Alan Bleasedale's BBC drama 'The Monocled Mutineer' presented Percy Toplis as a working class hero but the TV tale invoked rather too much poetic licence.
A Chesterfield lad, Percy Toplis had a tough upbringing and soon found himself on the wrong side of the law. Neither his parents nor wider family could control his angry behaviour. Sacked from his first job for drinking he set off travelling, leaving a crime wave in his wake. By the age of 14 he had convictions to his name in Nottinghamshire, Dumfrieshire and Yorkshire and had twice been jailed for larceny. Back home the Lincoln Assizes sentenced him to two years hard labour when he tried to rape a girl.
By the time he was released from Lincoln Prison the First World War was underway and the Army offered him some stability and order after his chaotic childhood years. Records from the time show two other East Midlands recruits sharing Percy's name so it's no surprise that his movements in the war years have been the source of journalistic confusion. He seems to have joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was wounded in the hell that was Gallipoli. Duties in the Gretna munitions factory and then in Salonika, Egypt and India followed before he returned to a base at Blackpool.
At this point he deserted, posing as Captain Toplis complete with uniform and gold monocle as he returned home to receive a hero's welcome. A civic reception was held at Blackwell Miners' Welfare and brave Percy's photograph appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. Percy spent the next few months in London living off the proceeds of crime and deception before his luck again ran out. This time the Nottingham Assizes determined that the appropriate tariff for his fraudulent actions was two years in jail and so he spent the first years of peace in a prison cell.
Re-enlisting in the Royal Army Service Corps after discharge from prison he found a lucrative line in supplying black-market petrol to taxi drivers. Then Percy's criminal activity got out of hand. Shortly before 10pm on Saturday 24 April 1920, a taxi driver, Sidney George Spicer, was shot dead on Thruxton Down, near Bulford Camp where Percy was stationed.
Deserting once again Toplis was now wanted for murder. His brazen first stop was back in London where he again enjoyed the high life for a brief while, masquerading as a senior army officer. Before long though the capital became too hot for him as the press kept the story on the front pages and the investigating police officers were pushed to get results.
The newspaper photograph from Percy's civic reception was reprinted but this time in 'Wanted' posters pinned up in police stations across the country. The posters described him as '...very plausible and bombastic. On occasions wears a gold-rimmed monocle. Believed to be in possession of a No.6 Webley revolver.'
Topliss headed north hoping that the manhunt would be unable to trace him to the Scottish Highlands. While he lay low a court found him guilty of murder. His life was now forfeit and for Percy there was little reason to hold his anger in check. Challenged at a remote bothy near Tomintoul he shot and wounded two men - one the local constable - before making off on a bicycle. He then took a train south, arriving in Carlisle late in the afternoon of Saturday, the 5th of June and showing astonishing nerve to seek sustenance from the army detachment at the Castle.
The next day the hunt for the Monocled Mutineer came to a bloody end. From Carlisle he had walked as far south as Low Hesket where Constable Alfred Fulton stopped to speak to him as he sat at the side of the road. Returning to his station for further information, perhaps checking the details on the Wanted poster, Fulton's suspicions were aroused. He sped back to where he had seen Topliss and spotted him changing his clothes in a patch of trees. When challenged, Percy drew his revolver and threatened the Officer who beat a careful retreat, before heading to Penrith to raise the alarm.
By now Percy must have known that the game was up and rather than try to put the police off his scent, he continued to trudge down the route of today's A6. Inspector William Ritchie and Sergeant Robert Lewis Bertram, armed with revolvers and accompanied by the Chief Constable's son, Norman de Courcy-Parry, headed north out of Penrith in a car requisitioned from the Crown Hotel. They intercepted Percy as he walked south towards Plumpton and took cover at Romanway behind the farm buildings.
As Toplis approached he was challenged by Ritchie and ran south, loosing off shots at the police. The officers returned fire, hitting the fugitive fatally as he ran.
The Inquest took place just 48 hours later at Penrith Town Hall. The Coroner, Colonel Frederick William Halton, gave clear advice to the jury. 'Where an arrest is resisted with such force that it was necessary in self-defence to kill, it becomes justifiable homicide' and the jury took only three minutes to act on his advice. Their verdict 'Toplis was justifiably killed by a revolver bullet fired by a police officer in the execution of his duty'.
The following Wednesday Percy was buried in Penrith by Revd R H Law, the Vicar of Christchurch. In spite of opposition, Law was firm in his resolve that Toplis was entitled to a full Christian burial. He stated 'This man was violently removed from this life before he could be judged on earth.' Percy's tragic and unhappy life lasted just 23 years but his case continues to capture the public's macabre imagination to this day.
Percy Toplis' most notable possession, his gold monocle, is on display in Penrith Museum. A blue plaque at Romanway on the side of the A6 marks the spot where he fell.