Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Monocled Mutineer Part 4 – Controversy and Conspiracy

After Toplis had been buried in secret, rumours began to circulate in Penrith that there was more to the shooting than the police admitted and that there was information in their possession that they had not made public.

Hasty calls to London on the night of the shooting were coming to light and there was a suggestion that the Chief Constable had acted under considerable political pressure. Whatever the case, within a year he had resigned to be replaced by someone unconnected with the incident.

In 1978, William Allison and John Fairley published their book, The Monocled Mutineer.  It suggested that the Establishment conspired to cover up a mutiny by soldiers at the Etaples Training Camp in 1917, which the official War Diary refers to merely as ‘a disturbance’. 

Believing Toplis to be a ringleader, the authorities put considerable resources, including the Secret Service, into finding and silencing him and any co-conspirators. Many of the men involved in the mutiny were later killed in a bloody offensive at Passchendaele.

Allison and Fairley go on to imply that the Government, to keep the Etaples mutiny secret, issued discrete orders that Toplis was not to be taken alive. After persistently evading the authorities for several years, Percy Toplis’ luck finally ran out in June 1920 when he was shot and killed by police of the Cumberland Constabulary.

Whatever the truth about Toplis, Allison and Fairley's book raised questions in Parliament that resulted in the Government’s first public acknowledgement of the Etaples mutiny.

In 1986, when the book was made into a TV series for the BBC, the transmission was a source of controversy. Ill-advisedly advertised as ‘based on true events’, right-wing press and politicians criticised its left-wing bias and revisionism as ‘a tissue of lies’. However, the bloody depiction of the trenches did much to puncture cherished ideals such as ‘patriotism’ and ‘duty’ that pervaded much of WW1 history as it was taught.  Then, as now, the BBC was under fire from a right-wing government and the programme contributed to the resignation of then Director General Alasdair Milne.

Paul McGann, star of 'The Monocled Mutineer' in conversation at Liverpool John Moores University with Professor Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at University of Wolverhampton and chair Professor Frank McDonough, April 2015

In recent years Michael Gove, as Minister for Education, rounded on the ‘left-wing myths’ being perpetuated about the Great War, citing Oh What a Lovely War, Blackadder and The Monocled Mutineer along with ‘Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths by attacking Britain’s role in the conflict.’

Today, the debate over Toplis' participation at Etaples still continues. Government documents pertaining to the mutiny, if any still exist, are sealed until 2017. There is hope that their disclosure next year might settle the question of Percy Toplis' involvement once and for all.

I suspect there will remain more questions than answers, allowing the myth of the Monocled Mutineer to persist, along with the Angel of Mons, the Phantom Bowmen, and the Harcourt Crater.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Monocled Mutineer Part 3 – The Burial

Ninety-six years ago today, on the morning of 9th June 1920, following an ambush by disguised policemen and a hastily convened inquest with unanswered questions, Percy Toplis was buried in Penrith.

But not even that was without its drama.

When a policeman arrived outside Penrith’s Beacon Edge hillside cemetery at 8 am, he informed the expectant crowd of Press that they had postponed the 9am funeral until 1pm because the coffin was not yet ready, so a disappointed press corps dispersed.

When they reconvened at lunchtime, they found a note on the cemetery gates informing them that that the funeral had already taken place. While their anger was directed toward the police for the deception, it was actually the Home Office and War Office that had decreed that Toplis should be secretly interred in an unmarked grave.

Penrith Police Station, where Toplis' body was kept

To that end, the police co-opted Harry Bartley, who owned a flatbed lorry. At 8.15 that morning, officers loaded Toplis’ coffin aboard the lorry from the Weights and Measure room of the Penrith police station, where his body had been kept, before covering it with rags, carpets and sacks. Bartley then drove up to the cemetery, half fearing that he might be followed or that the coffin would bounce off the bed of the truck.

He delivered the coffin to the cemetery chapel, where plain-clothes police officers intended to inter the body in an unmarked grave before anyone discovered their deception. However, cemetery parson Reverend Law insisted on conducting a full funeral service, arguing that the deceased had not actually be convicted of anything and any judgement should be left to Heaven, before leading the police in the singing of a hymn.

Only then was Toplis was then hastily buried in a grave plot  ‘listed as No. 7135… under a yew tree at the highest point of the graveyard’ according to Allison and Fairley’s book, ‘The Monocled Mutineer’.

Percy Toplis’ grave remains unmarked to this day, despite several campaigns to erect a marker.

