Toplis (August 22, 1896 – June
6, 1920) was a British criminal and imposter during
World War I. He is sometimes claimed to have taken part
in the Etaples Mutiny as "The Monocled Mutineer" during
the war but some researchers dispute this claim.
Toplis was born in Chesterfield,
Derbyshire. His parents were unable to support him and
left him to be raised by his grandparents. In March 1908
aged 11, he was birched for acquiring two suits using
His grandparents were no longer able
to raise him and the court released him to his aunt
Annie Webster, Toplis kept out of trouble until he left
school in 1910 aged 13. He became a blacksmith's
apprentice at the Blackwell colliery but after a poor
attendance record and an argument with the pit manager
he took to an itinerant life in Scotland.
In 1911 he was sentenced to ten days
imprisonment in Dumfries for the non-payment of two
train tickets. He returned to England, and in 1912 aged
15, he was sentenced to two years hard labour for the
attempted rape of a 15 year old girl. He was released in
In 1915, the year after the outbreak
of the First World War, Toplis volunteered to enlist in
the Royal Army Medical Corps where he served as a
stretcher bearer, his first active duty being at Loos.
His unit was shipped to the landings of Gallipoli and
when they returned, Toplis was hospitalized for
Afterwards he briefly worked in a
munitions factory. His unit was later posted to fronts
in Salonika and Egypt but he was sent back when he
contracted malaria. In September 1917 his unit was
shipped to Bombay for some months and then returned to
In August 1918 Toplis's father died.
Soon after he deserted from Blackpool. He was sentenced
for two years in prison for fraud in Nottingham Assizes.
When he was released 1920, he joined Royal Army Service
Corps and was stationed in Bulford.
He was soon selling rationed fuel on
the black market, forging false papers to gain access to
other soldiers' salaries and wearing a colonel's uniform
when he visited women in town. He often used a gold
monocle as part of his disguise.
Toplis went AWOL again on 24 April
1920. After 9.00 p.m. taxicab driver Sidney George
Spicer was found dead from a gunshot wound on Thruxton
Down near Andover. Toplis was seen in Bulford Camp
around 11.00 p.m. but he deserted.
The inquest into George Spicer's
death took place in a barn on Thruxton Down. It was at
this inquest that the jury returned a verdict of 'wilful
murder' by Percy Toplis and guaranteed his execution
when caught. It was also the first British inquest in
modern times to declare a man guilty of murder in his
Toplis spent the next couple of weeks
in London posing as an officer. Eventually police began
to close in and he fled to Monmouth in Wales and
eventually to Tomintoul, Scotland.
On June 1 a farmer near Tomintoul saw
smoke in a lone gatekeeper's bothy. He alerted Police
Constable George Greig and together they found Toplis
sitting by a fire. Toplis fired his pistol, wounding
them both, and fled on a bicycle. He cycled to Aberdeen
and took a train to Carlisle where he arrived on June 5.
He was seen in an Army base in Carlisle Castle.
On June 6, in Cumberland, Police
Constable Alfred Fulton met and questioned a man in "partial
military dress" but let him go. Back at the station, he
checked police circulars and noticed that this man
matched the description of a man suspected of the
Andover murder. He went back to apprehend Toplis but
retreated when Toplis threatened him with a gun and rode
a motorcycle to Penrith police headquarters to ask for
Two other policemen, Inspector
William Ritchie and Sergeant Robert Bertram, joined
Fulton. Ritchie and Bertram were armed and for reasons
still unexplained also disguised their uniforms, they
set off by car to apprehend Toplis and were joined en
route by the chief constable's civilian son Norman de
Courcy-Parry, Jnr., on his 1,000cc motorcycle.
Parry was armed illegally with a
Belgian automatic pistol which he had brought back as an
'unofficial souvenir' from the war. They saw Toplis
walking towards Plumpton and tried to arrest him near
Romanway. Toplis tried to run away and a gunfight ensued.
During the exchange of fire one of the bullets hit
Toplis' chest killing him.
On June 9 Toplis was buried in
Penrith's Beacon Edge Cemetery. An inquest held on June
8 could not establish who had shot the fatal bullet, but
the case was ruled justifiable homicide. Toplis's
belongings, including his monocle, were handed to
There are other tales about Toplis'
supposed exploits in the war.
In 1978 William Alison and John
Fairley published a book The Monocled Mutineer in
which they depicted Percy Toplis as an active
participant of the Etaples Mutiny. The 1986 BBC series
of the same name was based on this book. The latter
fuelled accusations by the Conservative government of
the time of left-wing bias at the BBC and launched a
political crisis in Britain.
Although official records show that
Toplis' regiment was en route to India during the
Etaples mutiny it is in fact very difficult to prove
that Toplis himself was with his regiment at the time.
Toplis had made a habit of not being present with his
regiment and his comings and goings cannot be accurately
This is true of thousands of soldiers
throughout WWI as testament from conscripted soldiers of
the time upholds. Thousands of British, French, Belgian
and indeed German deserters lived in makeshift camps
that were constantly on the move to avoid the patrols
seeking to bring them to justice at courts martial,
usually resulting in a sentence of execution by firing
The political crisis that was caused
by the BBC's broadcast of Alan Bleasdale's adaptation, "The
Monocled Mutineer" was fuelled by the British press and
its denouncement of the factuality of the series,
retired staff of the British High Command sent letters
to newspapers angrily refuting that there had ever been
a mutiny by the British army in 1917.
The true account of Percy Toplis'
involvement in the very real mutiny by the conscripted
soldiers in the training camp (known as The Bull Ring)
at Etaples will perhaps be made a little clearer in 2017
when the official military files concerned will be
released into public domain.
Jaynie Bilton - Chasing Percy
William Allison & John Fairley -
The Monocled Mutineer (fiction, 1978)
Percy Toplis ('The Monocled Mutineer')
District Council (Penrith Museum) 2004
Francis Percy Toplis was born at Sanforth Street, Chesterfield, on
22 August 1896, the son of Herbert and Rejoice Elizabeth Toplis (née
Webster). His family life was not easy, his father having a succession
of poorly paid jobs, and he often had to stay with relatives usually in
the Mansfield area.
Employment and Crime
His first conviction was on 6 March 1908 when Mansfield Petty
Sessions sentenced him to six strokes of the birch for obtaining two
suits of clothes by false pretences. His failure to appear again when
summoned six months later led his grandfather to plead: 'his grandmother
can not do with him any longer as he is out of her control'. His parents
also seemed to disown him and he went to live with his aunt Annie
Webster at Colliery Row, Blackwell.
On leaving school, in 1909, he became a blacksmith at Blackwell
Colliery, but did not find the work to his liking and was dismissed
after being found drinking in the Blackwell Arms when he should have
been on night shift. He then progressed to what seemed to suit him best
travel and petty crime; a run which came to an end in April 1912 when
Lincoln Assizes imposed two years hard labour for the attempted rape of
a fifteen year old girl.
First World War
In August 1914, after release from prison he
joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and served with 'B'
section, 39 field ambulance at Torquay until 17 June 1915 when they
became part of the force sent to Gallipoli. Overall conditions were
horrific, particularly during the major August offensives and
although wounded and badly effected by dysentery, Toplis along with
many others was not evacuated until the end of that ill-fated
After UK hospitalisation he was given light work in a
munitions factory at Gretna before being posted to trooping duties in
Salonika and Egypt where he developed malaria possibly a result of
Gallipoli and had to be shipped home. September 1917 saw him seconded to
the troop-ship Orantes en-route for India, where he remained in Bombay
for several months. Back in the UK he went to RAMC Blackpool, from which
he deserted shortly after the death of his father in August 1918.
Subsequent fraud offences resulted in Nottingham
Assizes imposing a second term of imprisonment in November 1918.
Following release in 1920, and though still a deserter (the end of the
Great War seems to have waned Army interest in such matters) he joined
the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and, as part of No. 2 Depot Motor
Transport (Bulford), became heavily involved in the black market sale of
On Saturday 24 April 1920, around 9.45 pm Sidney George Spicer, a
taxi driver, was shot dead on Thruxton Down near Andover. At 11pm Toplis
was seen alone in the car on Bulford Camp immediately prior to deserting
again; but now he was wanted for murder. A fortnight or so was spent
masquerading among London society as a decorated Army officer of landed
Continued press coverage of the Andover Murder, and the level of
police activity to effect his arrest led twenty three year old Toplis to
seek isolation in the north east of Scotland. All went well until an
unusual spell of cold weather caused him to light a fire in a remote
On June 1 smoke from it was seen by a hill farmer checking stock who
returned with the gamekeeper and the Tomintoul Constable George Greig at
11 pm. Unable to talk his way out, Toplis drew a revolver and fired
several shots, wounding the policeman in the shoulder and the farmer in
the stomach, then made off on a bicycle. He abandoned the bicycle at
Aberdeen, and travelled south by rail, arriving in Carlisle on Saturday
June 5 in the afternoon. There he had the audacity to seek refreshment
from the Army occupying the Castle.
The Final Hours
At 4pm on Sunday, 6 June 1920, PC72 Alfred Isaac
Fulton of the Cumberland and Westmorland Constabulary questioned a
man in partial military dress sitting by the side of the Carlisle to
Penrith road at Low Hesket. Not altogether satisfied, he returned to
his station and checked police circulars.
