Chapter 14

As the spring of 1919 moved into summer, the hopes and expectations of the Armistice sagged into bitterness, confusion and conflict. The great armies which had broken through into Germany the previous autumn had expected to be in Berlin within a week, followed by a brief nibble at the fruits of victory and a quick demobilization, after which it would be ‘back to their cats and canaries’, good quiet jobs and homes fit for heroes. Six months later, they knew it was not to happen thus.

The truce had locked the armies impatiently in aspic. Germany might refuse the terms. The Allies might need to fight again. Right through the winter of 1918/19 the troops had waited for the peace talks to begin. The food was, if anything, even worse than during the war. There were riots and disturbances. Two companies of the Hampshires refused to parade. One of the ringleaders was taken in. A London Rifle Brigade man reported ‘turbulent scenes’ when the news came that recruits who had only been with the brigade a month or two were to be demobilized before veterans who had served since 1914. Bitterly, he recorded another Christmas in uniform:

One eighteenth part of a scraggy turkey. No gravy. Beef. Potatoes. Three and a half ounces of pudding. Unsweetened custard. Three quarters of a fig. One third of a rotten apple. And paper chains.

The sense of grievance grew when it was rumoured, correctly, that large batches of troops who had never left England’s shores were being demobilized.

Peace officially came and went with the signing of the treaty in June 1919. But in that month there were still ten full divisions in the Rhineland. The streets of Cologne saw British machinegun posts, both the German and the British authorities being in fear of a Red revolution. The troops stayed on, with prison sentences and heavy punishments to contain their discontent.

Back home in England there was little comfort. The miners, as a starred occupation, had been conscripted late and demobilized early. They returned to the pits in early 1919 to find crippling inflation and a confrontation with the mine-owners. By July there was an all-out strike in the Yorkshire coalfield and trouble in Wales and Scotland. When the rest of the troops did get home, there would be few jobs, and many of the men returning would be unfit for the jobs that there were.

Into this confused and tense situation Percy Toplis emerged from jail in Nottingham. Norman de Courcy Parry, the chief constable’s son, whose path was to cross fatally with Toplis, recalls this period:

‘The country had very quickly become flooded with men for whom there was no hope of employment, men who had been wounded, gassed, or shell-shocked, and men who had never learned any trade at all but the art of killing their fellow men, men who were accustomed to survive under circumstances of intense hardship and discomfort which civilians were unable to envisage.

‘Intense bitterness and resentment arose between the returned soldier and those who had remained at home in lucrative situations, and had even taken their girlfriends.

‘The war was forgotten, and to many crime seemed to be the simplest way of making a living. The police were faced with ruthless men, caring for nothing, and extremely experienced in combat as well. There was no way of dealing with those who were out of touch with reality, and those needing just the slightest mental assistance did not receive it. Many had brainstorms, many more could not sleep without a light, and sudden noise, a creaking door, or the crash of something breaking up, might send even a strong man temporarily hysterical. It was a very intense time for parents and wives.’

For Toplis, neither parents nor wives were a consideration – and confusion was his natural element.

So it was that in the summer of 1919 a confident young man of 22 presented himself once again at a recruiting office, this time in London, and re-enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps as No. 54262 Toplis, Francis Percy. The continued effrontery is incredible. Two hundred and sixty-three men were officially admitted to have been shot for desertion – six of them in that very year, 1919. Yet Toplis, as renowned a deserter as any in the land, got back into the army under his own name. To this day the army have no explanation, and they maintain that they cannot check. The official line is that his wartime papers must have been among those destroyed at a Walworth warehouse during the blitz on London in the Second World War, a blaze that conveniently removed the papers of another figure from the Etaples mutiny, Corporal Wood.

It was not, however, Toplis’s intention to require too much from the army. Just food, pay and an occasional bed. In return, he did not intend the army to require too much from him. In this spirit, Driver Toplis, Mechanical Section Royal Army Service Corps, arrived with a draft at the Avonmouth Depot near Bristol in August 1919.

He had not chosen to stay in the Service Corps by accident. In that frenetic year after the ending of the war the corps had become the Mob of the British Army – and Bristol was its Chicago. For the Service Corps had access to a liquor craved as urgently in Britain as booze was in Prohibition America: petrol. Percy Toplis stepped into the barracks at Avonmouth aware not only that the corps would feed and clothe him, but that it could also provide a handsome living. What he did not know was that the corps already had its Al Capone gang – the Redskins.

