Chapter 18

The Toplis women wept their way home on the train to Alfreton on the night of the inquest, leaving a police force whose conduct up until then had been highly questionable, to dispose of the body in circumstances that were outrageously bizarre.

The police had got the verdict they so desperately wanted from the inquest coroner and jury. Now all cooperation with the Press ceased immediately. The goodwill of the visiting hordes was no longer necessary.

When police had searched Toplis’s clothing as his body lay on the table in the weights and measures room, awaiting inspection by the inquest jury, they found a gold-rimmed monocle, of course, a first-class rail ticket, a photograph of, and a letter from, ‘Dorothy’, a pawn ticket for a wristlet watch, half a crown and a gold ring set with three diamonds. What he had separately bequeathed to the authorities was a seemingly consuming desire to emulate his deeds of deceit and disguise. And, on the Wednesday when they buried him, they demonstrated that they had well learned the lessons he had taught.

The last official melodrama started at 8 a.m. when an unidentified police officer arrived at the wrought-iron gates of Penrith’s beautiful hillside cemetery overlooking the town, Ullswater Lake and the Lakeland hills and mountains beyond. To a large cluster of photographers gathered outside the locked gates, he announced that the funeral had been put back from 9 am. to I pm. The explanation was that the coffin was not quite finished.

Tired pressmen, who had been on duty until midnight and then up half the night drinking, were only too ready to accept the word of the law and went back into town for breakfast. When, later, they found that they had been duped, their wrath was directed against the police, but the real instigators of the trick were the Home Office in collusion with the War Office, and the police a willing party. The chief constable had stated quite categorically the previous night that the funeral would be at 9 am, but in the interval orders had been received that if the funeral was to go on at that time, it must be in secret. And so the police, having successfully lured the Press away from the scene with false information, stuck to the original plan. At 8.15 Mr Harry Bartley, a close friend and associate of the local police, and a fellow member of the Rifle Club, along with Oldcom and Bertram, drove his mineral-water lorry into the yard at the rear of the police station.

Toplis’s body, in its workhouse coffin of plain wood, with an inscription plate carrying the words, ‘The spirit shall return unto God, who gave it’ and ‘Bless the Lord, O my Soul’, was furtively, quickly loaded on to the lorry and covered with old rugs and rags. Whatever else Toplis might have appreciated about the crazy circumstances of his last journey, he would not have liked the reading on the coffin nameplate, ‘Francis Percy Toplis, aged 23, 1920.’ Toplis had hated his first name and had never used it.

Bartley drove his odd hearse along Meeting House Lane, up Fell Lane and along the Beacon Road, a route different from that usually taken to the cemetery. For most of the way he drove slowly, out of a mixture of some respect for his cargo under the rags and a fear of the possibility that if he speeded up the coffin might bounce off as the lorry had no sides to it. But at one point he was forced to speed up when the alternative became getting to the cemetery without a body or being followed by an unwanted cortege. From his high cabin, with its oval-shaped side and rear windows, he had been anxiously glancing around to see if he was being followed. Suddenly, as he neared his destination, he spotted what he thought was a press car and upped his speed to the maximum 45 m.p.h.

As the coffin bounced up and down on the back of his vehicle, Bartley prayed that the rugs and rags would not slip off, revealing that this particular delivery run was quite unconnected with lemonade. But his fears had been groundless, for when he finally, breathlessly, rattled through the cemetery gates, the car behind him swept on past. Waiting to receive the lorry and its load was Deputy Chief Constable Barron, Inspector Ritchie, Relieving Officer Johnstone, the cemetery curator, Brunskill, and the undertaker, John Ireland. They hastily rather than reverently pulled the coffin off the lorry into the small chapel just inside the cemetery gates. Just as quickly they bolted the doors from the inside and briskly hoisted the coffin on to their shoulders up the aisle to a table before the chancel.

Bartley then drove off again to his lemonade deliveries, and the curator locked the gates behind him. Before taking up a strategic position behind shrubs, with three of the undertakers’ assistants on the look-out for gate-crashers, Brunskill knocked on the cemetery lodge door to tell the Reverend Robert Law that his presence was awaited. Inside the chapel, Barron, Ritchie and Ireland impatiently occupied the front pew. Mufti was again worn by the two officers, upon whom it had been impressed that speed and secrecy were the essence, and now the tall, distinguished, grey-haired vicar was threatening the success of the operation with his tardiness. The official view had been that the parson’s presence was only necessary at the graveside, but the Reverend Law had insisted on conducting a full Church of England service, his argument being, quite properly, that the deceased had not been convicted of a capital crime – a fact which authority had been inclined to conveniently overlook until now, and one which they did not want to have interrupting the proceedings.

The officers stirred uneasily and thought that the vicar was doing the occasion slightly more than the religious justice it merited when he intoned that it was not for anyone gathered within these walls to judge the wrongdoing of others. The Reverend Law did not intend to spare them. ‘Circumstances have been such that this man was violently removed from this life before he could be judged on earth,’ he said. ‘Let his only judgement, therefore, be made in Heaven.’ In the absence of music the vicar thought that the ‘mourners’ should follow his lead in singing the first verse only of a hymn which he presumed was known to them all. A very reluctant and markedly off-key Barron and Ritchie joined in the words, ‘There is a happy land, far, far away…

At last it was over, and the two officers could stop glancing back at the church door and listening for the knocking that would tell them they had been detected and their little ploy uncovered. The coffin was carried two hundred yards to a grave listed as No. 7135 in the cemetery register, under a yew tree at one of the highest points in the graveyard, and when Barron and Ritchie helped to lower the coffin, they did not know that the undertaker, Ireland, had sympathetically and secretly reunited the gold-rimmed monocle with its owner. It had been placed by his side before the coffin lid was nailed down.

In the register, opposite the entry ‘P. Toplis’, curator Brunskill penned: ‘Shot dead by police at Plumpton.’ Triumphantly the police placed their prepared notice on the gates: ‘Francis Percy Toplis was interred at 9.00 a.m. this morning.’

The Penrith Board of Guardians, the local public assistance Doard of its time, met to hear the relieving officer, Johnstone, report that the cost of the pauper’s grave had been £5 9s. 64., although they could set against that the value of Toplis’s clothing and other property which now legally belonged to the board. The arrangement in fact showed a small profit.

When it was suggested that the Toplis gun should be sent to Penrith museum, Johnstone pointed out that the police wanted the gun to hang on their headquarters office wall as a memento. It was agreed to be a ‘jolly good idea’.

The gun, like the original photographic print of Toplis lying dead in Penrith Police Station, only disappeared from view in 1977. In the whole of Cumbria, authority is without knowledge of what happened to them.