Knightsbridge, Michael Collins and the murder of Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson

“I do not approve, but I must not pretend to misunderstand” – Eamon de Valera

The arrest of Reginald Dunne and James Connolly

The arrest of Reginald Dunne and James Connolly in 1922

On December 1921 at 22 Hans Place in Knightsbridge, a treaty was signed between a provisional Irish Government and the British to create what was called the Irish Free State. Six months later, a few hundred yards away in Eaton Place, an assassination occurred, the reverberations of which could be said to have helped start the Irish Civil War in 1922.
Henry Hughes-Wilson in 1918

Sir Henry Hughes Wilson in 1918

Henry Hughes-Wilson 1921

Sir Henry Hughes Wilson in 1921

At around midday of 22 June 1922, Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson unveiled a war memorial at Liverpool Street Station. He made a speech, quoted some relevant Kipling poetry and returned soon after by taxi to his home at 36 Eaton Place in Knightsbridge. Two 24 year old men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were surreptitiously waiting for his arrival. They watched while Wilson paid for his taxi before running up to him killing him in cold blood and on the footsteps leading up to his front door. In Dunne’s words:

“I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he (Wilson) had collapsed”.

Joseph O'Sullivan

Joseph O’Sullivan

Reginald Dunne

Reginald Dunne

The Field Marshall had half withdrawn his sword in a futile effort to protect himself but after being shot seven times he fell face first on to the pavement with blood running profusely from his body and mouth. Dunne and O’Sullivan started to run but the latter man had been seriously wounded at Ypres during WW1 (both men had fought for the British) and his wooden leg severely hindered their escape. The two men attempted to shoot their way out of trouble and shot and injured two policemen and a civilian in the process. They were soon surrounded by an angry and hostile crowd but were quickly arrested by the police who had to protect the two men from the mob who wanted instant revenge for Wilson’s death.

The steps of 36 Eaton Place where the Field Marshall fell fatally wounded.

The steps of 36 Eaton Place where the Field Marshall fell fatally wounded.

The killing of Field-Marshall Wilson in Eaton Place turned out to be pivotal in an extraordinarily complex political period of Ireland’s history when a national liberation struggle quickly turned into a civil war. Much of Britain was outraged with the murder and The Times wrote:

Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, the famous and gallant soldier, was murdered yesterday upon the threshold of his London home. The murderers were Irishmen. Their deed must rank among the foulest in the foul category of Irish political crimes.

Six months earlier at 2.20 am 6th December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been signed between an Irish delegation, led by Michael Collins, and the British Government at 22 Hans Place. There is nothing on the outside of the building commemorating this historical event and today, in what is probably one of the most expensive property areas of London, it seems to be unused and empty with security boards up in the windows.

22 Hand Place in Knightsbridge

22 Hans Place in Knightsbridge and where the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated

Signing the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922

Signing the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922

Michael Collins in London October 1921

Michael Collins in London October 1921

11th October 1921

11th October 1921

Collins outside Downing Street 1921

Collins outside Downing Street 1921

The treaty envisaged an independent Ireland that would be known as the Irish Free State but the agreement was hugely controversial, especially back in Ireland. De Valera, the President of the Irish Republic, had a difficult relationship with Collins at the best of times and was angry that the treaty was signed without his authorisation – although it was at his insistence that Collins went, with de Valera considering it wrong to be involved in the negotiations if Britain’s King George V wasn’t either. The British insistence that they would continue to control a number of ports, known as the Treaty Ports, for the Royal Navy was also controversial. It also displeased many that Northern Ireland (which had been created in the Government of Ireland Act 1920) was also able to leave the Irish Free State within one month, which of course it duly did.