Convinced this was the man wanted for the Andover
Murder, he went back and found him changing into civilian clothes in a
wood further down the road. Realising why the officer had returned,
Toplis drew a revolver and menacingly identified himself. Constable
Fulton managed to safely withdraw, return home, change into civilian
clothes and ride south on his motorcycle to report the matter to his
superiors in Penrith the Police Station at that time being also Force
Inspector William Ritchie and Sergeant 24 Robert
Lewis Bertram were issued with .45 Webley Mark VI revolvers and six
rounds of ammunition, ordered to disguise uniform and accompany PC
Fulton in a chauffeur-driven car borrowed from the Crown Hotel.
Driving out of Penrith they were joined by the Chief
Constable's son, Norman de Courcy - Parry, there without his father's
permission, on his motorcycle and armed with a small automatic Belgian
pistol. They passed Toplis walking south toward Plumpton continuing
until out of sight before turning round. De Courcy-Parry was the first
to return, feigning break-down ahead of Toplis, and noted one hand
gripping the butt of a gun concealed in a coat pocket as he drew
alongside - information which he did his best to silently convey to the
car as it returned some minutes later.
Farther down the road, the three officers took cover
behind farm buildings at Romanway. Toplis approached and was challenged
by Inspector Ritchie, but began to run south, turning to shoot at the
pursuing police who fired three shots in return, one of which proved
fatal. Toplis, was buried in Penrith's Beacon Edge Cemetery, at 9am on
Wednesday 9 June, by the Penrith Board of Guardians, a charitable
organisation responsible for such matters.
The only witnesses were the grave-digger, one Board
of Guardians representative, two senior police officers, and the Rev R H
law, Vicar of Christ Church, who despite strong opposition insisted that
Toplis was entitled to a full Christian burial stating "This man was
violently removed from this life before he could be judged on earth".
At the Inquest in Penrith Town Hall on Tuesday 8 June, 1920 the
Coroner, Colonel Frederick William Halton told the jury " Where an
arrest is resisted with such force that it was necessary in self-defence
to kill, it becomes justifiable homicide" and that they had to determine
whether or not the police had acted correctly. Within three minutes they
returned the verdict "Toplis was justifiably killed by a revolver-bullet
fired by a police officer in the execution of his duty" and recommended
that all three officers should be honoured for their courageous action.
Who Shot Toplis?
This is the subject of heated debate. Norman de Courcy-Parry is
often held to have been responsible although the official archive does
little to support the theory. The incident was already unfolding as he
arrived from the north, with Toplis some distance away, and the police
officers in his line of fire. Any shot from his small Belgian pistol
could well have found the wrong target.
Ritchie was nearest and actually caught Toplis as he was falling,
and though armed had little firearm experience. Bertram, however, had
seen active war-time service, was right behind Ritchie, and close to the
target and some believe he is the more likely candidate.
Fact or Fiction?
In 1986 Alan Bleasdale adapted the book 'The Monocled Mutineer' for
the television. This cast Percy Toplis once more as hero of the riot
which broke out among British troops, in September 1917, during the
First World War, near Etaples, in France.
However, a researcher soon distanced himself from the BBC's
production alleging 'serious inaccuracies'. The service record of Toplis,
of 'monocle' fame, reveals in fact that he was nowhere near France at
the time of the incident but aboard the 'Orantes' en route from
Devonport to India. A soldier who witnessed the Etaples incident at
first hand noted 'Never once did I see or hear any reference to Toplis'.
However his further comment that 'he was in the Air Force whose
depot was at le Havre over 40 miles away' flags up the probable cause of
the confusion for there were three men called Percy Toplis from the
Midlands recorded as having served in the First World War. The play
clearly projected a romantic image of a 'working class hero' at odds
with overbearing authority, but with respect to the life of the Percy
Toplis who was shot near Penrith, it was pure fiction.
'The Monocled Mutineer': the book
William Allison and John Fairley's book appeared in 1978. The
dedication set the tone for the main thrust of the BBC TV programme (described
by Michael Grade as 'an enthralling true-life story') revolving around
Percy Toplis's 'heroic' involvement in the Etaples 'mutiny', and his
part in shaping, in the authors' words, 'the course of world history':
Dedicated to the men who successfully defied the worst brutalities
of an old style militarism, which, if it had been allowed to persist,
could well have meant Britain and her Allies losing the First World War,
thereby drastically altering the course of world history.
Percy Toplis's Monocle
The monocle which Toplis wore to 'cut a dash', was
among the possessions with him when he was shot dead at Plumpton near
Penrith. To offset the cost of his pauper's burial his belongings,
including this item, were handed to the Penrith Board of Guardians whose
Relieving Officer, Councillor Johnstone was also a member of the Penrith
Urban District Council Historical Committee. It was he who considered
that, rather than be sold, it should be given to Penrith Museum.
Percy Toplis death