Private V. Scott of Heywood, Lancashire, then a young lad of 17, remembers the reign of terror the Redskins maintained inside the barracks.

‘We slept on bed boards laid out on trestles with straw mattresses on top. These had to be kept clean and scrubbed. The Redskins just ordered the young ones to do the work for them. If they didn’t they were beaten up. These were old soldiers who hadn’t taken their discharge after the war and they meant business. One of them always carried a cut-throat razor with him, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. In the end it all finished up with a murder. But long before that we were terrified into doing anything they wanted.’

The terror in the barrack room, however, was a mere sideline to the Redskins. Their main objective was the weekly milking from the tanks at Avonmouth Depot of thousands of gallons of petrol which on the black market could fetch double the official price, The Redskins had the system inside Avonmouth camp sewn up. They happily left the young recruits to play around on the huge caterpillar tractors learning to manoeuvre the big guns while they concentrated on the lorries and cars. There was a Redskin on every shift at the ‘oil well’, checking out each driver from the pumps. Every driver had to sign for a full tank of petrol and take half a tank. There were Redskins in the Quartermaster’s Office checking and approving the sheets, there were Redskins on the gates, and Redskin drivers to take full loads of petrol out to the market.

By the time Toplis arrived, the Redskin leader, Corporal Harry Pearson, had the organization running with exemplary smoothness, except for that perennial bane of the entrepreneur: distribution. There was an immediate treaty. According to Private Scott, the Redskins knew of Toplis, some of them having been at Etaples. Certainly they recognized a fearsome opponent or a powerful ally – and settled for peace. Toplis’s toughness was known and proven. By late 1919, his patina of elegant and confident trickster was lacquered beyond the fear of flaking on to four years of war experience.

Toplis set about organizing the transport owners of Bristol. As long as they paid cash on the nail they were guaranteed a regular delivery of army petrol at whatever time was most convenient to avoid the eyes of prying employees or the attentions of the constabulary. Toplis negotiated in the most relaxed style, meeting at the old Guildhall pub in Bristol, or even journeying to the Assembly Rooms at Bath if there was a particularly handsome deal on the horizon. There was never any mention of the problem of the law, or hint of the presence of the Redskin heavies.

But the alliance with the Redskins was strictly business. Back at the barracks, Toplis remained aloof and as lordly as a loafer in St James’s, Young Scott was employed at 2s. 6d. a week to scrub the Toplis bed board. There was 6d. here or 1s, there to spare Percy the other minor impositions of army life.

For three months the operation flowed on without a ripple. Then, in October 1919, the army intervened in its usual capricious fashion. A draft notice arrived ordering Scott, Toplis and the Redskins to Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain. There was talk of protest, even desertion, but Toplis airily assured them that there would be ample, even greater, opportunities in the sprawling morass of the Royal Army Service Corps’ biggest base. And so it was to prove.

Bulford was, indeed, to provide another revolving stage for the display of Toplis’s exotic talents: exploiting the army, entertaining the troops, painting London red, seducing the ladies, becoming involved in a murder and, finally, sparking off the fatal, fascinated manhunt which was to rivet the attention of British newspaper readers for more than six weeks before its climax on the lonely road in Cumberland.

Bulford more than lived up to Percy’s expectations, As Private John Anderson of Felling-on-Tyne recalls:

‘It was a shambles. People were joining up in their thousands. And war veterans were trying to get out in their thousands. No one knew what anyone was doing. The new recruits hadn’t been kitted out or sorted into companies. The old soldiers went around in civilian clothes, it was chaos. The young lads in off the street like me were starving. They had to put Military Police on the dining halls to stop us coming round for second helpings. The rackets were enormous. The cooks were selling off food to people in Salisbury, often before it even got delivered to the camp. And of course it was the biggest driving school, there were stacks of lorries and stacks of petrol.’

Toplis and the Redskins settled in. There were not so many transport firms around, but Toplis soon homed in on the readiest of markets. The taxi drivers of Winchester, Salisbury, even Southampton, were only too eager to keep their faltering trade topped up with army petrol. Rumour had it that the contact man was a certain Sidney Spicer, who drove a cab in Salisbury. Certainly his trade, illicit or not, was to prove within the year abruptly fatal for himself and for Toplis.

In the meantime, with a comfortable income assured, Toplis set about enjoying himself. The weekends, from Thursday to Tuesday, were reserved for a Burlington Bertie life in the metropolis. The Press was later to discover his tracks at the Savoy and Ascot, his buying shoes in Pall Mall and suits in Savile Row, his recounting, as ‘Captain Williams’, exploits at Hill 60, his philandering with the daughters of the aristocracy and compromising young ladies in teashops. But, for a couple of days midweek, with Thursday’s pay parade in view, it was pleasant enough to wander around impressing the lads back at Bulford.

His young friend, 19-year-old Private Harry Fallows, built up an awed picture of Toplis’s army life. It was rare to see Percy in the same uniform twice running. He had an endless supply of badges, from RAF to Army Remount. He appeared sometimes as a private soldier, sometimes as a sergeant-major, often as an officer, and then invariably adorned with his gold-rimmed monocle. One memorable day, Fallows says, he appeared in the camp in the uniform of a full colonel:

‘He walked out of the hut and down towards the canteen, He told me to follow a few yards behind. The young blokes just melted out of the way. Anyone who got trapped in his path brought off a mighty salute because officers weren’t seen much round there. But then, as we got near the canteen a bunch of old hands came out. They saw him, but it was against their principles to salute anyone. Percy wasn’t having that. He could put on this real toff gentleman’s voice. And he roared out: ‘Soldier, don’t you know the rules of this army. Let’s see your arm up there. And again. Faster, or I’ll damn well shoot it off for you.’ ‘And at that, he whipped this Webley 6 revolver out of his holster and fired off three shots. Just like that, One, two, three. The soldiers just hit the ground and stayed there. When they looked up ‘Colonel’ Toplis was doubled up with laughter, shouting: ‘Just where you belong, Thomas, Just where you belong.’ They were chaps he knew, you see. He’d fired all right, but the bullets had gone in the ground. He just told the lads to come down and have a drink with him.

‘For all that, he had too much of that revolver in the camp. He had a lot to say about it. He kept talking about doing this and that. In the end we took no notice. It was well known in the camp that he was a deserter. He had a set of proper discharge papers. But once, when I was a temporary clerk in the company office, I copied out a confidential document which said he was a deserter and gave it to him.’

Clearly the army knew that it had taken the viper back into its bosom. But authority did nothing. By Christmas, according to Fallows, Toplis rarely bothered to show up at the camp at all. He would appear on Wednesday evening in time for Thursday’s pay parade, and then vanish again, Occasionally he would while away a few hours making out his own leave passes and handing them to the soldiers.

In this war of nerves the army seemed afraid to lift a finger. ‘The embarrassments of Toplis’s past army life were daily compounded by new audacities, but the present indignities were puny compared with the revelations which might have accompanied a public court martial. Finally it was Toplis who tired of the pantomime. On Boxing Night, Fallows was on duty as orderly in the depot vehicle office when a Sunbeam car appeared outside the window. Fallows peered out and thought he recognized Percy at the wheel. As the car reached the gate the sentry challenged it. The car stopped with the engine running, the driver produced a chit, the sentry saluted – and the car was on its way. Toplis was opting out of the Royal Army Service Corps for the time being, with the bonus of the Sunbeam car, property of the War Office, value £100.

It was the car that finally outraged the army. Its description, and that of its driver, were circulated quickly as Toplis set off across Salisbury Plain, intent on spending New Year with a lady of his acquaintance in Bath. For the purposes of this particular romance he was a company sergeant-major.

The afternoon of 27 December found him walking out in the full-dress uniform of his rank with Miss Evelyn Shipton, the daughter of a greengrocer in the town. It was still a bright clear day as he parked the Sunbeam outside the Pump Rooms and helped Miss Shipton out, Over the road was a small café of sentimental memory to the couple. They had often taken tea there when Toplis had been on business visits from Bristol. The cat had put Miss Shipton in an affectionate mood. Clearly her young hero had been doing well. Despite a little residual pique at his three-month absence, she let his hand rest on her knee as the waitress arrived with the cakes. There had been a moment of indiscretion, fortunately with no dire results, the night Percy had left for Bulford. She was determined not to repeat it, at least not so soon. Yet Percy was not only attractive, but also persuasive, Miss Shipton glanced out at the car. A little trip to the country perhaps. ‘People seem to admire your car,’ she said. Percy looked up to see two military policemen surveying the front of the Sunbeam. They turned and began to walk across the road. Swiftly Toplis got up and made for the door. Coolly he held it open while the two Red Caps walked in and went over to speak to the waitress. He was round the corner and running before he heard the sounds of pursuit. By the time he got to the Great Western Railway Station there was no sign of the chase and a train was in for Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth. Thankfully he settled back in a third-class carriage. The train was full of soldiers. There were one or two military policemen. But they would not lightly tangle with a company sergeant-major.

