I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A lot of mystery surrounds Percy Topliss (his name is often spelled with one '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.”
Working-class Background of Topliss
Percy Topliss was born into a working-class family in 1896, although biographer Tom Bates at About Derbyshire says it was 1897. He was probably subjected to beatings from his father and went to live with his grandparents (Bates says it was 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. He served as a stretcher bearer, a job that was clearly no picnic.
But, 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 administration 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.”
The Etaples Mutiny
Percy Topliss might have been an out-and-out scoundrel, but was he a mutineer? A couple of journalists dug into the man’s past and published a book about him, The Monocled Mutineer, in 1978. William Allison and John Fairley wrote that Topliss was one of the leaders of a mutiny in September 1917 during which several thousand soldiers refused to obey orders.
The training camp in Etaples, France housed about 20,000 men. The soldiers went through a brutal routine of marching on sand, constant physical exercise, and merciless abuse from the drill sergeants. The goal was to stiffen up the troops for the even worse conditions they would soon face at the front.
There was a firing-squad execution of a New Zealander who left the base to sample the delights of the nearby town. The Kiwis were incensed and rioted. Guards shot and killed a Scottish soldier who joined in the fun. Soon, the entire camp was in the control of the soldiers and it was six days before order was restored.
Several writers have pointed the finger of blame for the mutiny towards Percy Topliss, and that he slipped away from Etaples before the military police regained control.
But, subsequent investigations have shown that at about the time of the mutiny Percy Topliss was likely in India and recovering from the effects of malaria. Other accounts say he was aboard a troopship heading to India.
Portrayal of Topliss at Etaples Mutiny
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 was back in the Army, not out of any sense of duty but because it gave him access to gasoline that he could steal and sell on the black market. His partner in crime in this venture was a taxi driver named Sidney Spicer.
The cabby was murdered in Andover, southern England and Percy Topliss had vanished. The Scotsman reports that he “became the prime suspect. The inquest into Spicer’s death found him guilty in absentia. His (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 the 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.”
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.
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 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,” he told The Independent, “I’ll never be as good an actor as he was.”
- “The Monocled Mutineer is Innocent.” Paul Kelbie, The Independent, February 12, 2006.
- “The Monocled Mutineer: Incredible Story of the Chancer who Sparked a Nationwide Manhunt.” Reg McKay, The Daily Record, July 4, 2009.
- “Percy Topliss: The Monocled Mutineer.” Tom Bates, About Derbyshire, May 31, 2007.
- “Myth of the Monocled Mutineer.” Susan Mansfield, The Scotsman, June 6, 2005.
- “Percy Toplis (‘The Monocled Mutineer’).” Penrith Museum, 2004.
- “The Monocled Mutineer.” William Allison and John Fairley, Salem House Publishers, May 1987.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor