The newspaper lying on the windowsill of the bothy said it all really: ‘Enchanting Secret Behind …’ Behind what? We may never know. Whether it was a deliberate move to preserve the spirit of a beautifully enduring mystery, or the fear of terminating some dream or hope that continues to sit loaded in my imagination like the pistol used in Percy’s getaway, I never did unfold the paper to reveal how the headline concluded. It probably sits there now, a taunting reminder of all we may never know about Toplis and the Mutiny in Etaples that this wily, cocky brigand may or may not have played a part in.
Facts are scarce when it comes to Percy. He was and remains part-media creation, a patchwork of ideals and projections, a man fashioned from the slag of other men’s aspirations, a hero among unheroes, a cautionary tale derived from a less than cautious history. Anarchist? Activist? Spy? Violent criminal? I stroked my fingers over the moisture that a cooler, airish morning had left on the bothy window and signed it ‘Percy’. Within moments it had collapsed into a spiny, drooling scrawl. Against the bright green meadow outside, the word’s watery contrails took on a grim and faintly eerie dimension. I wiped my hand across it. The signature wasn’t in good taste, and I now felt slightly embarrassed. If I’d done the same thing in the steamy bathroom mirror back at home I knew the words would return the next time someone took a shower. As much as I had no interest in preserving whatever tasteless words I had teased on the glass, the basic shape of the words would remain. Some things were clearly not meant to be forgotten, however troubling or uncomfortable.
When the BBC’s The Monocled Mutineer arrived on our TV screens in the mid-1980s, most of the working class population in Britain were holding out for a hero, someone with the nous and the bottle to stand up for the common man. Rioting was breaking out in prisons nationwide and justice was being demanded over the Westlands affair. We’d just had the Broadlands, Brixton and Handsworth Riots, and if the Miners’ Strikes wasn’t bad enough, we also had to endure Diego Maradona ‘handing’ a late winner to Argentina and putting England out of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. I remembered a school friend telling me how his father had watched the game in a Drill Hall in Chesterfield. Two hundred or so colliery workers and their friends had mustered for a final rally before the last day of production was due to take place at one of the few remaining pits in Whitwell. The game took place on the Sunday and by Friday the men were out of a job.
Several jokes went round the town shortly after that. If Margaret Thatcher’s final wish was to be cremated it was unfortunate that there would be no one left to mine the coal that would be needed to fire the furnace. And when she did die it would be the first time ever the 21 gun salute was fired into the coffin.
Unhappy is the land that needs a hero
Some years later I learned that the same Drill Hall had been used by the 1st and 7th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters shortly before they left for the Somme. The men of Chesterfield sat alongside their Nottingham comrades waiting for the push that came in the Summer of 1916. 181 of the men who enlisted that day never came back. Not even the burly arm of Peter Shilton bursting from the goal-frame could have saved them that day, just as he wasn’t able to save the men of Whitwell during a similar Summer wash-out some seventy years later.
Like a ghost he came back to haunt the tight-lipped Tory Establishment and jam the circuit of England’s all too debilitating class-system at a time when us rough, unruly Northerners had willed it the most
Percy had been born in Chesterfield before moving to Nottingham, and Shilton had enlisted under Clough at Nottingham Forest during those few short glorious years they had triumphed over Europe. I tried to tease some meaning from these relatively harmless coincidences and curiosities, but the universe, god or whatever deeper purpose was shaping these random patterns must have been absent that day. They’d probably grabbed a bike and made off to the Lakes along with the last of the straws that I was grasping.
As I looked back the bothy window I saw that the various watery contrails around the letters were now colliding. It was difficult to get any real meaning from it now.
For many years, Chesterfield was a town in mourning. We joked that the miners should have been wearing black until someone pointed out that miners always wore black on account of the coal-dust, so nobody would ever have noticed. It occurred to me that this couldn’t have been more just; no one noticed the miners when they were there, so nobody was going to notice them now they were gone. As someone wisecracked, maybe the miners hadn’t really lost their jobs that day but had simply melted into the coal seam on that last day of production.
When Bleasdale’s Mutineer finally premiered on August 31st that same Summer, the common man was poaching a fanfare that came some seventy years too late. As always, Private Percy Toplis just happened to be in the right place at the right time to lap up the credit. Like a ghost he came back to haunt the tight-lipped Tory Establishment and jam the circuit of England’s all too debilitating class-system at a time when us rough, unruly Northerners had willed it the most.
What was that line in the play by Brecht? Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero?
No. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
Technically this is not a bothy, which is just as well really, as Toplis, on the evidence currently available at least, is not a hero, and there is little to suggest he even took part in the mutiny that handed him such fame and notoriety at the eleventh-hour. This particular boy from the blackstuff arrived on the colliery surface with a coal tub that wasn’t his own; a cuckoo in a nest of hornets.
We know that he was in or around Etaples at the time that some of the riots took place. We have Edwin Woodhall’s memoirs to thank for that. Woodhall, a Special Branch detective with an ear for a good story, was tasked with rounding up military deserters in the aftermath of the 1917 mutiny and Percy Toplis was among the more violent and ‘ferocious’ of those he sought. Woodhall talks about his pursuit of Toplis in Detective and Secret Service Days (1937), and it is clear that he regarded Toplis as a dangerous and resourceful man.
