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Percy Topliss: Con Man, Charmer, and Rogue

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Two Faces of a Rascal

Mystery surrounds the life of Percy Topliss (his name is sometimes spelled with a single 's') who was described by The Independent as “a debonair charmer who challenged the class system.” However, writer Paul Kelbie goes on to point out that “others see him as little more than a common criminal, confidence trickster and, ultimately, a murderer.”

Writing for The Daily Record Reg McKay tells how, still a schoolboy, Topliss stole a bottle of laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol then available legally) took it “to school and doped his whole class. ‘You’ll end up on the gallows,’ his headmaster warned. He wasn’t far from wrong.”

Impersonating an officer in a stolen uniform, Percy Topliss had the gall to have himself photographed by a newspaper.

Impersonating an officer in a stolen uniform, Percy Topliss had the gall to have himself photographed by a newspaper.

Working-Class Background of Topliss

Percy Topliss's family was working-class, and his birth happened in 1896 (biographer Tom Bates at About Derbyshire says he was born in 1897). He was probably subjected to beatings from his father and went to live with his grandparents. They couldn't handle him, so he was passed on to an aunt.

Bates records that “He attended the South Normanton Elementary School where he was described as an unruly bully who was frequently caned.”

His life of crime and confidence tricks started early. The Scotsman notes that, “At the age of 11, he appeared in Mansfield Petty Sessions charged with theft, already a skilled trickster. He [conned] a tailor he had been sent to collect two suits of boys clothing [from]. Then, wearing one, he successfully pawned the other.”

He received a birching for that offence; that is, he was whacked on the bare bottom six times with birch twigs. The punishment does not seem to have steered Percy onto the straight and narrow, and it probably didn’t with most of the young men who received it.

He continued his career as a petty criminal but added more serious offences. In April 1912, Topliss got a sentence of two years hard labour for the attempted rape of a 15-year-old girl.

He seems to have had little taste for regular employment. He started to learn the blacksmithing trade at Blackwell Colliery in 1909 but didn’t last long. He was fired when he was found in a local pub when he should have been working the night shift.

Joining up for World War I

As with everything else in his life, Percy Topliss had a chequered military career.

He signed up soon after hostilities broke out in 1914 with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and served as a stretcher bearer. Infantrymen said the initials stood for Rob All My Comrades, because wounded soldiers picked up on the battlefields sometimes arrived at field hospitals minus their personal possessions. Given his larcenous nature, this assignment might have suited Topliss well.

Topliss served as a stretcher bearer, a job that was clearly no picnic.

Topliss served as a stretcher bearer, a job that was clearly no picnic.

His service was not continuous, which is something the military seems to insist upon. He deserted several times, an infraction that normally might have meant a date with a firing squad.

But he seems to have had a talent for escaping the notice of the military police. He even managed to re-enlist under his own name without being caught. He had figured out that the army was not very good at record keeping and that the best place for an army deserter to hide was in the army itself.

On one occasion, according to Tom Bates, “after conning himself some compassionate leave by inventing a sick, pregnant wife back in England. He arrived back [home] wearing a uniform and a gold-rimmed monocle stolen on his way through France and masquerading as ‘Captain Topliss DCM’, and even had himself thus photographed for The Nottingham Evening Post.

Mimicry was one of his many skills so he could put on the posh upper-class accent of an officer. Reg McKay writes that he even “dined in officers’ messes in the depots he’d deserted from, yet no one recognized him.”

Topliss wore a monocle during his officer impersonations to give him an upper crust air.

Topliss wore a monocle during his officer impersonations to give him an upper crust air.

The Etaples Mutiny

There's little doubt that Percy Topliss was an out-and-out scoundrel, but was he also a mutineer?

A couple of journalists dug into the man’s past and published a book about him, The Monocled Mutineer, in 1978. According to William Allison and John Fairley, Topliss had a leadership role in a mutiny in September 1917 during which thousands of soldiers refused to obey orders.

About 20,000 men were housed in a training camp at Etaples, France. They were there to prepare them for life, and death, in the trenches.

The preparation involved a gruelling routine of marching on sand under the constant harassment of merciless drill sergeants. In addition, there was a punishing routine of physical exercise. The top brass of the army felt that the brutal regimen was necessary to toughen them up for worse that was to come in the trenches.

The generals and other officers of the military did not feel it was necessary for them to participate.

Lieutenant Wilfred Owen was one of the celebrated poets of the First World War. He was in Etaples at the time of the mutiny and he wrote about the demeanour of the men: “I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England; nor can it be seen in any battle but only in Etaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look and without expression, like a dead rabbit's.”

It was the habit of some soldiers to leave the camp to seek whatever entertainment they could find in the nearby town of Le Touquet. This was strictly against orders.

On Sunday, September 9, 1917, a New Zealand soldier, Gunner A.J. Healy, was returning from a visit to the town when he was arrested and charged with desertion, the penalty for which was likely to be a firing squad.

When his fellow Kiwi soldiers heard about this, they stormed the lock up where Healy was held. A riot broke out that was joined by other soldiers.

To try to quell the mob, guards opened fire and killed a Scottish soldier. This just caused the disturbance to escalate into a full-scale mutiny. Soon, the entire camp was in the control of the soldiers and it was six days before order was restored.

Percy Topliss has been blamed for the mutiny by several people, saying that he slipped away from Etaples before the military police regained control.

Subsequent investigations have shown that at about the time of the mutiny Percy Topliss's unit was likely in Gallipoli, Turkey and he was recovering from the effects of dysentery. Other accounts say he was aboard a troopship heading to India.

As with most stories about this man's life, the details are shrouded in fog and, given his talent for impersonation, it's entirely possible that the army thought he was in both places at the same time.

A television drama was loosely based on Percy Topliss's life.

A television drama was loosely based on Percy Topliss's life.

The Final Crime

Topliss had thumbed his nose at authority throughout his short life and, when the war was over, he continued his criminal activities.

In 1920, Topliss re-enlisted in the army, not out of any desire to be of service to his country but because it gave him access to scarce gasoline that he could steal and sell on the black market. His partner in this criminal venture was a taxi driver named Sidney Spicer.

The cabby was killed in Andover, southern England and Percy Topliss had disappeared. The Scotsman reports that he “became the prime suspect. The inquest into Spicer’s death found him guilty in absentia. But (Topliss’s) diary records: ‘La verdict. Rotten.’ If he was caught, he could be hanged.”

The biggest manhunt in British history at the time got underway. His photograph was published in newspapers and there were hundreds of sightings reported. Look-alikes were arrested by the dozen.

Paul Kelbie writes in The Independent that, “Topliss fled to Scotland and lay low in a dilapidated shepherd’s bothy (hut) until his hideout was discovered. When challenged, he started shooting and seriously wounded two men, so adding attempted murder to his list of crimes.”

Topliss's Scottish hideout.

Topliss's Scottish hideout.

He escaped that encounter but was tracked down within a week and shot dead by police. In July 1920, he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Penrith, northwest England; he was just 23 years old.

Bonus Factoid

  • Percy Topliss was a master of disguise and much of what is “known” about him may be embellishments of stories passed by word of mouth. He stands accused of crimes he may not have committed, and he seems to have gotten away with more than a few that he did. The final word goes to the actor Paul McGann, who portrayed him in the 1986 BBC series The Monocled Mutineer: “As long as I live,” McGann told The Independent, “I’ll never be as good an actor as he was.”

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor