Chapter 19

Back in the real world questions about the Penrith shoot-out were beginning to be asked with a little more penetration than the coroner had shown. The Manchester Guardian said the day after the inquest that the killing ‘was not by any means, the best end to a bad business’. In an editorial that was more slightly hinting than hard-hitting, the newspaper continued, ‘There are several minor but interesting loose ends to the story as it stands at present, and had the case of Toplis gone before a jury some of them might have been cleared up.’ Letters registering disapproval of the shooting started to reach newspapers and Members of Parliament.

The London correspondent of the Yorkshire Post wrote:

The fatal use of firearms by the Penrith Police against the suspected Percy Toplis seems to have taken some of our sentimental politicians by surprise.

The matter is to be raised in the Commons, some members holding that the right of the police to fire on suspects should be clearly defined and restricted as much as possible.

The authorities have no quarrel with this claim, indeed it is their own. The question of arming the police has been under consideration for some time. However, the final decision was that in view of the recent increase in crimes of the type of which Toplis was accused, and the knowledge that these criminals would not hesitate to shoot at police attempting their arrest, revolvers should be issued to police, the question #94 of their use in exceptional cases being left to the discretion of senior officers.

The chief constable was, therefore, acting on the Home Office instructions when he used his discretion in starting armed on the hunt for a man known to be desperate enough to shoot at sight officers attempting his arrest. The view in official quarters in London is that the discretion exercised must be upheld by the authorities in spite of what may be urged to the contrary. The ‘matter’ was never raised in the House of Commons.

In an attempt to stem the criticism, the Penrith Observer fairly lashed out. Under a headline ‘Facts and Gossip’ it thundered:

There are sentimental, and perhaps soft-headed people who deplore the fact that Toplis was shot dead instead of merely being ‘winged’ … Toplis went bad as a lad, gradually but rapidly passed from bad to worse, and the world is well rid of a scoundrel of the most dangerous type.

It was not enough to lay the spectre of these events. By now the 9,000-strong population of the old market town was buzzing with rumours that not by any standard had the whole truth been revealed about Toplis or his violent end. So the Penrith Observer tried again. It suggested that the police had undisclosed information, and that their erratic behaviour had been the result of outside pressure. The article continued:

The Chief Constable, the Deputy Chief Constable, and certain other responsible officers, did all they could to place at the disposal of the Press whatever information it was advisable to make public.

Much in their possession, of course, was of a highly confidential character, and it would have been greatly against the public interest to have allowed it to be published. The police headquarters were besieged by reporters and photographers from all parts of the country; altogether there must have been over seventy in the town, but they were met by unfailing courtesy and received the greatest help.

Some of this proved to be undeserved, as irresponsible and unscrupulous men, when their turn had been served, published matter that ought to have been regarded as confidential. Others, in their feverish search for stories, broke well-known rules, and might easily have caused great trouble to those concerned.

At the top of the list of secrets could only have been the fact that Toplis, who had been a deserter on and off for over three years, was not merely a monocled outlaw. He had also been one of the main motivators of a dangerous mutiny about which no news must ever be allowed to leak out.

Certainly the Cumbrian establishment was sensitive to the feeling that all had not been correct in the Toplis killing. Only a fortnight after the inquest, the Standing Joint Committees of Cumberland and Westmoreland had the resignation of Chief Constable de Courcy Parry in their hands. The tough ex-boxer, ex-Derby County FC centre-half, was leaving after eighteen years in charge. Superintendent Barron, his deputy, presented his departing chief with a silver rose-bow and a signed photograph of his senior officers. He made a point of the fact in his speech that the chief’s health ‘had broken down under great strain’.