In 1915 Woodhall had joined the counter-espionage department of the Intelligence section of the Secret Police based at Boulogne. In September 1917, just as the mutiny was in full swing, Woodhall was transferred from Military Intelligence to the Military Police at Etaples. Although he never states explicitly that Toplis was wanted in connection with the mutiny, Woodhall paints an absorbing yet fanciful picture of Percy’s capture and the scallywag’s daring escape from the army’s detention compound before any court martial and any subsequent execution could take place.
But the accounts provided by Woodhall are not without their problems. If one was to believe everything he claims in his books, Woodhall would have been responsible for solving everything from the Jack the Ripper mystery to the assassination of Sir Curzon Whylie. The detective may have been all of five foot three, but on his tales he stood significantly taller.
That said, if Woodhall had been lying about Toplis, you think he would have at least had the imagination to place him among the riots. Although described in no uncertain terms as thief, murderer, womanizer and deserter, Toplis isn’t once placed at the scene of the riots. Instead, he is described as being among hundreds of men who had absconded in one way or another and taken refuge in the forest, dunes and caves around La Touquet and Berck-Plage to avoid the fighting. In order to survive these men robbed civilians and army hostels. If Percy had stuck with his existing regiment he would have been on his way to India, whose troopship, the Orantes, was about to set sail that month. The Orantes, a troopship-come-passenger liner, subsequently found fame in Scarborough’s Peasholm Park as a 20 foot replica boat. Amongst a diminutive fleet of battleships and dreadnoughts, the liner floated around nervously, taking regular evasive action.
There could be a perfectly straightforward reason Woodhall doesn’t mention the role played by Percy in the Mutiny: the British Government did not officially acknowledge the Etaples Mutiny until 1978. Prior to that to that there was no official confirmation it had ever taken place. The riots, and the role played by the deserters in those riots, were brushed swiftly under the carpet. Those who weren’t executed by a firing squad were dispatched immediately to the front where many would have died. There would be major offensives in Flanders and Ypres in November that year and major casualties could almost certainly be relied on. If you could rely on the plucky British Tommy for anything, it was their silence.
The British Public were to know absolutely nothing about the events for some 60 years.
It’s easy to see why William Allison and John Fairley, authors of the 1978 book, The Monocled Mutineer were able to place to Britain’s most wanted man at the scene of the Mutiny in France. Percy was known to adopt the guise of an officer and regularly sported the monocle worn by the alleged ringleader and mentioned by several eyewitness. The only explanation that Woodhall provides for the interest that Special Branch took in this ‘military Ismael’ is that Percy was responsible for a ‘particularly brutal assault on an old French Peasant’ that took place within miles of the camp at Etaples.
As you might expect, Woodhall makes no mention of any ‘mutiny’, but even experts are not convinced that any formal ‘mutiny’ as such took place. The series of volatile incidents taking place between August and September 1917 appear to have more in common with industrial action and labour strikes than any serious attempt to overthrow military authority. Conditions at the camp were pitiful, troops regularly having to endure grueling and degrading treatment at the hands of the non-commissioned officers putting them through their paces. A small contingent of those rioting demanded improvements to camp conditions and amongst the chaos and pandemonium certain threats were being served.
Woodhall mentions the simmering tensions over a fatal shooting of a young Corporal with the Gordon Highlanders by a Red Cap, and of a potential riot being averted, but he makes no mention of an actual ‘mutiny’. It’s completely downplayed, if not totally misrepresented in his memoirs. That Special Branch singled out Private Percy Toplis based on a single assault on an old French Peasant and a handful of petty crimes seems pretty implausible, but then it’s equally implausible that someone as cold-blooded and as habitually absent as Toplis would ever give a damn about the welfare and happiness of the troops. Toplis was forever reinventing himself. He would desert the army under one name and re-enlist under another. He’d talk with one accent and then, when need and circumstances arose, would just as smoothly switch to another. Some accounts had Toplis serving the demands for better conditions. Was this just another role he was playing? Was he looking to add a more worthy philanthropic layer to his ruthless and multi-tiered objectives?
Tinker, Toplis, Soldier, Spy
At the time the mutiny was taking place in France, Britain was in the grip of a paranoia about German Spies and Russian anarchists. It saw them everywhere. Even before the Great War, writers like Erskine Childers, author of The Riddle of the Sands and William Le Queux had been writing imaginatively of a sophisticated German intelligence network laying the foundations for an invasion of Britain. In 1915 two spies, George Breekow (aka. Reginald Rowland) and Lizzie Wertheim (operating under several Toplis-like aliases) were arrested at the Station Hotel in Inverness (now the Royal Highland Hotel just off Academy Street). Prior to taking refuge in the bothy, Percy had bagged a job playing piano at a hotel just minutes around the corner. An edition of a local paper records that guests at the Temperance Hotel on Church Street (now the Clansman Hotel) found his “conversational powers” attractive and had asked him to entertain. True to form, Toplis departed the hotel without paying the bill and found work as a woodcutter on the Dalnabo Estate, just a mile or so from the bothy.
Did Percy’s frequent trips to Inverness and the North of Scotland give them reason to think he was a spy or agent provocateur? It’s possible given the taut, suspicious climate at the time. Toplis was not only a master of disguise and consummate actor he also was in the habit of using aliases, faking IDs and used the kind of counter-surveillance tactics frequently used by professionals to dodge being tracked. His flight from Tomintoul is characterized by tried and tested maneuvers. He was sticking methodically to certain rules. His ‘cleaning run’ from Alford to Aberdeen included regular changes in direction. He would change his mode of transport, talk to as few people as possible, abort journeys abruptly, getting off before intended stops. All of these were reliable counter surveillance measures, and all would require training.
Had his skills in impersonating officers brought him into contact with German or Communist spymasters? Bolshevik members of the rebellious First Russian Brigade had already played a central role in the French Army Mutinies in the Spring of that same year. The charge that had ignited the Russian Revolution was spreading throughout Europe and there was some indication that Germany were among those keenest to have Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power. Lenin hadn’t backed the war with Germany and there are those who believe the German government secretly provided safe-passage for the leader to return to Moscow from Switzerland in the Spring of 1917. As for himself, Woodhall claims to have helped foil an attempt by the The Russian Nihilist Movement in London to kidnap the young Russian Prince Alexei. He recounted similar stories of espionage and daring-do in his book, Spies of the Great War, published in 1935.
Ever since encountering a young Lenin in London, Woodhall and Scotland Yard had been monitoring the emergence of Bolshevik networks in the Clydeside area of Glasgow. In January 1919 several Russian émigrés had helped foment a clash between 60,000 striking workers and Police and English troops.
An estimated 10,000 English troops in total were deployed to contain the riots. This was in spite of a full battalion of Scottish personnel stationed at the nearby Maryhill barracks. Drawing on their considerable experience at Etaples, where Scots and Australian troops had been involved in the most violent skirmishes, law enforcers had made an educated guess that if a truly revolutionary situation was to develop then Scots soldiers were more than likely to side with the workers. There was intense speculation in Whitehall that foreign revolutionaries and foreign money were behind the strikes. Viscount Long, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Woodhall’s commanding officer at Special Branch and Scotland Yard, Basil Thomson, corresponded regularly on the issue. As far as Long was concerned, both the police strikes, the rail strikes and the strikes that broke out in the Clydeside area of Glasgow were the result of only one thing: “German Intrigue and German money”.
In Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, author Christopher Andrew suggests that privately Thomson may not have been entirely convinced that Long was right, but that he appeased him nonetheless. Long was a crucial ally in Thomson’s bid to fund and build the then nascent Mi5. Even if Long was being unduly suspicious, having these dark, elusive phantoms dominating the imagination of those in Whitehall, was clearly desirable. Ghosts and enigmas like Toplis were worth their weight in gold. In return for endorsing Long’s revolutionary conspiracies, Long backed Thomson’s request for a coordinated domestic intelligence system with a civilian as its head.
The Battle of George Square as it became known was the culmination of years of hardcore activism. A series of local strikes and insurrections had followed an excitable flurry of anti-war demonstrations organized by Communist Celtic firebrand, John MacLean. In January 1918 MacLean had been elected to the chair of the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets and a month later had been appointed Bolshevik consul in Scotland. He was even paid direct tribute by Lenin himself when the newly appointed Russian leader told his supporters that MacLean was one of the “best-known names of the isolated heroes who have taken upon themselves the arduous role of forerunners of the world revolution”. His outspoken opposition to the First World War, and his subsequent his arrest under the Defence of the Realm Act made him a powerful national hero and an obvious enemy of the State. During the early 1900s, head of the Special Intelligence Service, William Melville (the original ‘M’) had spent no small amount of cash and resources infiltrating the Polish and Russian émigré communities, and many of these assets, like Percy, would not have been out of place among the more salubrious establishments of the European underworld.
Although a skilled and resourceful player himself, there were those within the professional spying community who could seriously outplay Percy.
Toplis Ace of Spies? I suppose anything was possible if you closed your eyes and fantasized long and hard enough. Had he been at any point a paid-informer? That certainly might account for his easy escape from detention (should it have ever really taken place). It might also account for how such a renowned deserter was able to re-enlist in the army in 1920. A total of 292 deserters had been captured and executed since hostilities began. Even during the peacetime year in which Percy re-enlisted a further six outstanding deserters were convicted and duly shot.
The army themselves have no explanation for how Toplis was allowed to re-enlist.
The logical explanation would be that he was never on a list of deserters and that his wartime deployment was at best rather fluid. On the otherhand, maybe the army simply couldn’t keep track of the sheer number of casual absconders leaking from battalions at this time.
Percy’s itinerant life in Scotland during the 1911-1912 period could certainly have brought him into contact with Bolsheviks and anarchists, but there is no record of any political sentiments being expressed by the young rogue. The likeliest encounter with these kinds of figures would have been during his two-year incarceration at Lincoln Prison, the correctional facility of choice for audacious Irish nationalists like Éamon de Valera and Conscientious Objectors like Fenner Brockway. Alternatively Toplis could very likely have fallen in with the French Milieu, a particularly vicious and well organized group of criminals operating in Paris at that time (Woodhall says Toplis was shielded by Parisian underworld after his escape from the compound at Le Touquet).
British Intelligence began to see the riots as a deliberate plot by German agents to undermine the British and French war effort and started looking closer to home for possible clues.
Since the beginning of the war, the British Socialist Party (BSP) had packed a serious anti-war message; they’d also showed no small support for the Germans. After the war ended the BSP evolved into a more volatile revolutionary socialist organization, eventually merging with the Communist Party of Great Britain in August 1920. Active duty within trade unions and strikes became routine.
The organization’s conference in Blackpool in 1913 attracted more than a 100 delegates. Lenin himself was aware of the event, worrying that the party’s newly emerging leader, Henry Mayers Hyndman, was increasingly supportive of British military intervention. And whilst this became something of a moot point among more radical members of the group, the BSP Annual Conference in Leeds at the time of the French Mutiny in April and the British-Australian riots at Etaples in August 1917, was all the proof that Cummings and the Security Service needed to suspect that British and French Pacifist organizations may have played a part. The idea that the military riots were spontaneous, and not communist in nature was rejected outright. Speculation and rumour can’t have been helped by the fact that the area in which some of the deserters were taking refuge was popular among Europe’s artists and intellectuals. Fabian Socialists like HG Wells and Amber Reeves had both eloped here.
Back in Britain, the War Cabinet demanded a full assessment of the threat posed by anarchist and socialist movements, believing the groups to have been funded directly by German money. Between July and November 1917 a total of five British pacifist centres were raided, one of them in Wakefield and one at the Brotherhood Church in London. Other Pacifist Routs took place in Bristol, Manchester and Swansea.
If you found yourself under arrest as a Bolshevik in 1917, you were most likely suspected of being a German agent. Percy’s dramatic costume changes and his prodigious cash-flow shenanigans could only have aroused suspicion. If Toplis was impersonating officers and socializing with officers, then there was also every chance that he was privy to the secrets of officers too, making him an attractive and resourceful recruit to German agents.
Even if Toplis had been nothing more than a skilled and arrogant chancer it would be reason enough for someone like Woodhall to be suspicious. As head of counter-espionage in the Boulogne area and irrespective of any other crimes he may or may not have committed, Toplis would have been on his radar. It also seems reasonable to assume that the military top-brass would much prefer passing off the mutinous incidents as the work of hostile forces – Bolsheviks, or otherwise. If it didn’t, the military would have some serious explaining to do. Recasting this impudent working-class villain as an accomplished spy and professional saboteur would certainly go down better with the Home Office. Explaining it as the result of a catalogue of military failures, including serial failures to either inspire or contain the troops, was likely to end several promising careers.
As we opened the door to the bothy, it was difficult to imagine the events as they unfolded all those years ago. On his return from visiting family, gamekeeper John MacKenzie had seen smoke rising from the chimney of the Gamekeeper’s Lodge where Toplis had taken refuge. He immediately recruited Constable George Greig and local farmer, John Grant to go with him to the lodge. Apparently unaware of the threat the occupant posed, the men entered. Toplis was asleep on a tartan rug in front of the fire. Startled he sprang to his feet and demanded to know the reason behind the intrusion. The Constable explained that Toplis was trespassing, and pointing to the chair that lay broken in front of the fire, mumbled something about damaging property. In an effort to bluff his way out of the situation Toplis explained that he was an American soldier, George Williams, recently demobbed from the Army and hitchhiking his way across Scotland. Having already seen the bike outside of the lodge, the Constable knew that Toplis was lying. Without warning Toplis drew his pistol and opened fire, hitting the Constable in the neck and the farmer in the stomach.The gamekeeper escaped unhurt and ran off to raise the alarm. Percy rushed from the scene on his bike, singing popular war-time favourite, Good-bye-ee at the top of his voice as he cycled down Old Military Road. By this point Toplis was already the Most Wanted Man in Britain for the murder of taxi-driver, Sidney Spicer in Hampshire. He’d been tried and found guilty in absentia. If caught he would be executed, which makes his decision to hotfoot it to the barracks at Carlisle, home at that time to the King’s Own Border Regiment, all the more perplexing.
The witness account that implicated Toplis in the murder of Spicer is an interesting one. Listening to the testimony of Private Henry Fallows we learn that Toplis had arrived at the Bulford Camp shortly after the murder had taken place. Fallows claims Toplis invited the Private to accompany him on a car journey east to Swansea. Fallows then describes how Toplis stopped the car at Savernake Forest to burn several items of clothing he had unpacked from the boot. His explanation was that they were rags and were of no use. In spite of his involvement after the fact, the Private was duly discharged by the magistrate who was happy that Fallows had not ‘the slightest conception that Toplis had committed murder’.
Why Toplis, a man who was very much in the habit of working alone, should deliberately burn several mysterious items of clothing in front of a witness who seemed to serve no practical purpose being there, and whose knowledge of the escape Toplis could have well done without, isn’t challenged by the Coroner. Fallows says Percy simply asked him to join him on a ‘joyride’, promising to pay his returning train fare to the camp from Swansea. Why Percy needed Fallows to observe his moonlight getaway isn’t explained at all. Only Toplis had been driving the car, so the young man wasn’t needed at the wheel. Unusually, the Police take Fallows at his word. Sadly, Fallows was die in mysterious circumstances some six years later, his body found in a cave in Derbyshire with a vial of poison at his side.
