Hero? Conman? Murderer? Spy? It seems the jury is still out. Whatever the case, Alan Bleasdale's 1986 TV drama, The Monocled Mutineer created something of a legend, and you may be surprised to learn that the legend was born right here. The Glassworks sits on the corner of Sheffield Road and Sanforth Street. And it was on Sanforth Street that Francis Percy Toplis was born. Did he play any part in the mutiny that Bleasdale's drama made so famous? No one knows for sure. Despite claims to the contrary, his military service records did not survive, so there is no formal documentary evidence that can confirm he was in France at the time of the mutiny. Just as there is no official evidence to say that he was not. It's an enduring mystery all the same.
If you happen to find yourself down at The Glassworks, be sure to order a pint of Monocled Mutineer, brewed to celebrate the launch of the pub and its curious stake in the Toplis legend.
Legend has it that this picture of Toplis, masquerading as a war-hero, was taken in Mansfield in 1916 and then published by the Nottingham Evening Post at the height of the manhunt in 1920. But this now seems unlikely. We do know that Percy deserted from Salonika in June 1918 and retained the uniform. In November 1918 he was jailed for desertion and deception.
Wanted for murder, Toplis fled north to Scotland, arriving in May 1920. He took up residence in an unoccupied bothy in a remote mountain pass near Tomintoul. In early June, a gamekeeper had the local constable accompany him to confront Toplis. Toplis shot his way out, injuring the men, before escaping to Aberdeen.
In the Summer of 1914 Percy Toplis enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps as part Kitchener's all-volunteer army. It's believed he served with the 39th Field Ambulances and was billeted in Torquay. The Daily Mail later alleged that he served as Non-Commissioned Officer. Toplis later claims that he had been 'cashiered' (demoted).
After leaving prison in August 1919 Toplis re-enlisted with the Royal Army Service Corp at Bulford in Witlshire. He was subsequently suspected in the murder of taxi-driver Sidney Spicer. By mid-April 1920 over 20,000 police officers were involved in the Toplis manhunt. Toplis escaped to London and then to Wales, altering his appearence regularly and still posing as an officer.
After a dramatic escape from Scotland Toplis was ambushed by Police in Plumpton near Penrith. The date was June 6th. An inquest was hastily arranged and Toplis was buried in secret at Beacon Edge Cemetery in Penrith. His Webley Revolver Mk VI revolver and his monocle are now on show in Penrith Museum.