Letters relating to the death of Sir Henry Wilson – a glimpse of unionist politics in 1922

In autumn 2017, the Letters 1916-1923 team went to Belfast to source Northern Irish collections. The most extensive public collection we photographed is the government correspondence relating to the death of Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in 1922.

Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson

These letters with the archival ID CAB/6/89 are now kept at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and belong to the Cabinet Secretariat papers produced in Belfast after the independence of the Irish south.

Sir Henry Wilson was a respected British army officer who engaged in unionist politics after the First World War. His modern biographer Keith Jeffery (Queen’s University, Belfast) has described him as “one of the most controversial British soldiers of the modern age.” Having retired from the army, Wilson became an Irish MP and chief security adviser to the newly established Northern Ireland government. Due to his passionate unionism and political office, he “became a target for nationalist Irish militants, being identified with the security policies of the Belfast regime.” (Keith Jeffery) Historians believe that Henry Wilson did not encourage Protestant sectarian violence, but the publication of his opinionated diaries in 1927 cemented the republican perception that he was “some sort of Machiavellian monster”. In the light of Wilson’s disputed role in Irish politics, the letters in PRONI CAB/6/89 are a great source of unionist opinion and uncover the tensions which followed the Anglo-Irish treaty.

In letter CAB6/89/89 of 6th April 1922, Northern Irish government secretary Wilfrid Spender tells Sir Henry that he holds the ‘Official I.R.A.’ responsible for disturbances in Northern Ireland. He forwards an intercepted republican order that appears to confirm his views. Moreover, Spender accuses Michael Collins (referred to as Mr. Collins) of ill-suited communications with Northern Ireland. Spender also believes that Collins is too preoccupied with ‘Northern Affairs’ and should be focusing on the situation in the southern provinces of Ireland.

Georgiana, Countess of Dudley

Letters written after 22nd June 1922 detail how Henry Wilson’s colleagues and friends reacted to his assassination by Irish republicans in front of his London flat. The letters especially cover efforts by the Northern Irish government to provide for Wilson’s widow, Cecil Mary (née Wray). A commission was instituted to find accommodation for Lady Wilson in either England or Scotland. Among the fellow politicians and personal friends who supported Cecil Wilson after her husband’s death were Northern Irish Prime Minister James Craig, Wilfrid Spender, Brigadier General Hon. Robert White (1861-1936), Lord Armaghdale and Colonel Robert Gordon Sharman-Crawford.

Newspaper article commemorating Sir Henry Wilson in June 1922

Robert White, for his part, spent several weeks with Georgina, Countess of Dudley (1846-1929), at Pembroke Lodge in Surrey, England, during his travels on Lady Wilson’s behalf. The Countess of Dudley had served as a nurse during the Boer War and volunteered in a convalescent hospital for disabled officers during the First World War. This is where she may first have made Robert White’s acquaintance. These complex and trans-regional networks reflected in the letters relating to Sir Henry Wilson’s death make them one of the most fascinating collections in the Letters 1916-1923 database. The collection shows how many people in Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom were affected by Henry Wilson’s death, and how quickly his name became an epitome of unionist resilience. Furthermore, historian Michael Hopkinson (author of “Green against green: the Irish Civil War”) has found that Wilson’s death put great pressure on the provisional government in Dublin as rumours about the gunmen’s collaboration with the Four Courts spread. Wilson’s fellow politicians in Northern Ireland commemorated him as ‘the Ulster Martyr’, and loyalist newspapers referred to him as the ‘soldier-statesman’. The committee instituted in his honour also raised funds to build a memorial. The Sir Henry Wilson memorial was erected in Winchester Cathedral, and its inscription reads: “To those whom godlike deeds forbid to die unbar the gates of immortality.”

We are excited that this unique collection is now publicly accessible on our website.

Biographies of Sir Henry Wilson and editions of his diaries and letters:

Basil Collier: Brasshat. A biography of Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. [With plates, including portraits, and maps], London 1961.

Bernard Ash: Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Bart., G.C.B., D.S.O. His life and diaries, etc. [With portraits], London, Cassell & Co. 1927. (2 vols.)

Keith Jeffery: Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson : an Irish soldier, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2006.

The military correspondence of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, 1918-1922, edited by Keith Jeffery, London, Bodley Head for the Army Records Society 1985.

Keith Jeffery: Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson : a political soldier. Oxford, Oxford University Press 2008.
URL: http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip0519/2005027739.html

The diaries of FM Sir Henry Wilson, GCB KCB CB DSO 1893-1922, photographed by the London Imperial War Museum, 10 microfilm reels, held by the Imperial War Museum Department of Documents and Queen’s University Belfast.

Sir Henry Wilson memorial, Winchester Cathedral, England

In researching the historical background of the Sir Henry Wilson collection, we have been generously supported by:

Janet Hurst, historian from West-Berkshire, Goring Gap Local History Society:

Sue Barber, archivist at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park, Surrey, England:

Richmond Local Studies Collection:

Jo Bartholomew, Curator and Librarian, Winchester Cathedral:

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