Even by his own standards, Percy’s audacious trip back to Carlisle Barracks to enlist was nothing short of madness. Here was the country’s most wanted man, and arguably its most famous deserter, making a beeline for another army compound as part of his breakneck getaway south. My own feeling is that Percy made the trip based on assurances he may have received by letter, only to be subsequently double-crossed and lured into a classic turkey shoot.
The man generally regarded as having shot Percy was Charles Norman de Courcy Parry, the rebellious and headstrong son of the Chief Constable of Westmoorland. Parry’s background resembles something straight out of a John Le Carre or Ian Fleming novel. By his own admission, Charles (or Bay as he was known by friends) had fought in two great wars, battled in a South-American revolution, fought in the ring for the Middleweight Championship of French Oceania, worked as a ship’s cook, been a swagman in Australia, a Master of Foxhounds for 35 years, travelled alone behind the Iron Curtain and also spent time in a Gaol too.
The 22 year-old had joined his father’s police hunt when Toplis turned up in Cumberland, at Plumpton, near Penrith. He took with him his small Belgian automatic, an unofficial souvenir from the war, and headed the police chase on his 1000cc American motorcycle. His close range shot, fired as he pretended to fix his bicycle beside the suspect, is generally regarded as having finished Percy off. Toplis had been shot through the heart and died instantly.
Within months of the his death, Norman’s father resigned the service due to health reasons, receiving a CBE in the 1920s Honour’s List later that same year. Several years later he was appointed by the King to be one of three of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary.
Had Percy been lured into a trap by his previously reliable handlers?
The Fox and the Hounds
Given the status in hunt circles the de Courcy Parry family enjoyed nationwide, it seems curious that Toplis had sought refuge at a huntsman’s lodge at Tomintoul. Grouse shooting excursions in Northern Scotland were not uncommon among senior ranking Police Officers at this time. The ‘sport of kings’ was a much loved pastime in the de Courcy Parry household and de Courcy Parry Jnr spent the next 50 years of his life writing as ‘Dalesman’ for the Fox and Hounds. It was an ironic twist indeed given the number of hounds cast so quickly by Westmoorland Police that day and Percy’s eventual ambush in Plumpton.
Had someone within the ranks tipped off local Police that Toplis would be at the bothy? It sounds outrageous but it just might be possible.
At this time much of Tomintoul and the Glenlivet Estate was owned by Charles Gordon-Lennox, the Duke of Richmond. A regular visitor to the village and a keen hunter and motoring enthusiast, the Duke was in and out of Tomintoul regularly between 1918 and 1919, opening bazaars or entertaining the Duke of Northumberland and his wife. It is more than likely that the Gamekeeper’s Lodge where Toplis went to ground, belonged to the Duke and family, whose military service to the country was well and truly distinguished. The Dukes Grandfather, the 5th Duke of Richmond had once recruited James Robertson, a Scottish cleric to spy in Germany. Ironically, it was another Scottish cleric who gave Toplis his lift to the train station in Aberdeen and it was another Banffshire man, Dr MacDonald who examined the body of Toplis at the morgue in Penrith. The Duke was likely to have eyes and ears across the whole of North East Scotland.
According to his diary, just a few months before his death Toplis claims to have been ‘hunting trip’ in Monmouth-shire, South Wales. For an insane moment, images of Percy and the deeply eccentric spymaster, Lord Tredegar, unloading several rounds of lead shot into the skies above the Brecon Beacons unfolded before my eyes. Tredegar, like Toplis, had spent the best part of the war spilling from bolt-hole to brothel in Paris. Perhaps these two outrageous adepts had encountered one another during some decadent marathon card game or other.
As far as fantasies went, it was probably one of the more fanciful, but it was not entirely without substance. In the lurid aftermath of Percy’s death, Fleet Street ran one sensational story after another. One of the salacious stories centered around a claim made by one of his well-heeled lady friends. During the course of their short affair, Toplis had said he had been a principal member of a deeply hedonistic club operating in the East End of London. This ‘gang of miscreants’ as the press described them ‘were out to destroy the very foundations of ordered life and government, and to set loose the wildest and most violent of human passions’. Lord Tredegar was a member of one such group. The Order of the Black Hand consisted of 13 members and Tredegar was known as the Black Monk. Little is known about the group other than it featured a menagerie of men, boys and girls, all solicited for various sexual and mystical practices. For years Tredegar had arranged boys for sex and bath house frolics in London’s East End with celebrities, politicians and Royalty. It was certainly an oddball family. His sister Gwyneth Ericka Morgan was found dead at age 29. She was commonly assumed to have overdosed in an East End Opium Den, and then dumped in the nearby Thames. This would have been 1923, just a few years after the death of Toplis and Nurse Shore.
Percy’s philandering with high-class (and low-class) women were the stuff of legend. Given the circumstances, it’s entirely likely that the Toplis was operating as a young male escort and pimping underage girls and boys for sex with the wealthy paying patrons around Richmond, Chelsea and Mayfair. Had he found himself pimping for Tredegar and his illustrious motoring friends? Cars were a rare luxury indeed but petrol rationing had put a brake on the idle pursuits of the fast-living London elite. Had Percy’s contacts within the black market put him into contact with the more depraved demands of high society? Was blackmail a possible motive?