Down at Bristol Temple Meads station, however, was a Red Cap with no such scruples. Corporal Arthur Rayment, boxer and veteran of Etaples and the Western Front, had had a busy Christmas. A whole battalion of Irish troops bound reluctantly for India had simply got off the train at Temple Meads, officers and all, and declined to continue. Rayment had spent a few hours rounding them up from the pubs of Bristol, ending up with their captain, dead drunk in a hotel bedroom. On Christmas Eve, Rayment had been attacked by a huge wild Canadian brandishing a cut-throat razor. Rayment had felled him with a punch of knuckle-duster force, but only after getting a fair beating himself. The message that now came down the line was scarcely welcome.

Please detain and hold passenger on 4.35 Bath/Bristol train. Wearing uniform of Company Sergeant-Major. May be armed. Name Francis Percy Toplis. Description: Medium height, reddish hair. Age 22. Looks older.’

Rayment took three colleagues and went across to Platform No. 4. Troops piled off the train, but there was no sign of the distinctive sleeve of a company sergeant-major. Rayment warned the guard to hold the train and boarded the end carriage. He was prepared for a fight. It seemed unlikely that his man would use a gun in a crowded train. Slowly he edged down the train over the mélée of kit-bags into the second coach. At the far end a company sergeant-major was coming out of the lavatory. Instinctively, Toplis decided to bluff it out.

‘What the hell do you mean, Corporal? I warn you, I’m not used to being approached in this way. If you’ll just get out of the way I’can get back to my seat.’

Rayment, a big man, gripped him by the arm. ‘I’m sorry, I have written orders to take you off this train for questioning.’ Quietly enough Toplis capitulated. This was neither the time nor the place for force. The policemen searched him and removed the Webley. Chatting cheerfully, Toplis was taken back to the police post.

In the truculent array of drunks, trouble-makers and victims of fights that Christmas of 1919, Toplis, the absentee, seemed hardly to need special watching. In any case, the cells were full.

Rayment himself had arrested seventeen people that day. He was happy enough to fill in Form 13252 and see Toplis packed off to the overspill guard-room down the river at Shirebampton Remount Depot, a stone’s throw from old familiar territory at Avonmouth.

For Toplis, survivor of the death cell at Etaples, who had masqueraded his way back to England from Boulogne under the noses of Secret Service agents, Shirehampton was a pushover. The second night he joined casually in a game of pontoon with his guards. It was a game he had learnt in a hard school with the Aussies at Etaples. He was winning comfortably. The guards were boys with no idea when to risk a fifth card or how to hide a good banker’s hand. Towards midnight, one left to check the log. When he came back, it was to find his colleague staring at his own pistol in Toplis’s hands. A simple bit of pickpocketing had sufficed. Toplis locked them both in his own cell and walked out of the depot. Nerve, confidence and experience had stood him in good stead once again. He was free to face the arrival of the New Year of 1920 in jovial mood. It was to be his last, since he was to die by June.

Toplis did not at that moment, however, wish to desert His Majesty’s Services altogether. The wages and accommodation were not to be scoffed at in such troubled times. By January he was enrolled in the Royal Air Force. Even now, more than fifty years on, the RAF are less than keen to admit any responsibility for a man who had taken their more senior service for a helterskelter ride through five years of war and peace. He was enlisted as Aircraftman Francis Percy Toplis. They paid him. Nothing else is forthcoming.

In all the colourful Toplis story of 1920, the army kept a low profile, but the RAF stayed invisible. The last chapter in the chronicle of Percy Toplis, deserter, hero, confidence trickster, ladies’ man, mutineer, Bolshevik, escape artist, and gentleman of St James’s, began with a crime Toplis had never before been embroiled in: murder.

On the balmy morning of Sunday, 25 April, Sidney Spicer, the young Salisbury taxi driver, was found shot in the head under a hedge at Thruxton Down, near Andover, in Hampshire. The body had been dragged for forty yards across the road over the bank and into the hedge. There were blood marks on the tarmac. The local police acted quickly. They issued this description of the man they wanted for the murder:

Name: Private Percy Toplis, Regimental number EMT 54262 RASC, enlisted August 1919, deserted December 1919, of smart appearance, affects a gold monocle. Age 34 or 35, sometimes has ginger moustache, cut á la Ja Charlie Chaplin.

