Chapter 2

Toplis made the last entry in his diary on Saturday, 5 June 1920, and it read, ‘Some search, Carlisle’ – not a phrase intended to be in praise of his pursuers, but more of a contemptuous dismissal of their puerile efforts. Since he made that entry while relaxing in the depot of the Border Regiment at Carlisle – where, despite being the most wanted man and the most notorious soldier in England, he had been fed and lodged without question – he was perhaps entitled to be scathing. From the first days of his desertion from the army in wartime France, Percy Toplis had lived dangerously.

This was particularly the case when he was short of money, a state from which he occasionally suffered, and one that was with him once again that fatal weekend. In such circumstances, Toplis had always sought and been given succour in the lion’s den; he knew that was where searchers were least likely to look.

On the penultimate day of his life he stuck to his common practice, and seemingly went unrecognized as he mingled in the Carlisle depot with scores of regular army troops. Or it may have been that, whether for reasons of fear or sympathy, no ‘one was prepared to turn him in, Next morning he slung his kitbag over his shoulder, and in the khaki uniform of an army corporal, still complete with puttees, went marching down the Scotland Road towards Penrith. It was a warm day, and Mrs Mary Taylor (84), daughter of a gamekeeper at Newbigging, remembers him calling in for, and being given, a refreshing cup of tea.

Toples then resumed his tramp over the hill from Newbigging and down into the valley towards the villages of Low and High Hesket. Midway between those two hamlets, a small Wesleyan Chapel (1869) had then, as it has still, a soft, inviting stretch of well-kept lawn by the roadside. Toplis sat down there, and was so engrossed in a Sunday newspaper account of his shoot-up of a policeman and gamekeeper in the Scottish Highands a few days before that he failed to spot the approach of Police Constable Alfred Fulton, village constable for both Low and High Hesket  Fulton, a military type of figure with a wide, waxed moustache, had been in the police for thirteen years. Until then his most dangerous adversaries had been the local poachers. Toplis did not wait for the questioning to begin. He quickly closed his newspaper, looked up at Fulton and said, ‘Let’s cut it short. I am, I suppose, what you would call a deserter, but really Tam only absent without leave. I have been away from my depot since June the second, but I am on my way back now.’ Fulton asked him for some identification, and Toplis produced a driver’s licence which carried the name, ‘John Henry Thompson’. Fulton accepted Toplis’s offer of the newspaper and watched him tramp on further south. As he told the coroner later, ‘I then let him go on the expectation he was going to his depot.’ At this point Mrs Fulton proved to be brighter than her husband. When Fulton got to his home, a quarter of a mile away, she greeted him with: ‘Alf, about half an hour ago I saw a soldier pass the window, and he looked to me as if he could be that Toplis man everybody’s been looking for.’ Fulton sat down, searched through his file of ‘wanted’ descriptions and decided his wife might just be right. Out came his pedal-cycle, on went the bicycle clips and off he sped down the Scotland Road in pursuit. This time the constable got the confirmation he was seeking without the need for questioning.

‘The bells of St Mary’s Church, High Hesket, were ringing for evensong when Toplis, with gun drawn, watched from behind a clump of trees near the churchyard as Fulton probed his way through plantation undergrowth, the first available cover, parting the bushes with his truncheon and calling out every so often, ‘Coo-ee, are you there? Where are you?’ Toplis went on watching for a little time, then ended the hide and seek game suddenly. He stepped from behind the trees, levelled his Webley 6 at Fulton’s head and said, without hesitation, ‘If it’s Toplis you’re after, I’m your man.’ Fulton was later to tell journalists that’he felt the church bells were tolling a personal dirge for him. He gazed fixedly down the barrel of the gun, a mere four yards away, and only partly stopped trembling when Toplis, in surprisingly kindly, avuncular tones, addressed him further: ‘I was forced to shoot that lot at Tomintoul, and if you go on being a bad lad I may have to shoot you too. Now why don’t you just throw down your handcuffs and truncheon and beat it?’ ‘The shocked but grateful policeman did exactly as ordered, and as Toplis backed into the undergrowth, still with gun pointing, Fulton just as slowly backed into the open fields which separated him from home. With his free left hand Toplis gave him a friendly, farewell wave and called out, ‘You must be the smartest lawman in England,’ before disappearing back into the trees. Fulton, still shaking and gasping, quickly turned and ran home across the fields. His life had been spared, but any gratitude he felt was not going to be shared by his superiors.

