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More about Toplis

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 04, 2009 9:08 am    Post subject: More about Toplis Reply with quote

Here's an article about Percy Toplis from the

The Monocled Mutineer: Incredible story of the chancer who sparked a nationwide manhunt

Jul 4 2009 Reg Mckay

IT WAS a strange call for a cop with a truncheon in his hand: "Cooo-eee, are you there?" But even stranger things had happened already.

It was June 4, 1920, and on a road near Penrith in the north of England, the cop on his bike had come across a young man in Army uniform reading a newspaper.

Nothing unusual in that post World War I era.

The corporal told the bobby he was heading back to his depot. Again nothing unusual, so the copper went on his way.

But something was troubling him. Something about that young man.

Something he couldn't put his finger on. So he turned back.

"Coo-eee, are you there?" the policeman shouted into the woods adjoining the road.

He didn't shout for long. The soldier stepped out from the trees, a revolver in his fist pointing at the cop.

"If it's Toplis you're after," said the corporal, "I'm your man."

Percy Toplis. Britain's most wanted man, whose face had been in every newspaper up and down the country. No wonder he'd looked familiar to the cop.

Ordering the policeman to drop his truncheon, the soldier backed away saying: "I'm the smartest lawman in the country."

The policeman had had a close call with death. But the incident wasn't over yet.

So, where did it all start? And why was Percy Toplis so hunted? Toplis was born into a Derbyshire mining family in 1896 but raised by his grandparents in Mansfield because his father beat him so badly.

Young Percy showed talents playing the piano and impersonating others.

Yet working-class kids needed "real" jobs and, aged just 13, he was sent down the mines as an apprentice blacksmith.

By then, Toplis had already been in trouble often as a trickster.

He had once taken a bottle of laudanum - a mixture of opium and alcohol then available legally - to school and doped his whole class.

"You'll end up on the gallows," his headmaster warned. He wasn't far from wrong.

Caught and punished numerous times, the local courts and coppers knew Percy Toplis very well. They were about to know him better.

When World War I was declared in 1914, Toplis signed up with the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in India, Greece, Egypt, Gallipoli and France.

The mass slaughter of that brutal war proved too much for Toplis, as it did for many other soldier s.

Having survived the bloody Battle of Loos, where 50,000 British troops were killed or wounded and poison gas was used for the first time, he'd had enough.

Reporting that his wife had died giving birth, he was allowed leave - despite the fact neither the wife or baby actually existed. This successful ploy taught Toplis that the British Army, then the world's fiercest fighting force, was administered sloppily. That knowledge determined the rest of his life.

Free back in Britain, he was reluctant to return to the frontline, so he deserted. It was an offence punishable by execution by firing squad, but Toplis' skills as a trickster came to the fore.

Where best for an Army deserter to hide? In the Army, of course. So he signed up again several times - deserting just as often without being sussed.

On the run, he impersonated others. A favourite disguise was as an Army officer, public school accent, monocle and all.

Dressed so, he dined in officers' messes in the depots he'd deserted from, yet no one recognised him.

Once, dressed as a captain, he returned to his home town of Mansfield and was feted as a war hero. Given local defence volunteers to drill, he singled out two pit managers who'd bullied him and worked them so hard they both collapsed.

He spent time in Malta and in London - always in different disguises - living by trickery, usually with beautiful or rich women clueless as to who he really was.

Toplis was into the black market, fraud and never paid a hotel bill.

But there was a darker side to Percy Toplis' criminal career.

In 1912, aged just 15, he had been found guilty of attempted rape and was sentenced to two years' hard labour. Was it a clue to the depths he'd eventually reach? Caught once, and serving six months in jail, he still managed to fool the authorities, who never twigged he was deserter.

Freed from jail, Toplis signed up again for the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1917. It was his original unit, yet no one recognised he was a deserter. Or did they?

He was posted to a reception unit in Etaples, France, which housed 20,000 soldiers and was so notorious it was simply called the Bull Ring.

Strictly a training unit for men about to fight at the front, the training was ferocious. Real hand-to-hand combat, live bullets and a rigorous regime with exhausted soldiers mercilessly bullied by officers.

Worse, after two weeks the troops all went off to the front, knowing that most would be killed or maimed, while the officers stayed at the Bull Ring.

It was a torture chamber and and death camp and the troops knew it.

In September 1917 big trouble arrived. A New Zealand gunner called Healy visited Le Touquet, a village out of bounds to soldiers. On the way back, Healy was arrested by the military police and shot as a deserter the next morning.

The other Kiwis went crazy. They attacked the police station and were soon joined by Scots.

When Corporal William Wood, a Gordon Highlander and Scot, was shot and killed by military policeman, even more Scots joined the riot. And so did soldiers from the English and Commonwealth regiments.

The troops gained control and the mutiny raged as a protest against camp conditions and the number of men shot by firing squad for alleged desertion and, in one case, 10 for alleged rape.