Superintendent Cox of the Hampshire Police was unforthcoming about the evidence against Toplis, but to his thinking it was sufficient to launch the most intense and dramatic postwar manhunt. For six weeks the hunted man ranged the length of Britain, flaunted himself, then melted away; tantalized the newspaper-reading public with exploit after exploit, before, like Pearl White herself, invariably escaping in the nick of time.

Within three days of the murder, Superintendent Cox arrested Toplis’s friend, Private Harry Fallows, and charged him with harbouring and maintaining Toplis. The same day the inquest on Sidney Spicer opened in the rather original setting of a barn at Thruxton Down, with grain heaped on the floor, harness hanging from old beams under a ceiling concealed with cobwebs. Members of the nine-man jury, as well as the Deputy Coroner, Captain J. T. P. Clarke, sat on bags of chaff. The coroner opened by declaring proudly: ‘This court has got one piece of evidence that is not available in any other court, and that is the body of the deceased man.’ And sure enough there the body was, in an open box outside the barn door, The jury trooped out for a look.

Coroner Clarke sought to explain the emotive choice of a barn, yards away from the spot where the body had been found. From his seat on the chaff bag, above him a horse saddle hanging on the wall, he said, ‘The circumstances of the case are probably known to all of you better than me, It is one of those tragedies that occurs in an out-of-the-way part of Hampshire and gives it a world-wide interest. That reason has induced me to adjourn from the small room in the farmhouse to this barn. The room that we were offered was small and would have been uncomfortably crowded.’

‘The inquest was then adjourned with only evidence of identification. By the time it was resumed in more easeful circumstances more than a month later at Shipton School, a local magistrates’ court had started proceedings against Private Fallows on the charge of harbouring.

The first thing that their worships heard from a Mr Sims, acting for the public prosecutor, was that the army was washing its hands of Toplis as fast as possible. He was disowned and dumped on the RAF as their problem. Mr Sims said, ‘There can be no doubt at all that the person who inflicted that wound on Spicer was an ex-soldier named Toplis, a deserter from the RAF at the time, masquerading as a quartermaster-sergeant.’

Although it was Private Fallows who was on trial, the story of Toplis and the fateful weekend dominated the proceedings. Slowly the story, or at least a version of the story, began to emerge.

Despite the little adventure with the army’s Sunbeam car, and the inconvenience in Bath and Bristol, Toplis had not deserted his business interests at Bulford Camp entirely. Harry Fallows reported that his friend Percy had shown up several times for a meal and a chat at the cookhouse. He had strolled about the camp, saying that he was a civilian attached to the Air Force Commission in London. There were discussions with the Redskins about the petrol racket. The police, military and civilian, were causing no difficulties, but some of the taxi firms were cutting up rough about the price and threatening to spill the story to the authorities. Through March and April no action seemed necessary, and Toplis cheerfully called in on Fallows from time to time in the company mess at No. 2 Depot, had a bite to eat and then faded away back to London.

On the Saturday afternoon of 24 April, Fallows was asleep on his bunk at Bulford when a corporal came into the hut and said: ‘A sergeant-major wishes to see you.’ Fallows went out down the mile-long winding hill from the camp towards the Rose and Crown. There was Sergeant-Major Toplis playing the piano alone in the Cromwell Institute, picking out his favourite tune – ‘Let the Great Big World Keep Turning’.

Toplis stopped and turned to Fallows: ‘Do you fancy a stroll?’

They had only gone a few paces when a Red Cap sergeant stopped them and asked Fallows if he had a pass. Toplis, as usual, was immune because of his uniform, but they both turned back. Near the Bulford railway siding Toplis put his coat down and they sat down in the sun, A small dog came bounding up and they romped with it for a few minutes. But Toplis was restless. Shortly he said he would come back at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon to give Fallows a ride in a landaulette car which he had bought. He put his monocle in his eye, said goodbye and turned to go towards Bulford station. For a moment he paused. ‘Still got the old friend.’ And he dropped six bullets out of the chambers of a Mark 6 Webley revolver,

‘You’re a fool to carry a thing like that about in England,’ said Fallows.

‘Well, I’m going to Ireland soon. You can shoot on sight there.’ And he was on his way.

That small exchange was to seal Toplis’s fate.

It was only a few hours later, however, at eleven o’clock that same Saturday night, according to Harry Fallows, that Toplis came back to Bulford.

‘He knocked at the door of the cookhouse. I thought it was the provost sergeant and opened the door, but it was Toplis, and he said, ‘For God’s sake give me a drink, I feel as parched as hell.’ I gave him a drink of tea and he said if I didn’t go on the joy-ride to Tidworth right then, I should not be able to have one at all as he had some business on. He borrowed a towel to wipe his hands, but he didn’t wash.

‘Instead of starting the car, Toplis gave it a push down the hill towards the railway siding, jumped in and threw the clutch in. I asked him why he did it that way. He said he didn’t want everybody poking about.

‘At North Tidworth he changed hats with me, When I was picking his up from behind the seat, I found his revolver. It was still loaded in all six chambers. When we got to Savernake Forest we had a bit of sleep. But first he took some clothes out of the front of the car, took them about twenty yards away, put some petrol on them and burnt them. He said they were oily rags. It was no use leaving them in the car and he wanted to warm his hands.’ At Cirencester the car stopped dead out of petrol. Toplis bought a tin. By ten o’clock on Sunday morning, while Superintendent Cox was viewing the body on Thruxton, Down, the two motorists had reached Gloucester and the car had broken down. They had it repaired. But it was not Toplis’s day. On the way down through the Forest of Dean he hit a cow and it took an hour to straighten out the bumper and mudguard so that it was nearly seven in the evening before they reached Swansea. With every hour that passed the beautiful Darracq car was becoming a more conspicuous and dangerous liability.

They stayed at the Grosvenor Hotel, Fallows recollects, Toplis with his revolver beside his bed:

‘We slept until ten o’clock. He told me then to buck up. I wasn’t moving quick enough. We had breakfast. He went into a barber’s shop and had a shave, and left me alone, I met him coming out of a garage down the street with the car. He shouted for me to jump in and said, ‘That man won’t buy the car, he thinks I’ve stolen it.’ There was a policeman at the bottom of the hill and Toplis said: ‘He’s watching us. You get out here.’ He borrowed my spectacles. I walked round and met him at the bottom of the road. Toplis was tense. ‘You had better get back to Bulford quickly.’

He thrust a pound in Fallows’s hand and gave him back his own cap. Fallows shook hands with Toplis for the last time and caught the train to Salisbury. Toplis set off for familiar territory, across the River Severn to Bristol.

Back at Bulford there was uproar, as Private Jack Anderson remembers:

‘Everybody was ordered out of their huts by the Military Police and we all had to stand while they got underneath the huts and searched. We had a chap apparently in our lot that looked very much like him. They took him away and gave him a right going over before he could prove where he had been. The whole camp was sealed off and it was hours before we were allowed back in our billets. There was no going to the canteen. Nothing. Even to us new recruits, Toplis was a well-known figure at the camp. He was a well-spoken chap and we all knew he went off to London and posed as an admiral or something. But that day no one seemed to have anything to say to the police.’

James McMahon, the mutineer who had luckily escaped the consequences of Etaples, was by now a corporal and a Bulford soccer team mate of Toplis. He recalls:

‘There was enormous panic. He wasisuch an arrogant bloke that everybody felt he would just come strolling back in. He really did run that place, most of it from a distance, and when he did choose to show up from time to time, everybody from the rank of Lieutenant up, went in fear of him. But there is no denying that for the rest of us he had a great deal of what would now be called charisma. ‘While they were searching underneath the huts, the camp provost sergeant was busy shaving off his moustache, I remember, Toplis had threatened to ‘get’ him one day, and this was part of his attempt at disguising himself. But, really, the only exercise that Toplis ever bothered to turn up for was football. I used to play alongside him in the team, and he gave me a photograph of himself. Of course he never turned up again, and later I sold that photograph to a London news paper for £2.

Meanwhile Superintendent Cox was trying to work out a timetable of murder. He had some witnesses. Private Jack Holdrick at the RASC’s Embarkation Depot at Southampton Docks had come forward to say he had seen Toplis on the Saturday afternoon, also at about half past two, near the Clock House in Southampton High Street. According to Holdrick, he asked Toplis what he was doing. ‘He said he had had his ticket from the RASC and was in the Air Force. Toplis said: “You know the car missing from Bulford on Boxing Night? It, was me. I sold it in Cirencester for £100. I am going to Bulford to get another one. If I can’t get it by fair means I shall do it with this.”’

Holdrick then told the police that Toplis had produced a Webley service revolver from his back trouser pocket, and confirmed he was wearing a sergeant-major’s crown on his arm and RAF khaki. Yet this melodramatic and hardly characteristic encounter amid the shopping crowds at Southampton apparently took place at the same time as, according to Fallows, Toplis was playing the piano to himself twenty-five miles away in the Cromwell Institute at Bulford.

Another RASC man, Driver Arthur Sellwood, told the police he left Salisbury at about nine o’clock on Saturday evening in Sidney Spicer’s taxi. When they arrived near Amesbury railway bridge on the journey to Bulford they had to fill up. Just then a man came out of the hedge near-by, walked to the driver and asked him to take him to Andover. Spicer said he was going the other way, but would call for him on the way back if he wanted, Sellwood said the stranger had a British Warm coat with a sergeant-major’s crown on the sleeve.

Superintendent Cox then tried out the complicated journey this evidence suggested: from Amesbury railway bridge through to the Rose and Crown at Bulford where the car had been seen to turn round; back to Amesbury to pick up the stranger; then on via Andover to the fatal spot at Thruxton Hill; and back to Bulford and No. 2 Company Depot by eleven o’clock in time to meet Fallows. Sixteen miles: it was possible. Indeed, the story was good enough for the Andover coroner. People did not usually parade with revolvers and draw them on every conceivable occasion, he told the inquest jury. Toplis had been seen in the same uniform as that worn by the mysterious stranger at Amesbury. Captain Clarke admitted that there seemed to be a little discrepancy about time, but not too much notice should be taken of that. People did not know what they were doing every minute of the day. The jury was absent for about fifteen minutes. Returning to court, the foreman said they were agreed that Spicer met his death as a result of gunshot wounds. And they returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against Percy Toplis. If caught, he would now certainly be hanged.

The inquest was the first in modern times to declare a man guilty of murder in his absence. At this distance it seems by no means certain that Toplis really was the killer. The case was far from conclusive, based, as it was, largely on a man who had turned King’s Evidence, Private Fallows.

‘There had been no sign of blood on Toplis. His revolver was still fully loaded when Fallows found it. Toplis was apparently in two places at once, twenty-five miles apart, at 2.30 on the day of the murder. The motive of murdering to joy-ride in a car is a thin one indeed. But, from that moment, Toplis stood no chance. He was a condemned and convicted murderer who would never have been able to prove his innocence. He had been publicly branded as an outlaw.

‘The hue and cry was now in earnest. The discrepancies, along with the unchallenged assertion of the inquest, were swept aside in the frenetic hunt for ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Britain’. Five days before, at the magistrates’ court, Private Fallows had been cleared completely of the charges against him.

Meanwhile the local police in Toplis’s home territory in Derbyshire were having a frustrating time. They knew Toplis had quite enough nerve to come back and see his mother or his old – and not so old – flames. ‘Just a week or two before the murder, Percy had been back buying us all a pint in the Hay Inn at Shirland,’ said Charles Buggins who now lives at the Lord Nelson in Bullsbridge. ‘His mother was living just at the back of the Hay Inn. Percy came quite often. Even then, a couple of years after the war, he was never out of uniform – officers’ of course – swagger stick and all. We lads thought he was tremendous, and you can imagine the effect he had on the lasses of a pit village.’

The first tip that reached the constabulary came from the Ashover Registrar, Chesterfield, a few days after the shooting. A baby boy had been registered giving the father’s name as Percy Toplis. A flying squad descended on the unfortunate Mary Jane Nutting at Clay Cross. It took an hour to persuade the officers that her husband was a hewer at the local pit and that she had never met the monocled swell from down the road at Shirland.

A week later Shirland itself had a taste of just how fearfully the law regarded the fugitive Percy Toplis. Just as the morning shift was going to the pit, a bus came tearing through the village and disgorged two dozen policemen who immediately surrounded the Toplis house. ‘We couldn’t believe our eyes,’ said Charles Buggins. ‘We’d never seen more than two policemen at one time in our lives – and that was when the village bobby brought his mate over for a drink. Now here we had bobbies flashing guns and acting like there was a war on. The sergeant in charge had a gun. He hammered on the door and eventually poor old Ma Toplis came down in her nightgown. ‘They were in there for ages, but of course there wasn’t a hide nor hair of Percy.’

