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Percy Toplis - The Monocled Mutineer.

Posted Thursday, May 31, 2007

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The Story of Percy Toplis - The Monocled Mutineer

`shot dead in a hail of police bullets'

Eighty years ago on a lovely summer evening beside a peaceful country churchyard in the village of Plumpton near Penrith in Cumbria, 23 year-old Derbyshire man Percy Toplis was shot dead in a hail of police bullets.

`Britain's Most Wanted Man'

The summary execution of `Britains Most Wanted Man’ marked the end of a massive joint police, army and secret service hunt for the notorious and enigmatic Percy - the son of a coal-miner, who was born within a stone’s throw of Blackwell Colliery in Derbyshire, and whom history remembers and chronicles as the `Monocled Mutineer’.

Controversy has raged about the authenticity of the story since the publication of the book, `The Monocled Mutineer’ in 1979. Written by journalists William Allison and John Fairley, the book claimed to reveal the truth about the infamous mutiny at Etaples, France in 1917 – which it described as one of the British Army’s most shameful secrets.

This was followed by a four-part B.B.C. television drama series adapted from the book by Alan Bleasdale in 1986.

Both book and film depict Percy Toplis as a pacifistic anti-establishment hero, a jack-the-lad type of loveable rogue - and ringleader of the mutiny at the coastal town of Etaples south of Bolougne, where thousands of allied troops who were being trained and prepared for the Passchendaele offensive, revolted against the brutal conditions and inhuman treatment meted out to them by the M.P’s and Instructors under the command of Brigadier-General Thompson.

Percy Toplis is portrayed as the Monacled Mutineer who led the insurrection and as mob spokesman, confronted General Thompson with demands for better conditions, the removal of the military police, and the closure of the feared Bull-Ring training ground. The General and his officers were bundled into a guardroom which was then surrounded with brushwood and given 30 minutes to agree to the demands – or be burnt alive. They agreed within ten minutes and were freed, only for the mob to then throw them all in the river! Six days of riots followed which immobilised 100,000 men and undermined our war effort; commanding officers were treated with utter contempt and violent insubordination was rife as thousands of soldiers rampaged through Etaples, raping women and slaughtering M.P’s.

By the time control was restored Percy Toplis had gone AWOL.

There was an internal Court of Inquiry into the incident - but all court records subsequently disappeared. The British Army did not take kindly to this humiliation and the Etaples Mutiny was kept secret for 60 years –until publication of Allison & Fairley’s biography in 1979.

According to the story all the rioters subsequently fell in battle at Passchendaele – which meant that there were no surviving witnesses to leak the Army’s secret of what really happened at Etaples – except of course, Percy Toplis. Truth or fiction? Was Percy Toplis a hero or a villain?

Was he the `Monocled Mutineer’ of Etaples as the story claimed?

Not according to Professor Julian Putkowski, a senior history researcher at Essex University who was employed by the BBC to ensure that the story was historically accurate. He claims the story is a `tissue of lies’, and he is supported by well known military historian, Judge Antony Babbington who was given unrivalled access to official army records and could find no mention of any rapes or killing of M.P.’s. – `and not a shred of evidence to suggest that Percy Toplis was within a hundred miles of Etaples during September 1917’…!

Writer Alan Bleasdale confirmed, “ I would cast doubt on the authenticity of the book as a piece of history. I have said from the word go that my piece is a work of fiction, and have never tried to claim that my contribution is historically valid”.

So what is the truth about Percy Toplis - the so-called `Monocled Mutineer’?

It is literally stranger than fiction!

Potted Biography

Francis Percy Toplis was born in 1897 at Blackwell in North East Derbyshire, the son of a miner. He attended the South Normanton Elementary School where he was described as an unruly bully who was frequently caned.

He next appears in the records of the Mansfield Magistrates Court at the age of eleven charged with obtaining two suits from a tailor by deception, one of which he pawned for nine shillings. He was sentenced to a birching at the Bridewell. Three months later he tricked a newspaper vendor out of his takings at Shirebrook Station and was put on probation by Magistrates at Chesterfield. He was sent to live with his aunt, Annie Webster in 1908 but remained an `incorrigible tearaway’ who caused outrage at the school by inducing the entire history class of fellow 13-year-olds to drink laudanum!

He was expelled and started work at just 13 as an apprenticed blacksmith at Blackwell Colliery, earning 1s 4d (7p) a day in 1910. He was frequently absent and left following an argument with the pit manager John Todd.

The astutely streetwise and uncontrollable 14-year-old had a complete disdain for any kind of authority. Percy took to the road and robbed, cheated and stole his way around the country. Arrested at Annan in Scotland for larceny, he spent 10 days in prison at Dumfries and within a week of his release was convicted of a similar offence in Yorkshire and spent another month in jail. Back on home ground and still aged only 14, he was convicted of attempted rape at Mansfield in 1912 and spent two years in Lincoln Prison. On his release in 1915 aged 16 he signed up with the Royal Army Medical Corps and saw active duty as a stretcher-bearer behind the front-lines at Loos. He was in trouble again when he went AWOL after conning himself some compassionate leave by inventing a sick, pregnant wife back in England. He arrived back in Blackwell wearing a uniform, and a gold-rimmed monocle stolen on his way through France and masquerading as `Captain Toplis DCM’, and even had himself thus photographed for the Nottingham Evening Post!

He was given a heroes welcome and champagne reception at the Miner’s Welfare where he regaled the assembly with imagined exploits of his heroism.

He decided not to return to the front and fled to London where he continued a life of crime and deception until the war ended, posing as a Sergeant Major and even as a General, and bouncing cheques wherever he went. Remarkably despite the fact that he was a deserter, records show that Toplis re-enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps based at Clipstone Camp after the Great War and ran several petrol fiddling rackets.

He was black – marketing rationed petrol from the camp supply dump directly to local taxi-drivers, and during a dispute a taxi-driver was shot dead.

Toplis fled north and was found guilty of the murder in his absence.

The Nottingham Evening Post supplied the police with the picture of Percy dressed in the Captains uniform and it appeared on `Wanted’ posters in every police station throughout the land. An extract from the Police Gazette of 1920 displays the wanted poster with the words: “Wanted for Murder of a taxi-cab driver –Francis Edmunson, aliases Percy Francis Toplis etc, etc” and goes on to describe Percy as “very plausible and bombastic. On occasions wears a gold-rimmed monocle. Believed to be in possession of a No.6 Webley revolver.”

Percy Toplis was still in possession of that Webley revolver on the fateful evening of June 6th 1920 when he was shot dead by four plain clothes policemen who waited in ambush behind a wall at Romanway Farm, next to the churchyard in Plumpton village, Cumbria.

The official coroners verdict was justifiable homicide and Percy Toplis, the so-called `Monocled Mutineer’ was given a pauper’s funeral and buried in an unmarked grave at Penrith Cemetery in July 1920. He was 23 years old.

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