Chapter 3

The Larceny Act (1861) is imprecise about the manner in which birching shall be carried out. The victim, or at least his buttocks, are expected to be naked. But the method of holding him down is left to local initiative. He can be forced to bend down with his head locked between the knees of a seated police officer. Or he can be held down over a bench or table. Or, in areas where the frequency of the punishment justified it, there might be a specially constructed tripod or triangle with straps for the hands above the head and straps for the feet at the base. This device, though an expense, had the advantage of keeping the victim rigid.

Percy Toplis was just past his eleventh birthday when he first met the Mansfield method. This was an ingenious fusion of cheapness and efficiency. An ordinary table had been fitted with four iron clamps: two on the legs and two at the top corners.

Leather straps ran through the stanchions. Toplis was a skinny boy, and the straps had to have an extra hole punched to secure his ankles. From this point on the procedure was as everywhere else. In the corner of the bare whitewashed room, standing in a ‘bucket was a bundle of birch twigs, with the top two feet bound by wire to form a handle. The rest looked like the sweeping end of a garden broom.

‘Are you ready?’ Then, in the absence of a response: ‘Lay on!’ The first stroke, across the buttocks ‘with sufficient force’, was not expected to break the skin. The second, third and #9 fourth, ‘at proper intervals’ to avoid any impression of anger, fell in the same locality. It was important to keep away from the area of the kidneys, though no protective belt was prescribed as it was with men receiving the cat-o’-nine-tails. The fifth and sixth strokes were aimed at the back.

Throughout the proceedings Percy made no sound. Afterwards, the two officers unstrapped the small figure from the table, hustled him through the freezing corridors of Mansfield Bridewell and dumped him in a cell at the back of the police station to serve the rest of his sentence: one day’s imprisonment. Twenty-four hours’ detention served a double purpose: the weals diminished and, hopefully, penitence increased.

The Mansfield Petty Sessions chairman, Mr W. F. Saunders, and his colleagues, Mr T. Savage, Mr G. H. Hunt and Dr Palmer, had been conscious of acting a mite leniently when sentencing the boy Toplis. Mr Herbert Toplis, his father, had told them that Percy had been a good lad up to six months before, but then ‘persons who ought to know better’ had brought him to where he was. The first dark allusion to what was to be a life-long preference for unconventional company did not impress the Bench. The chairman suggested somewhat shortly to Mr Toplis that ‘there had been some laxity on his part for the boy to have got out of control at eleven years of age’. Six strokes of the birch would suffice, the Bench ruled, along with a strong admonition for father Toplis.

Unfortunately, the case revealed latent tastes and talents in the 11-year-old Toplis that neither birch, nor jail, nor sergeant major, nor even the battlefields of the First World War itself were to subdue, His crime had been a cool little two-tier confidence trick, providing Percy with both a new suit and 5s. in his pocket. Victim No. 1, Albert Levitt, clothier, of Low Street, Sutton-in-Ashfield, had described to the court how the prisoner had come to his shop and selected two suits of clothes. ‘He maintained he had been sent by a Mrs Oscroft of Brook Street, Sutton, and was allowed to take the suits away on approval.’ He had then gone along to Mr Alfred Wyeld’s pawnbroker shop, impressively rigged out in one of the suits – and had asked for 9s. on the other. Evidently there had been some stiff bargaining, and Percy had settled for 5s.

This initial excursion into a future role of dandy and daredevil failed through a flaw in planning. Percy had picked on Mrs Oscroft because he knew her to be a credit-worthy citizen of Sutton, Unfortunately, she knew him. Unfortunately, too, for advocates of the short, sharp lesson, the effect on young Percy ‘was fleeting. There were about 2,000 cases of boys below the age of fourteen being birched in Britain that year, and the News of the World would later comment about this particular case: The corrective influence of the birch rod warmly administered to him by a police court jailer before he had reached the age of twelve failed to check his adventurous disposition … his overwhelming desire for unnatural excitement and the reckjess don’t-care-a-hang spirit which was inevitably bound to bring him to an untimely end.

The strong right hand of the law wielding the birch had no deterrent effect.

Three months later, Alderman Johnson Pearson, chairman of the Chesterfield Bench, was listening to another tale of woe. As the local paper headlined it succinctly: ‘A Precocious Newsvendor Sold His Papers and Kept the Cash’. Mr Charles Halmshaw, the prosecutor, said that one day he was at the railway station at Shirebrook distributing newspapers to boys when the defendant, Percy Toplis, came up and asked to be taken on.

He mentioned the name of a gentleman at the newspaper office and was given thirty-six newspapers to sell. That was the last he had seen of him.

As the court was to discover, Percy Toplis already knew, at the age of 11, which string of the fiddle to pluck.

‘My parents have left me, sir,’ he told the Bench pathetically. ‘I’m living with my grandparents.’

Chairman: ‘When did you last see your mother?’

‘In Nottingham, sir. I had got the job of carrying a parcel for a lady, and I saw her.’

‘Who sent you to Nottingham?’

‘No one, sir’.

‘And you are only eleven years of age?

‘Yes, sir.’

The chairman appealed to the police-court commissioner for help as there seemed to be no one to look after the boy. But eventually Percy’s aunt, Annie Webster, appeared. Over the protests of Mr Halmshaw, still complaining that he had not recovered his money, Percy was released on twelve months’ probation.

Aunt Annie lived in a one-up, one-down terrace in the shadow of Blackwell pit. There was only a cold tap inside and a closet outside, but there was always a coal fire picked off the tip, and enough to eat. Aunt Annie’s husband worked at Blackwell pit and they had no other children to care for. Evidently she had enough of a way with her to keep Percy out of the courts; his talent for trouble was reserved for the teachers at South Normanton Elementary School. At this time Percy still had two years to go before he could legally leave school, as only a Labour Certificate from an employer could release a reluctant scholar before the age of thirteen; and in 1908 there weren’t many jobs going for men, let alone boys.

Even in the company of pitmen’s sons Percy was a tough character, dominating in the playground and kept in order in class with liberal doses of cane and tawse. But he was popular.

‘He had a weird magnetic quality to him, despite his roughness,’ recalled one of his classmates, Charles Foulkes. ‘He had a strong influence on all of us and got his friends into a lot of scrapes.’ In the autumn of 1909 a new headmaster arrived at South Normanton Elementary, a Mr John Bailey who had ideas on improving the school. He introduced music and singing and occasional expeditions away from the school on nature walks, and he moved his desk into the same room as the senior class so as to keep a close eye on their development, There were even, joint play readings with girls from the neighbouring school, where Mr Bailey’s wife was headmistress. Then, with Christmas coming up, he proposed a special evening of carols, to include a piano solo from one of the pupils and end with a short closing address. Parents would be invited and it would be a chance to involve them in the life of the school. This rather advanced idea for 1909 required funds, so each teacher was allotted two streets to collect contributions for the concert. Any surplus could be used for a small Christmas gift for the boys. The senior class teacher, Mr Slater, together with Charles Foulkes and a few other boys, set off one night in early December to canvas Downing Street, at the lower end of Mansfield, for whatever small sums, a penny or two, the residents felt inclined to give.

At the first house an elderly lady just shut the door in their faces. Two houses down, a woman shouted, ‘Don’t be cheeky,’ and slammed the door. At another house a man said, ‘I’m not giving again.’ By the time Charles Foulkes met Mr Slater halfway down the street, it had become apparent that they had been thoroughly forestalled, and Mr Slater had moreover discovered ‘who had been there first. The lady at No. 14 happened to know Percy Toplis.

The subsequent drama was played out in full view of the senior class at South Normanton Elementary when Percy ‘walked in through the door the next morning ‘as cool as cucumber’, Mr Bailey raged at his desk at the side of the classroom. Witnesses were called. Half-way through the morning the police arrived. Percy Toplis maintained stoutly throughout that his was purely an excess of zeal and his intention simply to do the class’s work for it in advance. Finally, 2s. 34d. was handed over and the concert went ahead – without any further contribution from Percy Toplis.

Percy was duly caned, but by no means cowed, His class teacher, Mr Jack Leary, thin, bronchitic and given only sporadically to bouts of discipline, had two more years of Percy to endure. Another of his schoolmates, Clarence Dudley, remembers a warm summer afternoon in 1911 when Mr Leary was attempting to instil ‘the trade-routes of the Empire’ into Class 5 standard. Attention was wandering and one of the class actually dozed off, head on one side. Even in one of Mr Leary’s less determined moods, this was intolerable. The sleeper was awakened by the swish of a cane. Then, as Mr Leary droned on, the class listened even less. By the end of half an hour the whole class was dozing or asleep and Mr Leary was extracting the truth from one of the more pusillanimous victims.

‘Percy Toplis brought in a bottle of laudanum, sir, and passed it round the class, sir.

The soporific drug had overcome all the pupils. Percy was hauled to the front of the class and bent over a desk. Mr Leary was positioning himself for the first stroke when Percy suddenly lashed out with the most violent backheeler at Mr Leary’s shins – and dashed across the classroom, past the headmaster and out of the door.

Mr Bailey yelled after him, ‘You’ll end your days on the gallows, Percy Toplis, you mark my words.’ As Clarence Dudley remarked, ‘It was to prove near enough as a prediction.’ Percy was thus no testament to Mr Bailey’s new theories of development. But even at 12 years old he was already an unusual figure: ginger-haired, big for his age, smartly dressed, devoted to his aunt and grandmother, already taking on his #11 friends’ fathers at billiards down at the Gladstone Arms, and beating them. Clarence Dudley remembers Toplis as a loner, despite being a dominant figure among his schoolmates: ‘A rubber football down at the corner shop cost 64d. Whenever it burst it was always Percy who went for a new one, and came back with his pockets stuffed with sweets and chocolates.

He had a gang of admirers, but he kept all his secrets and went off on his adventures always alone.’ At last, in 1910, at the age of 13, Percy was able to leave school, and Aunt Annie got him a job as an apprentice blacksmith at Blackwell pit where her husband worked. The pay was Is. 4d. a day. Compared with many of the pits in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, Blackwell was easy-going and reasonably dry, had plenty of room in the gates and a good accident record.

But it was hardly the life for the young tearaway of Mansfield.

He was supposed to work on the night shift at Blackwell, but he hardly ever went. There was a quarrel with the pit manager, John Thomas Todd, and words were spoken for which Mr Todd was to suffer an appropriate humiliation a few years later. For the rest of his life, Percy Toplis was to describe his occupation as ‘blacksmith’, but from now on his only tools were to be his wits. He took off for the north and his first acquaintance with Scotland.

Percy liked the country and found it no problem to turn a penny in its markets and taverns. His piano playing was good enough for the uncritical world of whisky and chasers, his billiards worth a shilling or two and his charm sufficient, even at the age of 14, to ease the problem of lodging. Then, in July at Dumfries, it transpired that he had not paid for two railway tickets for himself and a lady companion: ten days’ imprisonment.

‘A month later he was back in England, making his way through a remote part of Yorkshire, Pateley Bridge in Nidderdale. The tight-fisted Yorkshire folk being less generous in their public houses and more protective of their women, Percy found it necessary to relieve a lady of her purse and £4: one month’s hard labour. By the spring of 1912 he was in Lincolnshire and paying court to a young lady. She objected to his attentions and the 15-year-old Toplis was sentenced: two years’ hard labour.

There was no question of remission, and the young Toplis was left to contemplate the approach of the First World War – and with it his destiny – behind the gates of Lincoln Jail.