Top brass feared word would spread to the front and solders there would join in, as had happened to the French a short while before. They had to act quickly.

Extra troops were drafted in and four men - including another Scot - they believed to be the ringleaders were arrested and shot.

But soldiers believed the real ringleader was someone else who had already flown: Percy Toplis.

The mutiny died out after six days and was shrouded in secrecy to maintain Army morale. Meantime, Toplis was back in Britain and up to his old tricks. When taxi driver Sidney Spicer was found shot dead near Andover, the police had their suspicions.

Spicer was involved in smuggling petrol with another character well known to them: Percy Toplis. And Toplis had disappeared without trace.

Toplis became the most wanted man in Britain. Tried and found guilty of murder in his absence, all the newspapers now carried his photograph. Was he guilty?

Toplis kept a diary of short notes. On the day of the trial for Spicer's murder it simply read: "Verdict. Rotten." If caught, he'd hang.

Others would have hidden. Toplis did what he always did and, under another guise, earned a living playing piano in an Inverness hotel.

Moving north, he'd attempted to get out of the limelight. But the nationwide search followed him there.

After a few weeks, he took off. This time he did hide - in a small, isolated bothy in the hills near Tomintoul. But even that wasn't isolated enough.

Gamekeeper John McKenzie spotted smoke coming from the bothy's chimney when he knew it should be empty. With the local bobby, PC George Greig, and farmer John Grant, he went to investigate.

The bothy's inhabitant gave his name as George Williams, a recently demobbed American, then drew a revolver from his pocket and started blasting.

Grant and Greig were badly wounded. McKenzie escaped and went to get help.

As the two men lay on the floor bleeding and moaning, Toplis got changed and packed up, all the while singing a bizarre song: "Good-byee, don't sigh-ee, wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee..."

Then he cycled off south, now wanted for two attempted murders as well as murder and a string of frauds. The next day, newspaper headlines screamed "The Tomintoul Outrage", carrying Toplis' picture and description. Time and space were running out for the fugitive.

Stopping in Edinburgh to pawn his watch, Toplis kept heading south. Then, dressed in an Army uniform, he'd met that curious "cooo-eee"-shouting copper near Penrith and drew his gun.

The cop fled, but was soon back with two other colleagues and the chief constable's son - all armed. They knew whom they were hunting: Percy Toplis, Britain's Most Wanted.

After confronting the cop, Toplis had changed from his uniform into a smart brown suit and trilby.

This time the ploy didn't work. Without aword the four fired, shooting Toplis dead. It was June 4, 1920.

The 23-year-old Toplis was buried in an unmarked grave in a secret cemetery. He had become a cause célèbre among ex soldiers and the government wanted that to end.

For many decades they succeeded. Then, in 1986, The Monocled Mutineer, a TV series starring Paul McGann, re-opened the box of tricks.

Toplis was presented as the leader of the Etaples Mutiny protesting against the terrible conditions for ordinary people.

It also raised questions. Was he guilty of Spicer's murder? Why was the nationwide manhunt much greater than for other killers on the loose? Why was he killed rather than brought to trial? It also raised questions in the House of Commons.

The Conservative government of the time condemned the series and closed the military files on Toplis until 2017 - a huge period of time for one ordinary soldier .

Then information "leaked" out. There were claims he wasn't even at Etaples and that the mutiny was a minor affair. Then he was put in the frame for murdering Harriet Baxter, landlady of the Cross Keys pub, Chelsea, on January 17, 1920.

Finally, the government announced many of the papers on Toplis and the Etaples Mutiny had been destroyed or lost.

If the government was trying to conceal the truth about Toplis, others were more than happy to speak - old soldier s.

AuthorsWilliam Allison and John Fairley had traced many Etaples survivors and interviewed them. Not knowing each other, the elderly ex squaddies reported the same thing: Toplis was at Etaples and key in the mutiny. A mutiny so large it came close to breaking the British Army.

In 1929, Secret Service agent Edwin Woodhall, who'd been on Toplis' trail for years, agreed. So why did it take the British government till 1978 to even admit there had been a mutiny?

Did Toplis murder taxi driver Sidney Spicer? Without a proper trial and modern forensics, can we be sure?

Did Toplis murder landlady Harriet Baxter? We know he knew Harriet. The poor woman was strangled with a soldier's lanyard, beaten to death with a beer bottle and then set on fire.

Toplis' diary of that day simply: "Last of H."

Had Percy Toplis, the cheeky chancer turned brutal killer? It seems likely.

Yet was he destined to be that way? Or had bloody World War I twisted his mind as it did for so many others?

Was that the secret that so worried the government?

Will we have to wait until the opening of records in 2017 to discover the whole truth? And will even then?

[I think Percy Toplis is the best part Paul's ever played.]

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 04, 2009 8:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Read this article last night thanks to Michelle - I must watch it again. Dad also enjoyed the story. I think the part I enjoyed the most was when the Scots , Aussies and Kiwis joined forces against the English (the mutiny)
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