In April 1922 a group of 200 anti-treaty IRA men occupied the Four Courts of Dublin in defiance of their Government. Collins, wanting to avoid Civil War at all costs, decided to leave them alone. It was assumed by the British that Dunne and O’Sullivan were anti-treaty IRA men and after the shock of the Field Marshall’s murder Winston Churchill wrote to Collins threatening that unless he moved against the Four Courts anti-treaty garrison he (Churchill) would use British troops to do so for him. After a final attempt to persuade the men to leave the Courts, Collins borrowed two 18 pounder Artillery guns from the British and bombarded the Four Courts until anti-treaty garrison surrendered. It was a surrender that almost immediately led to the Irish Civil War. Fighting soon broke out over Dublin and subsequently the rest of the country.

The Four Courts siege, Dublin 1922

The Four Courts siege, Dublin 1922

Sackville Street, Dublin 1922

Sackville Street, Dublin 1922

Meanwhile back in London at the Old Bailey, and before Mr Justice Shearman, Dunne and O’Sullivan were both tried together for the murder of Sir Henry Wilson on 2 July 1922. Dunne stood with his arms folded while the charge was being read while O’Sullivan stood stiffly at attention. When Dunne was asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?” he replied “I admit shooting Sir Henry Wilson.” “Are you guilty or not guilty of the murder?” the Clerk of Arraigns repeated. “That is the only statement I can make,” was the response. O’Sullivan made a similar reply and after some discussion the plea was treated as one of “Not guilty.”

Towards the end of the trial, which lasted just three hours, the defence Counsel handed the judge a double sheet of blue official paper given to him by Dunne. After perusing the contents Mr Justice Shearman said – “I cannot allow this to be read. It is not a defence to the jury at all. It is a political manifesto…I say clearly, openly, and manifestly it is a justification of the right to kill.”


Dunne's hand written statement

Dunne’s hand written statement

Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death and were sent to Wandsworth gaol where they were both hanged by the executioner John Ellis on the 10th August 1922.

Less than two weeks later Michael Collins was ambushed and shot dead in his home county of Cork by anti-treaty IRA members.

Commander in Chief Michael Collins, July 1922

Commander in Chief Michael Collins in July 1922, two or three weeks before he was assassinated in Cork.

Michael Collins' funeral, O'Connell Street August 1922

Michael Collins’ funeral, O’Connell Street August 1922

The coffin bearing the body of Michael Collins lying in state in the City Hall, Dublin. September 2, 1922 Dublin, Ireland

The coffin bearing the body of Michael Collins lying in state in the City Hall, Dublin. September 2, 1922 Dublin, Ireland

Michael's brother Sean Collins

Michael’s brother Sean Collins

It was never really established whether Dunne and O’Sullivan acted on their own (the assassination seemed pretty badly organised for an official assassination so this was likely) or with the approval and help of Michael Collins. Collins had been a friend of Dunne’s at the same time as Sir Henry Wilson had been establishing the Cairo Gang (a group of experienced British Intelligence agents who met frequently at Dublin’s Cairo Cafe) twelve of whom were murdered by the IRA acting under Collins’ command in 1920. The Cairo Gang killings provoked the British Auxiliaries in Dublin to shoot trapped innocent civilians at Croke Park in not the bloodiest but perhaps the nastiest of the various historical Bloody Sundays.

The infamous Cairo gang

The infamous Cairo gang

Perhaps the ironic aspect to the story of the murder of Sir Henry Hughes Wilson was that Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were both born and bred in London, whereas Field-Marshall Wilson was born smack bang in the middle of Ireland at Ballinalee in County Longford.
A letter sent to O'Sullivan while waiting for his execution

A letter sent to O’Sullivan while waiting for his execution


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15 Responses to “Knightsbridge, Michael Collins and the murder of Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson”

  1. ian gordon says:

    I think these are possibly the most incredible pictures you’ve posted so far in terms of the way they really tell a story in themselves.

    I was rather hoping your musical choice might be “A nation Once Again” by the Dubliners!

    Footnote: Executioner John Ellis slit his own throat in the early 1930s.

    Capital punishment in the years you write about would be another good post.