If Toplis had fallen in with the criminal gangs active in Paris in 1917, as Woodhall had claimed, it’s possible he could have fallen in with a violent group of libertines, anarchists and intellectuals who decamped to the Limehouse area of London under the management of vice-queen, Betty May, one time girlfriend of the king of depravity himself, Aleister Crowley. Between 1913 and 1917 May had fallen in with a ruthless crime boss dubbed the White Panther. Back in in London May would play a critical role in the supply of drugs and young girls to gentlemen in and around London’s West End.
The coroner who recorded Percy’s death found the the circumstances surrounding his death rather unconventional. No British officer was traditionally armed, yet several of those officers pursuing Percy were packing non-government issue revolvers. He was also interested in letters that Percy had been receiving during those six weeks on the run. His diary, quite intriguingly, was described as frequently ‘cryptic and undecipherable’.
There was a cruel twist here too. Just a few months prior to the shooting Percy had made a mysterious trip to Bath with the even more mysterious Dorothy. It was here that Charles Norman de Courcy Parry’s career had really got going. He had been made Chief Constable of Bath some several years previously.
In her 2014 book, The Nightingale Shore Murder: Death of a World War 1 Heroine, Rosemary Cook tells us that Percy had been implicated in at least one other unsolved crime at the time he was at Bulford; the violent death of Florence Nightingale Shore on a train travelling between London and Bexhill on January 12th 1920. As Rosemary suggests, it was one of those classic ‘closed room’ murder mysteries. Woman travelling alone in a railway compartment enters tunnel and is subsequently discovered murdered with serious fractures to her skull. If it wasn’t for the fact that Florence had been related to the famous nurse and social reformer of the same name, it might not have gained such press attention. It was indeed a mystery.
As Cook describes it, the compartment in which Florence died was one of those old ones that had ‘no corridor and no escape route’. It could only be entered or exited at stations. Witness accounts were vague enough to lend the event a certain plasticity where Toplis and the press were concerned. There was talk of a man in a brown tweed suit, a man of military bearing and a watch and a gold ring set (with diamonds) being snatched from the body of the victim. Percy had at the time of death all these things. The only exception was the ‘wristlet watch’, but Percy did have a receipt in his pockets for a similar watch he had pawned on his journey through Edinburgh. As Cook rightly observes, all of these are common items and can hardly be construed as proof that Percy was the killer. He had come by a similar watch when arrested in 1918. But there are coincidences all the same.
Just a few years earlier Florence had served as a highly regarded nurse at the General Hospital in Etaples. She had in fact been decorated for her services. A letter from her matron states that Florence arrived in Etaples in April 1918, the same time that Percy’s nemesis, Edwin Woodhall could be found rounding up deserters and mutineers in the forests around Comiers.
Although from complete polar extremes of the social spectrum Percy and Florence had both grown up in Derbyshire, her grandfather having served as both High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Derbyshire during the mid-1800s and her father a medical doctor, educated at in Edinburgh but taking up his practice in Chesterfield. Another of her forebears, Thomas Walker had, like her famous lamp-bearing aunt, also played a crucial role in major Social Reform and radical politics. As a result of his support for the French Revolution, Walker had been prosecuted for treasonable conspiracy. There was shame, glory and scandal in her family on all sides. Bankruptcy, desertion, decoration, adultery and divorce. And if that wasn’t enough, the victim’s young stepmother was to die in an Asylum in London of Syphilis. How any of this might have impacted on Florence’s brother, a Brigadier General at the time of her death, is anyone’s guess, but there’s certainly scope for espionage and skullduggery in all this, especially given that he too had served in Russia and had the Russian language skills to match.
But as with most things relating to Percy, the speculation was intense and the evidence was scarce. According to the diaries that Cook quotes, Percy was between Bristol and Swansea at the time of the woman’s murder.
Why he was shuttling so regularly between London, Swansea and Bristol is anyone’s guess, but if the claims are right about Percy’s role in the mutiny, it is interesting to note that Swansea and Bristol at this time were playing a particularly active role in the development of trade unions and the birth of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In nearby Ammanford, a Communist Club had done well to provide a common platform for those interested in Social problems but the demand for direct and more disruptive industrial action was increasing.
That Detective Jack Williams of the Bristol Constabulary was among several non-commissioned officers seconded to the War Office to lead the raids on the camps of deserters around Etaples is interesting. Did they have any information which led them to believe that Bristol anarchists had somehow played a part in the riots? Was Toplis in Bristol to settle a score with an old adversary?
In Left- Wing Communism in Britain 1917-21 Bob Jones tells us that whilst most societies of this ilk were to be found in Scotland and London, South Wales was seeing a steep growth curve where interest in nonsectarian communism was concerned. The Communist League had only been formed in March that year and its aim was to merge with the Workers’ Socialist Federation in an effort to affect a more populist dimension. The miners of Treherbert near Swansea were one of the first to lend their support.