However, despite the police and the authorities’ desire to bury the incident along with Toplis, he  continues to exert a fascination, even today, as fact and fiction meld into myth.

Next: The Monocled Mutineer – Controversy and Conspiracy

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Monocled Mutineer Part 2 – The Inquest

Ninety six years ago today, on the 8th June 1920, the inquest into the death of Percy Toplis was held in Penrith, conducted by Colonel Halton, Coroner of East Cumberland.

Mortuary photo of Percy Toplis

23 year old Toplis, a deserter, petty criminal, racketeer, and possibly mutineer, accused of the murder of taxi driver Sidney Spicer, had been ambushed and shot two days before by three disguised policemen and the son of the Chief Constable for Cumbria who had tagged along. All were armed with revolvers.

The countrywide manhunt for Toplis had been the subject of much press sensationalism at the time and reporters and public flocked to the inquest. Toplis’ wheelchair-bound and widowed mother Elizabeth and his sister, Winifred also attended the inquest having travelled from Derbyshire. The police were represented by a lawyer during the proceedings ‘in view of certain possibilities’, while Toplis had no legal representation.

After Halton heard the police account of the shooting, to the point of overlooking several inconsistencies in their evidence, it took the jury only three minutes to decide that 'Toplis was justifiably killed by a revolver-bullet fired by a police officer in the execution of his duty' and to recommend that all three officers be honoured for their actions.

Even so, there were unanswered questions and papers like the Manchester Guardian queried the inquest’s verdict.

Although accused of Spicer’s murder in his absence by an inquest, Toplis had not been charged with the crime. Why was he the subject of such an concerted manhunt over a single alleged murder? Why had no attempt to arrest him been made?  Why did the policemen disguise themselves? Why did they not identify themselves as police? Why did they shoot to kill?  Which of them fired the fatal shot? Who ultimately made the decision to issue them non-regulation firearms? With the only other witness dead, there was no-one to challenge their account.

In the following weeks, the press ran ever more lurid and outrageous stories about Toplis and his time on the run, and the mythologising began.

However, Toplis’ story had one last chapter... 

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Monocled Mutineer Part 1 - The Shooting

Ninety six years ago today, on the evening of June 6th 1920, on the road from Carlisle to Penrith, one of Britain's most wanted men, Percy Toplis, was shot dead by police.

One of the inspirations for No Man's World, and the character of Lieutenant Jeffries, my first introduction to Toplis came back in the 1970s in the Strange Stories strand of World of Wonder magazine, which also exposed me to other strange First World War stories such as the Angel of Mons and the Christmas Truce football match.

Percy Toplis - in an officer's uniform

A petty criminal, serial deserter and imposter, Toplis first enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 and has been linked with the British Army Mutiny at the Etaples Training Camp in 1917. Believed to be a ring leader, he was hunted by the Military Police. Among the more supportable claims against him were his persistent impersonation an officer and his hiding in plain sight by re-enlisting in the Royal Army Service Corps under his own name. His story became the subject of a book, The Monocled Mutineer by William Allison and John Fairley, adapted for a four-part TV series by Alan Bleasdale and starring Paul McGann.

Paul McGann as Percy Toplis in The Monocled Mutineer

However, there are doubts over Toplis' involvement in the mutiny. Some researchers claim he was onboard a troopship with his regiment bound for India when the mutiny occurred. Others point to the fact that there were several other soldiers named Percy Toplis at the time.

Whatever the truth, Toplis' notoriety continued after the war when he became involved in a scheme to sell army petrol on the black market. Wanted for the murder of taxi driver Sidney Spicer, he became the subject of a huge police manhunt, with his photograph circulated all over the country. Avoiding detection by again impersonating a decorated officer, he fled north to Scotland.  A local gamekeeper, suspicious of the smoke coming from an abandoned crofter’s cottage, informed the police. When confronted by local constable George Greig, Toplis fired several shots from a service revolver, wounding the policeman before fleeing south.

At Carlisle Castle, Toplis had the cheek to seek refreshment from the Border Regiment stationed there before continuing south on foot toward Penrith along the A6. The man in partial military dress aroused the suspicions of Constable Fulton. He returned later with armed reinforcements in a commandeered car. Disguising their uniforms, they confronted Toplis by Romanways Farm where, on drawing his revolver, Toplis was shot and killed.

Romanways Farm, looking south toward Penrith,

Plaque unveiled at Romanways Farm, November 2015

But his story wasn’t over yet.