January 31, 2021|Reports

“War Hero or Murderer?” – Paul Stickler


Post lockdown, take a trip to the Hampshire Police Museum at the Solent Sky Museum in Southampton and ask to see Percy Toplis’ monocle. It should be there, but nothing is as it seems with the story of Percy Toplis, except perhaps that false news has been around a long time!

Retired Hampshire Police Commander Paul Stickler conducted a forensic examination of the life and crimes of Percy Toplis for 63 members of Wickham History Society on Tuesday 26th January. In 1985 the BBC serialised the ‘true life’ story of Percy who led a mutiny in 1917 against oppressive conditions at the British training camp at Etaples. There certainly was a mutiny, and a corporal was killed, but army records clearly show Percy Toplis wasn’t there.

The Percy Toplis Paul investigated does not come across as a heroic figure. Before the First World War, he already had convictions for larceny and sexual assault, and during the war he was frequently ‘absent without leave’. He did however come to national prominence in 1920 when he murdered Sidney Spicer near Bulford and then went on the run. In those days, suspect’s details, including photos, were included in the Police Gazette. The trail had gone cold until Percy was seen by a village constable in Cumbria: the PC waved him on but, when he recounted the meeting to his wife, she pointed out that his description fitted the photo in the Police Gazette.

The chase was now on, but only after the police persuaded a pub landlord to give them a lift. They were accompanied (unknown to his father) by the Chief Constable’s son on his motorbike. There was an exchange of fire and Toplis was killed instantly. The story was headline news, here and north of the border when it was realised it was Toplis who had also shot and injured a Scottish policeman and a gamekeeper. Paul showed us a much later newspaper story that suggested it was actually the Chief Constable’s son who had shot Toplis, something that would have been very awkward if proved. Finally if you go to Carlisle rather than Southampton don’t worry, you can also see the famous monocle on display at their museum too!

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