  2. Rachael Ward says:

    Hi, i’m wondering where you found all this great information and pictures.
    My great-gran was mary o’sullivan from cork and a close relation of Joseph o’sullivan and i’d love to be able to find more information on him.

    Any help would be brilliant

  3. melissa davis says:

    joseph o’sullivan was my nan uncle…pam o.sullivan lol small world very interesting tho

  4. nathan johnson says:

    Small world indeed.pam o’sullivan is my great aunt so that would make Joseph O’sullivan my great great uncle

  5. Maureen says:

    Hi Rachael, my name is Maureen ( melissa mum) I found the information. And have a lot more, it has taken me a few weeks to get it all. Mary was Joseph’s mother she was married to John O’Sullivan, her maiden name was “Murphy” my grand father was Dennis ( Joseph brother) how are you related? You must be related to us.. Hi Nathan how u been
    Cheers Maureen

  6. Melissa davis says:

    Hi nathan pam is my nan joseph was her uncle its a small world ur my cousin

  7. Brian Curragh says:

    In the Henry Wilson piece, you refer to both 15 & 36 Eaton Place as Wilson’s residence – no.36 is the correct one or has there been a renumbering affecting the street?

  8. nickelinthemachine says:

    Thank you Brian. It’s 36 Eaton Place. I’m not entirely sure how ’15′ got in the piece. It’s taken four years or so for anyone to notice though! It’s changed now.

  9. the moral of the story
    politics and freedom fighting aside is to a true Irish person – who knows how to laugh – “don’t shoot a Field -Marshall with a man who has a wooden leg.

  10. Phil Juniper says:

    Eaton Place (# 21 & 24) were also later residence to Horace Dibben the kinky antique dealer involved with Stephen Ward, Mariella Capes etc.

  11. Maeve says:

    Thanks for this great article and excellent photo collection.

    I just read a book that came out recently, “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Beal na mBlath” by S M Sigerson. It has a chapter on the death of Sir Henry Wilson. Very different theory about it than I’ve seen anywhere else. Says MC & Wilson assassinations connected.

  12. Ian says:

    Dwyer’s book on Michael Collins suggests that he ordered Wilson’s assassination. However Bernard Ash states in his biography of Wilson that Dunne and O’Sullivan has gone to Liverpool Street Station to heckle Wilson while he was unveiling the GER memorial. They could not get close enough so decided to proceed to his house and shout abuse at him in the street. O’Sullivan lost his temper at the sight of the Field Marshall, drew a revolver and began firing – Dunne then joined in. So probably not an ‘official’ assassination. I’ve not read Sigerson’s book but its now on my list. Thanks for this post, I might not have been directed to it otherwise. And thank you for putting up something about Wilson. He is a character not often remembered and usually maligned by those who do.

  13. Owen O Sullivan says:

    To Rachael Ward, Nathan Johnson, Melissa Davis. I am already in correspondence Maureen, but the more the merrier. I am Owen OSullivan from the Irish side of the family and both Denis & Joseph are My 1st cousins x once removed. I am trying to piece together the family history from the Irish, English, American and now Aussie perspective, and would welcome help from all quarters. I can be contacted.

  14. Jimmy OSullivan says:

    A most interesting story. I must ask, though: How did you put the names to the pictures of the two gunmen? I have seen alternate identification.

  15. Jeff Bloomfield says:

    A forgotten assassination (except in Britain and Ireland) to the outside world. That treaty signing and the attack on the four courts were to lead to Collins own death in an ambush that summer. I don’t usually approve of assassination, but Wilson is an interesting case. He was also a leader in the so-called “Curragh Mutiny” of the summer of 1914, where Britain’s military heads said that if Home Rule was opposed they would not support the government against the opposition. This was a threat to the democracy in England. Then World War I intervened. After his death Wilson’s diaries got published. He hated elected government totally. He probably would have been in favor of a fascist government in the 1930s. So perhaps his death saved the the U.K from a dangerous pest,

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