When Percy was released from prison in May 1919 things had changed very little. Uprisings among soldiers and civilians were continuing apace. Strikes, mutinies and riots were breaking out across the country. Southwick, Folkestone, Dover, Felixstowe, Grove Park, Southampton, Maidstone and Blackpool were among dozens of army compounds where rebellions had broken out, the latter being the camp for the Royal Army Medical Corps which Percy had deserted some months before. 1919 was to be a particularly volatile year in Wales and Scotland, with the Battle of George Square taking place in January and the Soldier Riots at Kinmel Park occurring in Wales just a couple of months later. In London and Glasgow it was the Anarchists who having the greatest influence on the UK Communist League and their growing solidarity with the coalminers in South Wales and the Clyde Workers in Glasgow was giving the government enormous concern. Percy’s release from the nick couldn’t have been better timed.
Other deserters had been caught in Swansea that year. Is it possible that union activists loyal to the mutineers had been sheltering them in Wales? In Bristol it was the dockers and railway workers who had been the most vocal opponents of war and it is perfectly plausible that their resistance (and solidarity) continued after the war. Toplis was still being spotted in Swansea and London as late as May, so it is possible he was being harbored. Even a hoax letter arrived at Bristol Western Daily Press. The letter claimed to be from Toplis, but is widely regarded as a decoy tactic as the villain fled North to Scotland.
The problem with thinking like this though was simple; rather than letting the evidence shape the story, I was beginning to let my own story about Toplis and some largely unsubstantiated claims about his militancy shape the evidence. Worse than that, I was looking for evidence were none really existed. As George Bernard Shaw had said, once we believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it. I was indulging in my own conspiracy story, adding my own unique layers to the Toplis mystery, shooting my own holes in the shutters of the window in a fairly crude attempt to let in some light.
In Scottish climbing tradition it is fairly routine for a walker or a climber to add a stone to an existing cairn at the top of a mountain. I was just adding my own stone. Taking a story and just making it bigger, making my own scruffy little mark on some broad collective experience. The tradition has its roots in worship, and I suspect this was much the same.
The boards on the windows of the bothy had made things difficult at first, but as our eyes adjusted to the light, it was clearly a modest affair. There was little in the way of furniture and all the roof beams lay rustically yet very crudely exposed above us. The fireplace opposite had seen better days and the cool bare granite walls gave it a functional yet deeply unsociable character. Even to this day the affluent classes will use the lodge to host grouse shoots on the local Glenavon and Glenlivet Estates. The grouse are shot among the rough, blazing heathers of the neighbouring moorlands and brought down to the lodge where the gamekeeper will enjoy a celebratory tipple with the shooting party, mulling over their respective victories over the scrawny feathered cadavers of the birds. Not that you would ever have guessed it from what you could see here. There was very little evidence of anybody inhabiting the place. A small cheerful parade of whisky, rum and beer bottles occupied a pert little space on the window sill, and one single spent gun cartridge sat on top of a folded newspaper. The hut’s interior was like the crudest of stage-sets, illuminating rather than dominating the stage and highlighting, to my mind at least, the sheer transitory nature of the place.
A hot summer sun came pouring through the door of the bothy but the room remained as cool as the water dreaming idly by in the stream beyond the walls. The fear and the dread that must have occupied the villain’s thoughts during those few short weeks at the lodge had long since melted away like snow. The place had a mellow and easy-going warmth about it now. A sparse and random accumulation of debris and garage junk hinted at various stories, none of which were ever resolved, and none of which made a great deal of sense: a red leather sofa, a vinyl cover, a few discarded sacks and a single old Lucozade bottle, no longer aiding recovery and sitting in a mocking, solitary fashion beneath the grate in the fireplace.
It couldn’t have been any more disappointing and it couldn’t have been any more apt.
Each of the walls bore the scars of a thousand signatures, the chalky white layers of the plaster often coming away in flakes. There was a loose leaf visitor book sitting on a shelf by the door but it remained largely ignored. Instead visitors scratched their names onto a sprawling and cheerfully impudent wall of remembrance. I’m still not sure whether it was graffiti or some kind of improvised sacrament.
We left the bothy and made our way up the steep path and across the bridge back onto the Old Military Road. It wasn’t difficult to see why Toplis had taken refuge here. It’s a beautiful location, desolate, pure and solitary and for one insane moment it must have provided the kind of hope that only the truly hopeless can ever dare possess.
The place existed outside the usual divisions of class and status. The area was the perfect leveller. A man could slowly dissolve here, becoming only as tangible as the lazy, morphing vapour on the hills above the bothy, masquerading now as clouds.
A journalist who caught a glimpse of Percy’s face as lay on a slab in the mortuary said that he had none of the features which one’s mind would associate wit the countenance of a murderer. He described the young man’s expression as like that of a “sunny-tempered boy, smiling as if in a happy dream”. And I left smiling in much the same way, I have to confess.
Hero, villain, soldier, spy? Probably guilty on all counts m’lud, but not in equal measures.
The story of Toplis was probably the story of how all heroes evolve; not from any meaningful sequence of courageous deeds or actions but from some urgent need or compulsion felt within the legion of deprived unheroes that make up the unhappy world around us.
I looked at a rock I had taken and cleaned from the stream. If I hadn’t failed my Geology O Level I might have known what it was. I did know this though; what I held in my hand had been subjected to over 500 million years of collisions and distortions and was now flaking apart in my hands. Scratching it might tell me what minerals were in it, but knowing how hard or how soft the rock was, was still unlikely to offer any clues. As pleasing as it was to look at, the whims and impulses of time would continue to transform it, even if that just meant coming apart in my pocket.