Superintendent Barron then saw his own name safely on to the short-list, and waited confidently for the Committee to appoint him Chief Constable. To his consternation, and the fury of his friends on the local paper, he was passed over. A new chief was brought in from Scotland. The Penrith Observer regretted: ‘It is a curious fact that an officer, who for months together, during the last two years, has carried out all the duties of the Chief Constable was not thought deserving of the permanent position’

But the police committee was most anxious not to give any immediate endorsement to an affair which considered opinion was coming to see, as the Manchester Guardian had put it, as ‘a bad business’. The frantic consultations with London, the army and the Home Office on the night of the ambush were now becoming known. If the chief constable and his deputy had indeed submitted to pressures from Whitehall which, at best, laid no emphasis on taking Toplis alive, then it was better for a new figure to take over the force with his reputation, and particularly his independence, untarnished.

In due course, Norman de Courcy Parry, formerly Chief Constable of Cumberland and Westmoreland, was given a Whitehall #95 appointment as Inspector of Constabulary. It was promotion apparently his health had recovered. He had already been made a Commander of the British Empire. Inspector Ritchie, Sergeant Bertram and Constable Fulton did not have to wait so long for their reward. The Penrith Town Council felt able to make a payment of £10 each to Ritchie and Bertram, and £15 to Fulton.

Fulton, who retired from the police force with the rank of sergeant, died in 1977, leaving de Courcy Parry as the sole survivor of the 1920 Sunday night ambush.

Back in Shirland, some weeks after the inquest, a handsome young woman in black appeared carrying a young baby. Mrs Toplis took her in. For nearly a year the two women lived together, the younger one hardly venturing out at first, though the locals soon recognized a southern accent. For this indeed was the mysterious ‘Dorothy’ whose letter had been found on Toplis’s body. She had met Percy while he was based at Bulford. Dorothy was already past her mid-twenties, older than Percy, and she had obviously gained a hold on his affections beyond the usual brief flirtation which was the Toplis hallmark. The baby was Percy’s. Eventually Dorothy met and married an older man in the district and he adopted the young boy. Today Dorothy is dead’ but Percy Toplis’s son is alive and well in eastern England quite unaware that his father was one of the most colourful and notorious men in England.

‘Toplis’s old adversary Edwin Woodhall left the Secret Service to found a detective agency and then to become the Edgar Lustgarten of his day. He had more than forty books published, mainly working over famous old crimes and he appeared in a Peter Lorre film in the thirties, narrating the authoritative prologue. His scripts fetched thousands of pounds. His wife and children, who now live in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, remember a surprisingly uproarious life in and around Fleet Street in the years after the First War. Woodhall died penniless in 1941.

The body of Harry Fallows was found in a cave near Chesterfield in 1924 in mysterious circumstances which were never explained.


Another man followed with special interest the death of Toplis and the rise of the legend in the newspapers.

At Vevey in Switzerland, Brigadier-General Andrew Thomson, RE retd, perused the Continental Daily Mail anxiously for any hint of the dark secret of the mutiny that he and the army had so successfully conspired to conceal. There was not a whisper about his encounter with Toplis, the man who had consummated his disgrace. The secret was to survive a further fifty two years after Thomson’s death in February 1926.

Thomson left behind £12,004, and an obituary in The Times which dismissed his war service in one sentence: ‘In the Great War he was mentioned in despatches and was specially employed in Holland in 1918.’ He never set foot in England again but he does have one last obscure memorial, a faded photograph in the Sandhurst Collection.

And now that the full story is known the thoughts of Lieutenant James Davies, too, go back to those days of 1917. After that he lost a leg at the battle of Amiens in August 1918. Demobilized, he returned to England and went back on the stage. During the Second World War, he became Britain’s only one-legged infantryman, serving with the Indian Army and having two bullets shot through his tin leg in a skirmish on the North-West Frontier. Now over 80, he lives in retirement in the Cotswolds.

And, still defying the British Army, Percy Toplis has his own place of honour – gazing arrogantly down from a photograph on the shelves of the Imperial War Museum, dressed in the uniform of a lieutenant, Old soldiers and their exploits never die, nor do they entirely fade away.