Apr 1934.
The Magnificent Hobo. London, Herbert Jenkins, 1935.
His Excellency, Governor Wallace. London, Herbert Jenkins, 1936.
Microbes of Power. London, Herbert Jenkins, 1937.
Mr Justice. London, Herbert Jenkins, 1937.
Double Events. London, Herbert Jenkins, 1937.
Wallace At Bay. London, Herbert Jenkins, 1938.
The Factory Mystery (as Gregory Wilson). London, Modern Publishing Company, 1938.
The Boxing Mystery (as Gregory Wilson). London, Modern Publishing Company, 1938.
Callaghan of Intelligence (as Michael Chesney). Herbert Jenkins, 1938.
Scapegoats for Murder. London, Herbert Jenkins, Mar 1939.
"Steel" Callaghan (as Michael Chesney). London, Herbert Jenkins, Mar 1939.
Callaghan Meets His Fate (as Michael Chesney). London, Herbert Jenkins, Nov 1939.
Wallace Intervenes. London, Herbert Jenkins, Dec 1939.
Double Masquerade. London, Herbert Jenkins, Mar 1940.
Chronicles of the Secret Service. London, Herbert Jenkins, Aug 1940.

Selected English Prose Stories for Indian Students, with Mohammad Din. Lahore, Shamsher Singh & Co., 1926.
Four Periods of Essays. Lahore, Rai Sahib M. Gulab Singh & Sons, 1928.
Selected English Essays (From Steele to Benson). Lahore, Uttar Chand Kapur & Sons, 1930.

(* I picked up a novel by Alexander Wilson on Saturday and, knowing nothing about him,  checked him out on Wikipedia. His life and various careers proved utterly fascinating, hence this column, which is partly based on his Wikipedia entry – they've lifted plenty from Bear Alley, so I think it's only fair – although I've added many additional details. Further details about his work can be found at Tim Crook's website, Alexander Wilson – Author, Adventurer and Spy)

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