The men who had hunted Toplis in the past curiously seem to have taken to emulating his own love of disguise. On that Sunday night, the act of the quick-change became positively infectious. Back home, Fulton hurriedly slipped out of uniform and into goggles, cap, tweed jacket and knickerbockers, and on his high-handlebar motor-cycle roared into Penrith police headquarters eight miles away where he gasped out the news that the infamous outlaw Toplis was heading into town. Fulton had good reason to be certain, for he had seen Toplis for the third time, still on the road to Penrith. Although by now heavily disguised, Fulton had increased his speed and given him a wide berth, ‘While Fulton was breaking the news at Penrith, the teenage Misses Richardson of Low Plains Farm giggled and nudged each other as they watched a young man shaving and washing himself at an animal drinking trough in woodland known as Thiefside, on the edge of the Penrith road. When he started to change out of army uniform into civilian clothing, they ran off shrieking.

Pandemonium and panic are the only possible words to describe what happened next at Penrith and elsewhere. The two men in receipt of Fulton’s information, Sergeant Robert Bertram and Inspector William Ritchie, were noted more for their splendid physique than their erudition. Big, bluff Bertram had been a boy sailor in the Royal Navy before joining the Police, where he excelled in teaching recruits jiu-jitsu and boxing. Just as big and hearty was Inspector Ritchie, a Cumberland wrestler of great renown who had lately won the all-weights championship at Grasmere.

The two men decided that the fact that Toplis was on his way was not knowledge with which they should be exclusively burdened. They passed it on to Superintendent Tom Oldcom at his home, and he rushed to the police station to telephone Deputy Chief Constable Joseph Barron. Barron phoned the news to Chief Constable Norman de Courcy Parry at home, and he in turn consulted Scotland Yard, which then irritated Home Office officials by calling them away from dinner for telephone discussions. The question of dealing with Percy Toplis had to go to the highest level. And Toplis would have been supremely gratified by the enormous uproar his appearance in Cumberland was creating throughout both the county and the country. Penrith police secured all the trunk telephone wires for the purposes of their consultations, which ranged from army headquarters at Bulford, Wiltshire, across to London and up to Scotland.

An hour after Fulton first broke the news, Toplis was still plodding on towards Penrith, and the police force was still sorting itself out. Eventually, at around seven o’clock, a decision emerged. Someone in that long chain from Cumberland to Whitehall decided that a military-style operation had to be mounted. Every off-duty policeman, and the entire special constabulary, numbering fifty men, were called out, forming a cordon round the whole area, stretching from Caldbeck and Fenruddock in the west to the foot of the Pennines in the east, while every road and Jane to the north and south of Penrith had a police post. Nearly 160 Cumberland policemen were on the Toplis trail.

Guns were handed out to those who were manning checkpoints considered vital. The guns that were to matter were handed to Inspector Ritchie and Sergeant Bertram by Superintendent Oldcorn. Meanwhile, the chief constable’s 22-year-old son, Norman de Courcy Parry, Jnr, was turning out with his ‘own small Belgian automatic, one of several ‘unofficial’ souvenirs he had brought home from the war.

When the chief constable first received the Toplis alert at the family home, Barton House, on the edge of Penrith, the call had been taken by young Parry, a self-admitted wayward son. He had stayed close to the telephone so as to overhear some of his father’s consultations and discussions. This young ex-officer of the Seaforth Highlanders was just emerging from a bad spell of health during which he had suffered severe headaches caused by a head-wound received in France, a wound which had caused him many sleepless nights long afterwards. But he was slowly recovering; he was anxious to assist and eager for adventure.

The father was just as anxious not to thwart his son, and at the same time was grateful for any offer of help in the crisis. He sent him to man a road-block at Alston, a spot far removed from the potential danger zone in the Penrith-Carlisle road. But young Parry disobeyed, having overheard where it was hoped to spring the main trap. He hid his gun inside his jacket.

Back at Penrith police station, the craze for change was once again in full swing, Ritchie and Bertram were out of their uniforms and struggling into any ill-fitting civilian clothes they could find, which they topped off with caps, mufflers and raincoats, ignoring the heat of the evening. Fulton also put on a raincoat, despite the fact that he was already in civilian clothes. To round off their impersonation of Sunday trippers, they then commandeered a blue, open four-seater Armstrong car from the Crown Hotel and appointed one of the part-time barmen, Edward Spruce, as driver.

On his ten-horsepower 1,000cc American motor-cycle, a machine capable of attaining the then phenomenal speed of 80 m.p.h., Parry Jnr raced through Penrith’s main street to get into the act. Strollers in the late sunshine scattered like hens as he roared along to catch up with the Armstrong as it turned out of Hunter’s Lane, site of the police headquarters. Young Parry then talked the gullible Ritchie into believing that the chief constable specifically wanted him to be with the ‘armoured brigade’. And so this strangest of all police convoys, led by a goggled, leather-helmeted civilian motor-cyclist, moved north on to the Carlisle highway, the car driven by barman Spruce doing a steady 45 m.p.h., with Fulton in the front passenger seat and the gun-carrying Ritchie and Bertram standing on either running-board, clinging to the sides, capped, mufflered and raincoated.

Just north of the crossroads village of Plumpton, four miles from Penrith, the motley crew of apparent joy-riders passed a neat, well-shaven, trilby-hatted, brown-suited young man carrying a brown-paper parcel. They were nearly a mile past their target before the fact dawned on Fulton. He shouted up to Ritchie, who was grimly holding on to the inside of Fulton’s front passenger scat, ‘Sorry, sir, but it has just struck me, That man we passed could have been Toplis. He must have cleaned himself up and changed his clothes since I last saw him.’

Ritchie roared across Fulton at Spruce, ‘Turn round!’

In their tension and excitement the car had also overtaken its leader, young Parry, who had not allowed the thrill of the chase to overcome his powers of observation or sense of suspicion. Just before he drew level with the pedestrian coming towards him on the east side of the road, Parry had stopped his motor-cycle on the west side, pretending it had broken down. With his cycle between him and Toplis on the other side of the road, he peered through the machine’s framework and identified the face under the hat as that of Toplis, who was now standing stock-still, taking note of the strange antics that were going on in his honour.

When Parry saw the car had turned round and was coming back towards him, he gave the thumbs-up sign to Ritchie, indicating that the figure on the other side of the road was their man.

Ritchie shouted to his driver, ‘Now slower this time, Ted, and nearer to him.’

Instead, the car gathered speed and veered away from Toplis and past him for the second time.

Ritchie shouted at Spruce, ‘For Christ’s sake, Ted! What the hell’s the matter with you?’

But the barman was too terrified to hear him, and with cloth cap pulled well down over a chalk-white face, he took a firmer grip on the steering-wheel, crouched low over it and started heading back towards Penrith at a maximum 50 m.p.h. Ritchie had an answer to his question in the look of absolute terror on Spruce’s face. The car started to rock dangerously, threatening to dislodge the cumbersome Cumberland wrestler and the burly boxer from the running-boards.

Fulton had now joined his superiors in their efforts to get Spruce to stop. He pummelled the driver in the side as all three kept shouting, ‘Stop! For God’s sake, stop!’ But Spruce had put nearly a mile of roadway and a bend between him and the outlaw before he could be persuaded to pull up out of sight of both Toplis and Parry. The hunt seemed to be turning into a black comedy with more than a touch of the Keystone Kops, then at the height of their movie fame. Inspector Ritchie was beginning to suspect that perhaps Spruce had been drinking rather than serving back at the Crown.

Angrily, Ritchie yelled at Spruce, ‘This is where we get of, and you get to hell out of the way.

Spruce gratefully and hastily revved up his engine and vanished from the story in a splutter of gravel and stones.

The strain and the heat were beginning to tell on all three officers. Fulton’s waxed moustache was starting to disintegrate at each end. Even the two well-trained athletes were sweating profusely. Grimly, Ritchie instructed his fellow officers, ‘We can’t go on like this. This is where we have to get down to business.’ With his drawn gun he waved them to the western side of the road. There he motioned them to take up a position in a line directly behind him, concealed from view by the high wall of the Romanway Farm rose garden. Immediately behind Ritchie was Bertram with his gun, and behind him was Fulton.

Although Toplis had temporarily succeeded in fooling the police by his new appearance, their ‘disguise’ had raised his suspicions, and when the car had passed him and Parry the second time, he crossed the road to where Parry continued to crouch beside his cycle, tinkering with the engine. Parry had the small Belgian automatic pistol hidden inside his coat. For a moment he thought of trying to use it. Then Toplis half-drew his Webley from his inside jacket pocket. It was too late, much too late.

By the time Parry could have extracted the gun and cocked it he would have been dead, Toplis said, ‘Who are these men who keep passing us in that car?’ It was Parry’s turn to start sweating. He pretended he had not seen the gun and evenly replied, ‘I think they’re just out for a joy-ride.’ Toplis snapped back, ‘Then why did you give them the thumbs-up sign?’ Parry again got his nerves under control and reassured him, ‘Well, I know two of them and I was just trying to signal them to get me some assistance because my bike has broken down.’ Toplis let his gun slide back into his pocket. Absurdly, it crossed Parry’s mind to start the bike and offer Toplis a lift on the pillion. He thought better of it, and Toplis turned away and resumed his walk south towards Romanway Farm. Parry abandoned the cycle and followed him about twenty-five yards behind. Once again he thought about firing. But he remembered that it took a very good marksman to hit a moving target with a revolver at that range.

Toplis turned round sharply: ‘When I told you not to follow me I meant just that.’ Parry shouted back, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve told you. All I want is some assistance with my bike.’ Stragglers from evensong at the church of St John the Evangelist were still grouped around the door in conversation when the ambush opened up. The two civilian-clad figures, Ritchie and Bertram, rushed out, guns blazing, followed by Fulton. The church worshippers flung themselves flat among the gravestones. Toplis broke into a run in the direction in which he had been walking, towards Penrith, turning to shoot it out as he fled. Ritchie is alleged to have shouted, ‘Stop! Pull up,’ but no one else spoke. The only exchange was one of gunfire.

‘Toplis kept running a few yards at a time, then turning to shoot from a crouched position, his fect planted firmly and widely apart in an effort to steady his aim. Young Parry, closing in behind the lawmen, continued to be riveted by the wild, staring eyes of the outlaw and the sneering contempt on his face.

Both Bertram and Ritchie kept firing as they chased him on to a grassy slope at the side of the road. Ritchie was only four feet away from Toplis when he started to topple slowly forwards down the slight slope towards him. The outlaw’s left hand suddenly clutched the left side of his chest, his right hand drooped, still shooting defiantly, but wildly and aimlessly now, into the ground by his own feet.

Still in slow motion, he rose to his toes in a hopeless, last effort 10 rally before finally crashing forwards and downwards into Sidi nonin ‘The tally diccnd bu winds Micocdlinut wes a dean sigh before his head slumped on to his injured chest, The trilby fell from his head, upturned to become wedged between his own body and that of Ritchie and provided a receptacle for the blood gushing from the fatal wound.

They stretched him out in the sunset on the south side of the road in the middle of which lay the brown-paper parcel containing his selection of army and RAF clothing. He had dropped it there when the shooting started. The string had broken, and the contents were spilled on to the road. His precious, gold-rimmed monocle remained in his pocket. On the north side of the road the church organist continued to play the congregation out. The worshippers had thrown themselves down when they heard the noise of the gun battle -a noise which the organist failed to hear above the sound of his own music. He continued to play. Down the aisle and through the open church door the deep strains floated on the stillness of the night summer air… The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended. Darkness falls at Thy behest. It was a most satisfactory conclusion for the gentlemen in Whitehall The man at the centre of the most unpalatable secret of the First World War had been silenced. A career which had irritated and confounded the police, the army and the government for a dozen years was ended.