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.

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