Indeed, at that precise moment in time Toplis was fleeing across a ploughed field on the other side of the country near Chepstow, pursued by a breathless policeman, Constable Charles Davies of the Monmouthshire Constabulary.

Davies, in plain clothes, had come across Toplis, also out of uniform, and two sailors sleeping in a car in a country lane two miles from Caerwent Police Station. The sailors admitted they were ‘adrift’, but Toplis who was in the driving seat, maintained that he was an ex-officer on important government work. Constable Davies got into the front passenger seat and ordered Toplis to drive to the police station, issuing directions en route, instructions which Toplis ignored as he crashed along the Janes at full speed. As they roared through the village of Crick, Davies made a grab for the steering wheel and the car overturned into a hedge. Toplis extricated himself first and in cross-country dash for freedom soon outstripped the policeman, who, on his return to the police station, identified the escapee as Toplis from a photograph.

On the strength of having nearly caught the country’s most wanted man PC No. 122 was made a sergeant and with his promotion he received a threatening letter from Toplis still on the run. It read: ‘Beware, you bastard. In range of my revolver you are a dead man … Make your will. It is a pity I was not armed, otherwise I would have shot you dead, but I could land you yet. I have read all accounts and also notice your promotion in the ‘Police Gazette’, so watch yourself.’

The communication, without explanation as to how the outlaw had contrived to make the Police Gazette priority reading while fleeing for his life, was placed in the Davies family Bible, together with the envelope in which it was delivered. A further puzzle is how Toplis managed to lay his hands on notepaper carrying a War Office imprint.

On Police Sergeant Davies’s death in the late 1930s the envelope and its contents passed into the hands of his policeman son, also named Charles, now of Barnt Green, near Birmingham.

During the six weeks he was on the run, sightings of Toplis were reported from 107 different places throughout Britain. Every newspaper and every police station carried photographs and descriptions of the murderer with the monocle. Almost each day there were spurious sightings and false arrests. In the Welsh mountains, children joined police in the search. In Wiltshire, a man who looked like Toplis was beaten up by villagers before he could be rescued by police. One story ended in tragedy: a sad epitaph on the England of 1920 and the excited passions that the hunt for Toplis aroused. It concerned another man whom the public had mistaken for Toplis and enthusiastically hunted down. Alongside a report headlined ‘Toplis Still at Large’, the Andover Advertiser carried this account of the affair on 14 May 1920:

The astounding story of Private Coop of the 9th Lancers had a dramatic ending on Friday morning when Coop was found dead in a cell at the Lancers guardroom at Tidworth, having hung himself with a strip of canvas torn from the top of his trousers.

A hardened deserter, Coop escaped from the guardroom two days before the tragedy. He reached a cottage at Collingbourne and asked for some clothes. But the people at the cottage thought he was Toplis and chased him off. He seized a bike and made towards Burbage. By now a crowd were chasing him, but he kept them off with vicious cuts from a stick until he lost control on a steep hill and police who were following in a car grabbed him. When the regimental police came to get him, he assaulted his escort, seized the district nurse’s bike, and set off again. There was a chase over fields until police finally surrounded him.

At the inquest at Tidworth Major Kemble O.B.E. said Coop had been in the Lancers since 1908 and had gone right through the war. Private Wild said he had seen Coop trying to hang himself in the cell with a scarf. He cut him down. He had to go in five times to take stuff from him. Coop had then asked to see the MO saying he was suffering from VD. Captain Rupert Hicks RAMC said he had found no evidence of VD and sent him back to the guardroom.

Recalled, Private Wild spoke of the following curiously worded message written on the wall of the dead man’s cell in letters a foot high: Dear Jess and wife and mother and dad. I am being murdered. Jess take my body home, Goodbye all.

Major Kemble intimated that although the deceased was probably under the delusion he would be shot for desertion, the adjutant had personally assured him that this was not to be so.

This news story was not untypical of its time. Justice was a haphazard commodity, and the story bears out de Courcy Parry’s observations about the widespread untreated madness caused by the war.

Meanwhile Toplis, more rational, was keeping a terse diary.

April 19: Bulford.

April 25: Entry erased.

May 21: [the day of Fallows’ acquittal on the charge of harbouring Toplis] Harry released.

May 26: [The day he read about the Spicer inquest verdict of his own guilt.] La verdict. Rotten

There was only one personal note. It was back on 4 April: ‘Freshford with Dorothy.’ In all the lurid speculation which was to follow. Toplis’s favourite lover and their illegitimate son would escape the attention of the Press.