The double life of Walter Johnson, British Union District Leader Pudsey.
On page 6 of ‘Blackshirts-on-Sea’ the author writes: “Any group study of Mosleyites inevitably comes to the conclusion that none of them could be described as ‘ordinary’”. This is certainly true of Walter Wroe Johnson, the British Union District Leader for Pudsey and Otley in Yorkshire.
Walter was born in 1872 and at an early age entered the family business of Johnson and Sons at Castleton Foundry near Leeds. The company specialised in brickmaking and mining equipment and had strong U.S. connections: the town of Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania, was named after it.
In 1892 he married Ann Greetham and was soon blessed with two daughters. Later, Walter became Managing Director of the company and he divided his working week between the Foundry in Yorkshire and their sales office in London.
Early in 1934 Walter heard Mosley speak at the Royal Albert Hall and his life was never the same again. He and his wife signed up at the Pudsey branch where he quickly became Unit Leader for Wharfdale and then District Leader for Pudsey.
Walter gave generously to British Union, distributed a quire of ‘Action’ every week and whenever Mosley spoke in Leeds he always dined with the Johnsons at their house in Wharfdale. Walter hosted the local British Union Business Group that held lunches at the Griffin in Leeds several times a month and on at least one occasion he held a large garden party in the Leader’s honour. Mosley no doubt considered the Pudsey leadership was in good hands.
Walter Johnson’s other life and wife.
One fine day in London in the early 1900s, Walter met and fell in love with Elizabeth Coleman. This was to be no mere fling – he wanted to marry her, live with her and have children with her. But at the same time he wasn’t prepared to abandon his existing wife and daughters.
What would be a tricky one for most men had a glaringly obvious solution for Walter. Not prepared to commit bigamy, he set up home with Elizabeth in a prestigious apartment at Hurlingham Court, overlooking the river at Putney Bridge, where they lived as man and wife. To keep the arrangement secret and avoid scandal, Walter Wroe Johnson became Walter Wilfred Wallace for the half of the week he spent in London and Elizabeth also assumed the surname Wallace.
Of course, Elizabeth knew about Walter’s real wife and family up north and was prepared to share her part-time ‘husband’. Perhaps even more surprising, Walter told his real wife about the London arrangement and she too was prepared to accept it.
Events followed their course and in 1907 Elizabeth gave birth to a son whom they named Walter Vivian Wallace. In 1918 a daughter Jean Alison Wallace arrived. Walter senior was insistent to the point of paranoia that neither child should ever know about his real wife and daughters in Yorkshire.
As the years turned into decades, Walter became more confident that his double life would never be discovered. But deep down there was always the nagging fear that one day the truth would out.
Walter’s second membership of British Union.
We have seen how Walter Johnson and his real wife joined British Union in Pudsey. At the same time he also joined the local Fulham West branch of British Union under his London name of Walter Wilfred Wallace. Elizabeth Wallace joined too.
Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for the Cause that promised a high-wage Corporate State, immediate clearance of the slums and ‘No war unless Britain was attacked first’ was as great as Walter’s. She soon became the Womens District Leader for West Fulham working closely with District Leaders Durrant and Thom. Such was Elizabeth’s zeal she even attended a District Leaders Conference in April 1939 on a stretcher after breaking a hip!
Their two children, Vivian and Jean, also became committed members: the former assisting British Union in the 1937 East London Elections where his car number was noted by the police.
In July 1939 the Wallaces were among the 30,000 people who cheered Mosley on at the Earls Court Peace Rally and were convinced there would be no war. So they went ahead with a plan to open a private school – Vivian was by then a qualified school master and Jean taught Classical Dance. They decided to buy the Glengyle Preparatory School at 4 Carlton Drive, Putney. During the sale, there was an acrimonious dispute about fixtures and fittings with the vendor, Mr. Chope, but it eventually went through.
Although Walter had succeeded in secretly living two lives for almost 35 years, the strain was beginning to tell. But when all the London Wallaces were detained under Defence Regulation 18B in late June 1940 he was certain the game was up: his black hair turned white and he suffered a nervous breakdown.
‘Fifth Column’ informers with a score to settle.
The Wallace’s had been denounced by four despicable examples of pond-life whom we will now belatedly expose.
The first to inform was Mr L A Chope of 1 Fortfield, Seaton, Devon: the previous owner of Glengyle School with whom the Wallaces had experienced difficulties during the sale. Chope suggested to the police that the Wallaces were “using the School as a meeting place for Fifth Columnists”. MI5 noted that no evidence was given to support this accusation.
The second was Mrs Sterling-Meyers of 137 Harley Street, London, W1, who described the Wallaces as “highly dangerous and waiting to bump off the Government”. An MI5 investigation described the allegation as “without foundation”.
The third was Captain Harold Knowling, formerly of the Welsh Guards, who accused the Wallaces of “rejoicing at British reverses” in the war. When interviewed by MI5 he was “unable to give an example”.
The fourth was RAF Pilot Officer Harold Knowling, son of Captain Knowling, who informed Chelsea Police Station that the Wallaces had “urged people to attend peace meetings”. MI5 knew that until prohibited by Defence Regulations this was perfectly legal.
As all of the accusations were lacking in substance it is surprising that MI5 went ahead with the Wallaces’ internment. But such was the Fifth Column Panic in 1940.
The Wallaces had to wait until December before appearing separately before the 18B Advisory Committee. Walter had steadied his nerves though it was clear the Committee knew all about his “two households”.
Walter explained that he and his wife in Yorkshire lived together “as friends”. Referring to his two ‘wives’ he added “he could not desert either the one or the other.” Then he asked the Committee not to let Vivian or Jean know as they still believed their mother and him were married: “We have been able to keep it a secret for 33 years”. The Advisory Committee told him he had nothing to fear: they would see that Vivian and Jean appeared before their Committee to ensure the secret was kept. And to their credit the Committee kept their word.
Reports from his internment camp described Walter as “a decent man unlikely to harbour anti-British sentiment.” The Committee agreed – but he was still not released until October 1941. Sadly, this was just in time for him to be at the side of his wife Ann when she died. Elizabeth and Jean Wallace had been released in February 1941 but Vivian had much longer to wait – even though he made a favourable impression on the Committee who considered him “decent and sincere”. (Before his arrest he had become an Air Raid Warden and registered for military service).
During their interrogations, all the Wallaces maintained the same line. They still believed passionately in Mosley’s policies and thought we should never have gone to war with Germany. But following the German occupation of France and the Low Countries in June 1940 they now realised there was no chance of a negotiated peace and hoped for a British victory.
Vivian admitted that he had spoken a eulogy at Mosley’s birthday celebration attended by 250 interned Blackshirts at Ascot Camp in December 1940. Ideologically committed to Mosley to a fanatical degree, he was the last of the Wallaces to be released in March 1942 – but with a note from MI5 that he was not to be allowed to join the armed services. All four were subject to Special Branch surveillance, their mail intercepted and their phone tapped.
On release, the Wallaces soon made contact with old British Union friends such as Norah Elam, Barry Domvile, Muriel Whinfield and Katharine Bidie (former Womens District Leader Haslemere). Maxwell Knight, the MI5 Officer in charge of British Union surveillance, believed they were trying to revive the movement in London and planted his agent code-named M/A in their circle.
The Wallaces actively supported two pro-Mosley wartime organisations, namely the 18B Publicity Council and the 18B Detainees (British) Aid Fund – attending a concert held by the latter in October 1943. At Christmas 1943 a card sent to Mosley and Lady Diana from “The Wallace family” was intercepted. All were present at the 18B Reunion Dance held in London in October 1945 and as late as March 1946 Special Branch was still maintaining a Home Office Warrant (HOW) to tap their phone.
After the War the Wallaces were members of the Mosleyite ‘Chelsea Book Club’ and Vivian ordered a record of Mosley’s speech launching Union Movement in February 1948. At this point the MI5 and Home Office files on the Wallaces come to an end. At some time around the 1950s, the Putney school was sold and the entire family emigrated to South Africa. Walter Wroe Johnson’s secret had survived into the post-War world.
However, Walter’s double identity was not quite as hush-hush as he thought. The founding Editor of ‘Comrade’, the late John Warburton, certainly knew all about the ‘Wallaces of Putney’ which was how I first learnt about them. John may well have been told the story by FOM’s Frank Jermy, the late BU District Leader for Kidderminster, who taught at the Glengyle Preparatory School after the War.
I first came across the opened Wallace files at the National Archives at Kew about 2006. I was intrigued by the story contained among their heavily weeded contents. Then something happened that most would call coincidence – but some might just wonder if unseen forces were at work!
Precisely two weeks after reading the files for the first time, an e-mail enquiry sent to www.oswaldmosley.com was passed to me to answer. It was from a young woman in South Africa who asked: ‘Did FOM know anything about my great-grandfather Walter Wallace who had been interned under Regulation 18B?’
I replied ‘I know much about your great-grandfather. Are his son and daughter still alive?’ Back came the answer: ‘Only his daughter Jean, my grandmother.’ Jean, I calculated, would have been 88 by then.
I decided she had a right to know about her family history but first cautioned her to think carefully before telling her elderly grandmother. Then I told her the full story and gave her the references to the National Archive files. She thanked me and added “When my great-grandparents died we were surprised to discover they weren’t married. My grandmother knew Lady Mosley from their time in Holloway Prison together during the War. When Lady Mosley came to South Africa my great uncle Vivian met her at the airport and drove her to our house for dinner.”
I subsequently discovered this young woman was a high profile lawyer in South Africa: the head of a firm that specialised in using law to oppose human rights violations and arbitrary detention without trial. You don’t have to be a genius to work out what might have inspired this interest, either consciously or unconsciously.
Either way, I’m sure Walter Johnson would definitely approve.
*Walter Wroe Johnson, KV2/900 and KV2/901 Walter Wroe Johnson, HO45/23700 Walter Vivian Wallace, HO45/23703 Jean Alison Wallace, HO45/23704 is closed until 2020