On the morning of Sunday 25th April 1920, the body of Sidney George Spicer was found in a hedgerow on a quiet country road near Thruxton Down, Andover. He had been shot in the head and it was quickly established that Spicer was a taxi driver from nearby Salisbury who had collected a fare the night before and driven five people to the Rose and crown public house in Bulford. He was not seen alive again. Enquiries revealed that he had probably driven to Amesbury where he collected another fare, a man dressed in a RAF uniform and the investigator, Superintendent Cox, worked on the basis that Spicer had been robbed and his taxi stolen and details of the murder and the stolen car were circulated in the newspapers.
The taxi, a 12hp, Darracq motor car, was found abandoned in Swansea the following day and at the same time, a soldier from Bulford army camp came forward to say that he had been at the camp late on Saturday night when a colleague, Percy Francis Toplis, arrived in the car which he now realised was the stolen taxi. He drove with Toplis to Swansea where the two parted company.
The hunt was now on for Toplis, who had a long criminal record for dishonesty and sexual offences and who had repeatedly gone AWOL during the First World War. Numerous sightings of him were reported to the police all of which proved fruitless. Toplis’ photograph was circulated nationally in the Police Gazette in the hope that he would be spotted.
The next positive sighting of him was in Tomintoul, Scotland when on 1 June he shot and injured Police Constable George Grieg and a gamekeeper, John Grant who had tried to detain him for breaking into a farmer’s hut. He made good his escape and was eventually seen again, five days later, in the village of Plumpton, Westmorland when upon being challenged by the local constable, Alfred Fulton, he produced a revolver and threatened to shoot. Fulton withdrew, raised the alarm and a rather elaborate police operation involving armed officers was put into place which came to a climax on the evening of 6th June.
As Toplis walked south along the A6 towards Penrith, he was challenged by two armed officers, Inspector William Ritchie and Sergeant Robert Bertram and a short gunfire ensued. Toplis received a single gunshot wound to the chest killing him instantly. An inquest declared that Toplis had been lawfully shot by the police in the execution of their duty. Fulton, Ritchie and Bertram were each awarded the King’s Police Medal for their bravery.
Much has been written about Toplis’ alleged involvement in a mutiny in France during the war but there is no evidence to support this story. What is known, is that the police were aware of Toplis’ suspected involvement in the murder of Sidney Spicer, and he was shot dead before he had the opportunity to stand trial.
A distance relative of the fugitive has compiled a dossier, Chasing Percy, on the life and times of Percy Toplis; a few copies are available on the internet. The more famous book and film The Monocled Mutineer by William Allison and John Fairley is also available but doubt remains as to its accuracy.
Edited by Paul Stickler October 2017