The official files on the Etaples Mutiny are due to be made available in 2017. Perhaps its only then we’ll learn the secret behind the secrets. Perhaps we won’t. If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s this; there might be few things in life that cling more firmly than the past, but there is nothing more uncertain and likely to elude your grasp than the future.
Or is that the other way around?
Screenshots of The Seamiest Side of War by Edwin Woodhall (1937) provided by Andy Smith at https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com
Toplis Bothy can be found on the A939 between Tomintoul and Cock Bridge in Moray and Aberdeenshire.
1896 – Percy Toplis born in Sanforth Street, Chesterfield (neighbouring the new Proact Stadium)
1909 – Toplis leaves school and becomes blacksmith at Blackwell Colliery.
1912 – Percy is sentenced to two years in Lincoln Prison for statutory rape.
1914 (July) – Outbreak of World War One.
1914 – Released from Lincoln Prison and joins the Royal Army Medical Corps
1916 (April) – Easter Rebellion in Ireland
1916 (December) – Russian mystic Rasputin killed on the orders of British Intelligence for being a suspected German collaborator.
1917 (March) – Russian Revolution. Bolshevik (Communist) unseats Tsarist government.
1917 (April) – Germany provides safe passage for Communist leader Lenin to return to Russia.
1917 (April) – A series of French Mutinies takes place. First Russian Brigade implicated as revolution fever sweeps Europe.
1917 (August/September) – The Etaples Mutiny.
1917 (September) Percy’s regiment deployed to India (Percy’s whereabouts uncertain)
1917 (September/November) – Intelligence and Special Branch Officer, Edwin Woodfall seconded to Military Police and tasked with rounding up deserters from a camp near Etaples. Claims Toplis is among them in his memoirs.
1917 (October) – Communist leader Lenin comes to power in Russia.
1918 (December) – Still a deserter, Percy Toplis is sentenced to six months hard-labour for fraud. The Judge acknowledges that he deserted the army in June but no warrant is issued by the Army for his detainment or arrest. Toplis was impersonating an officer at the time the offence was committed. He was charged with obtaining a gold wristlet watch using a bogus cheque. The press articles say Percy is 30 years of age.
1918 (October 1918-January 1919) – German Revolution. Naval mutinies in Kiel lead to civilian unrest throughout Germany. Kurt Eisner, leader of the Independent Socialist Party, declares Germany a Socialist Republic.
1918 (November 11) – End of World War One.
1919 (January) – The Battle of George Square in Glasgow. 60,000 workers riot. English troops deployed. Communist ringleaders imprisoned.
1919 – Coal Miner’s Strike (Britain)
1919 – Irish Repulican, Éamon de Valera, sentenced to life imprisonment for the Easter Rebellion escapes from Lincoln Prison.
1920 – Still a deserter Toplis is released from prison and re-enlists in the Royal Army Service Corps at Bulford where he becomes involved in the black market sale of Army petrol.
1920 (January) – Decorated Etaples Nurse, Florence Nightingale Shore murdered on train travelling between London and Hastings
1920 (April) – Deserts from Army and makes his way to Inverness and the North East of Scotland. Wanted in connection with the death of taxi driver George Spicer.
1920 (May) – Toplis is found guilty of the murder in Absentia
1920 (May/June) – Hides out at a Gamekeeper’s Lodge (the Toplis Bothy) near Tomintoul in Moray, North East Scotland.
1920 (June 1st) – Spotted at bothy. Wounds constable and local farmer in violent getaway. Flees the bothy on a bicycle.
1920 (June 5th) – Catches train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, before heading to Carlisle Army Barracks.
1920 (June 6th) – Spotted walking along a road in Penrith. Shot dead by a small posse of Police and local civilians.
1927 (January) – Body of Harry Fallows, the man who drove with Toplis to Swansea after the death of taxi driver Spicer, is found dead in cave in Derbyshire, in an apparent double suicide with his girlfriend, Miss Marjorie Coe Stewart. They had drunk Lysol, a common suicide method at that time. The girl, who was just 17 at the time, worked as a fabric designer at the Mayne Fabric Company in Salford, Manchester. It came less than one year after the General Strike – the most significant British labour dispute of the 20th Century, which also broke out in Salford. If Robert ‘Bob’ Stewart is anything to go by, the Stewart Family had quite a reputation in Radical British Politics in Scotland the North of England. Salford Communist, Jack Forshaw was arrested for his part in the strike. He died within weeks of being charged. Fred Barrister, the 17 boy who had found the couple, was also from Manchester, some 30 miles north of Castleton. He was from Hulme – also in the Salford area. No relationship to the deceased was established although he claims to have seen the couple alive at the cave the previous week. They must have lived within 5 miles of each other. The girl’s father, William Steward was a Manchester Driller. It is possible that William was and his wife were both born in Scotland (Murrayfield and Selkirk respectively). William grew up in Droylsden, Manchester, alongside Communist Politicians like Harry Pollitt,a key friend and ally of Communist spy, Bob Stewart. The 1911 Census has a William Stewart (occupation driller) living with his wife Mary at Ash Street, Salford. A woman from Gibraltar, Caroline Piercy was also at this address.