One of Alexander Wilson’s great grandsons, Christopher McGill, visited Lahore in 2015 seeking to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the spy writer’s time there between 1925 and 1933.
Would the palatial bungalow at number 11 Masson Road where Wilson wrote ‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’ and ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ still be standing?
Would he be able to determine whether there is any documentary proof that Alexander Wilson married the actress Dorothy Wick and could he trace the missing marriage certificate?
What had become of Islamia College of the University of Punjab in Railway Road Lahore?
Did the college still commemorate his role there during the Indian Raj and when Muslims were a minority in the city of Lahore prior to bloody partition in 1947?
Wilson celebrated Lahore and its Muslim people
Despite the British imperial context of the time and cultural prejudices that are present in his early novels, Alexander Wilson clearly adored Lahore and was deeply committed to the Muslim community of scholars and students he served.
Muslims were a minority in a cosmopolitan and volatile mixture of religions and races in the city that was often referred to as the Paris of Northern India.
It was the centre of a thriving newspaper and publishing industry and the University of Punjab played a key educational role in a province bordering the North West Frontier and Afghanistan.
It was the city of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’– where the famous writer had cut his teeth and honed his pen working as a journalist on the Civil and Military Gazette.
Alexander Wilson described the Lahore of the 1920s with vivid and evocative language and depicted its people with rich and sympathetic characterisation.
‘Is that far from Lohari Mandi Street?’
‘No, only about ten or twelve minutes’ walk!’
‘Splendid! now please describe this street to me!’
Rainer did so, and Wallace listened carefully. At the end of the recital he smiled.
‘You remind me of Kipling,’ he remarked. ‘What was it he called the City of Lahore – the City of a Thousands nights, Wasn’t it? I suppose we can be pretty certain that the place will be thronged at all hours of the night!’
‘Oh yes – it never sleeps!’
‘Well, I’m sorry to disturb your Sunday evening, Mr Rainer, but matters are urgent. Will you go along to the Anarkali police station and see that all these men of yours proceed to Lohari Mandi Street in the guise of bullock drivers, tonga wallahs and anything else you like, singly and in twos, and that they are all in the neighbourhood of Ata Ullah’s at ten o’clock. It is now seven, so there are three hours. I also want three or four of your best native detectives to proceed in some good disguise to a bungalow known as “outram” in Davis Road.’
‘Why, that’s Silverman’s place!’ exclaimed Rainer.
‘Quite so! His proper name is Levinsky, and he is one of the most trusted spies in the service of the Russian Government, and a very dangerous man to boot.’
Page 208 ‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’- Allison and Busby edition 2015 (first published 1928)
The Lahore that Alexander Wilson knew between 1925 and 1933 no longer exists and its traces are becoming harder to find.
During the struggle for independence and the bloody inter-communal violence of partition in 1947-8 Lahore suffered grievously.
The Punjab was split in two between India and Pakistan.
Lahore lost its Hindu and Sikh communities.
Modern Pakistan has, for understandable political reasons, no wish to celebrate or remember the days of the British Empire with enthusiasm.
It is a complicated country finding its own way in the 21st century; something Christopher McGill discovered on his visit in 2015:
I was taken to Wagah Border, which every evening has a dramatic yet very intense ceremony as both the Indian and Pakistani border guards lower their flags simultaneously. The aim of the performance is to lower your flag as slowly as possible so that your enemy’s flag is not flying at a higher position.
Christopher McGill discovered that the palatial bungalow with its huge grounds where Alexander and Dorothy lived has been consigned to history:
Apparently this was an area where many Britons (or ‘Britishers’ as the locals say) used to live. Three new modern builds have been constructed in its place. 11 Mason Road, Lahore has been replaced by houses 11a, 11b and 11c. They are of good size, showing us the large plot of land on which their bungalow must have stood.
I spoke to one of the new homeowners and he informed me that Alexander’s property was knocked down only 9 years ago to make way for these new builds. I found the neighbourhood extremely inviting with a real sense of warmth and character to it. It is still a desirable area, with many of the residents owning cars.
Islamia College, University of Punjab
Alexander Wilson’s role in Lahore’s higher education is given much representation in his second novel ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’.
The central character, Captain Hugh Shannon, is sent on a mission to Lahore by the Chief of the fictional British Secret Service, Sir Leonard Wallace to take on the cover of an English Literature professor.
Lahore appears to be the centre of the trouble, and it is to Lahore that I wish you to go. India possesses a very fine police force, but there is no Intelligence Department worth the name. In taking up the appointment of Professor of English literature in this college, you will have endless opportunities to get to the bottom of things. nobody will suspect that you are a member of the Secret Service – nobody must suspect! Something is going on, and I want you to find out what that something is. You have a big job before you, and it will require infinite tact, patience and resource. I have chosen you because of your knowledge of Hindustani, and because I have found you to be a reliable man. You have no time to think the matter over; your application for this appointment must go in today – either accept or refuse! Which is it to be?’
Page 10, ‘The Devil’s Cocktail, Allison and Busby Edition 2015 (first published 1928).
The plot of the novel is a resumption of the Great Game of espionage operations between the British Empire and the Soviet version of Russia during the 1920s.
Shannon applies for the university post via an advertisement in the Times; something Alexander Wilson did in 1925. The words of the real advert and the fictional one in ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ were almost identical.
A Professor of English literature is required for Sheranwala College, University of Northern India, Lahore, at a salary of rupees 500-50-1000, for a period of three years. Applicants must be graduates of an English University and preference will be given to one who is a sportsman. Apply with copies of testimonials, references, etc., to Mahommed Abdullah, C.I.E., Savoy Hotel, Strand, London.
Page 9, The Devil’s Cocktail, Allison and Busby edition 2015 (first published 1928).
Wilson was a huge success at Islamia College.
He had been recruited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali– a respected Islamist scholar and translator of the Koran.
He succeeded Yusuf Ali as Principal in 1928.
He guided the college to considerable improvements in sports, academic achievement, sponsored an Alexander Wilson prize for students, and set up a British Indian Army cadet corps and took on the rank of Major in the process.
After his resignation in March 1931, the University of Punjab awarded him an honorary fellowship.
In 2015 Christopher McGill found Islamia College:
…in an ultra-conservative and rather deprived area of the city, and it must be noted that the campus is quite some distance away from where Alexander lived. Although back then the population was smaller, his daily commute would most likely have been up to an hour.
It was quite amazing to see Alexander’s name (number 9) written on the board of Principals and to find out that he was in fact not the first Wilson to have been Principal (number 7). Portraits of present and past principals hang on the walls of the College’s main lecture room though when I was there, they were not on display as the building is being renovated.
I was taken to the English department. The location of the departmental rooms has not changed since Alexander’s time, and I had a sense of his presence lecturing in the adjoining rooms.
The whole university, despite the extreme heat outside, was very cool and must have been a lovely working environment due to the building’s traditional architecture.
Looking out from one of the windows I could see the university’s playing field and could imagine Alexander judging Islamia College sports day. The field has also been used for many political rallies over the years and the College is associated closely with the political development of Pakistan as an independent state.
Researching the evidence of any marriage between Alexander and Dorothy in Lahore
Christopher McGill tried to find out if he could trace any official marriage certificate for Alexander Wilson and Dorothy Wick.
They lived as husband and wife in Lahore and according to their son, the actor and poet Michael Shannon, got married in the city in the late 1920s.
However, Alexander Wilson had a first wife and three children in Southampton in England.
They were completely unaware of the existence of Dorothy and Michael until the research and writing of Wilson’s biography in 2007.
Christopher was greatly assisted in his research by the Bishop of Lahore:
The Bishop set out a team of researchers in search of any information that could be found; looking firstly in the Anglican Church they were unable to find anything. However they assured me that if a Catholic were to marry it would most definitely have taken place in the Catholic Church, as no records of Catholics marrying have ever been found in the Anglican Church. The next day the Catholic researchers went through all the records and unfortunately once again were unable to find anything. This led the Bishop to believe that the marriage must have purely been a staged event, as they had the records of every other British national who had married whilst in Lahore.
Christopher McGill was able to visit the ‘very beautiful’ Catholic church in Lahore where it is assumed Alexander and Dorothy went through some kind of marriage ceremony or event:
There was a separate function room adjacent to the church, it is still used as a place where ‘Britishers’ and other Catholics would celebrate amongst family and friends. Showing my tour guide the pictures of Alexander’s wedding day she thought that it did look as though the photographs were taken here.
Sound interview with Christopher McGill on his visit to Lahore in 2015- tracing the footsteps of his great grandfather Alexander Wilson. He starts by explaining his search for 11 Mason Road: