Blue plaque marks spot of infamouschapter in Cumbria’s history …
ON the wall of an unassuming farm on the A6 north of Penrith, a blue plaque has been unveiled to mark the spot where the Monocled Mutineer died.
Private Percy Toplis was on the run from the authorities when he was spotted just north of Plumpton and was shot and killed at Romanway Farm on 6th June, 1920.
During the First World War he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and in 1915 became part of the force sent to Gallipoli where conditions were horrific particularly during the major August offensives.
Although he was wounded, and suffering from dysentery, Toplis, along with many others, was not evacuated until the end of the ill-fated campaign and was hospitalised in the UK.
In 1917 while he was stationed at the Étaples training camp in northern France along with other British, New Zealand and Australian troops he was part of a protest against inhuman conditions which erupted into mutiny.
He was was named by the authorities as a leader of the mutiny and, while several of the mutineers were executed in its aftermath, remained at large for three years as Britain’s most wanted man.
Toplis was named as the suspect in the murder of a taxi driver near Andover in April, 1920, and initially he masqueraded as a decorated Army officer, complete with his trademark monocle to complete the disguise, before he fled to the north east of Scotland.
However, he was discovered in a remote gamekeeper’s bothy and, unable to talk his way out, drew a revolver and fired several shots, wounding a policeman in the shoulder and a farmer in the stomach.
He travelled from Aberdeen and arrived in Carlisle on Saturday, 5th June, but by 4pm the following day he was spotted in partial military dress and questioned by PC Alfred Fulton, of the Cumberland and Westmorland Constabulary, as he was sitting by the side of the Carlisle to Penrith road at Low Hesket.
PC Fulton was joined by reinforcements including the Chief Constable’s son, Norman de Courcy-Parry, who was not a serving police officer and three police officers waited behind a wall at Romanway Farm. When he was challenged Toplis tried to escape, firing his pistol, but was fatally wounded in the resulting shoot-out.
The new plaque, which is on the end of a farm building by the roadside, was organised by Penrith Civic Society with support from Penrith Partnership, Andrew and Audrey Turnbull, of Romanway Farm, E. Graham and Son builders and Hesket Parish Council. It was officially unveiled on Tuesday.
Philip Tibbetts, the society chairman, said it was an opportunity to mark and commemorate a “famous site” in Eden’s history. He added: “It’s an important part of local history and until this point it has not been marked. People driving past will realise something important happened here.”
Mr. Tibbetts said the events of that day in 1920 were taught in local schools, featured in the Penrith and Eden Museum and recorded on Eden Council website.
He said: “However, we stress that we are not seeking to glorify this individual, who was certainly a controversial figure and about whom history is quite uncertain, but rather to simply recognise this notable event in local history, which is no different to other blue plaques around the country for controversial figures such as highwayman and murderer Dick Turpin.”
The Toplis story was immortalised in a book, The Monocled Mutineer, by John Fairley and William Allison, which has just been republished, which was adapted into a BAFTA award-winning BBC drama in 1986 starring Paul McGann in the title role.
Mr. Fairley, who was at the unveiling, said it was “doubtful” whether Toplis was actually at the infamous mutiny and this week was the first time that his monocle as well as a pistol which are normally kept at the Penrith and Eden Museum as part of a display about the incident had returned to the scene since that fateful day in 1920.
He added: “It’s still an important part of the history of the Great War.”
He said the public might learn more about the mutiny once official papers were declassified in 2017 and added: “It was taken very seriously by the authorities at the time.”
Ron Kenyon, who is a member of Penrith Town Council and whose family still owns Castlesteads Farm, which is near Romanway Farm, said his mother, Isa Winter, and her sister might have been some of the last people to speak to Toplis before he died.
He said: “He popped his head over the wall and asked how far it was to Penrith. It’s an interesting story that my mum talked to this chap.”
Toplis was buried in Penrith’s Beacon Edge cemetery and, following the unveiling of the plaque, members of the civic society left flowers at the cemetery gates because Mr. Tibbetts said they were still not allowed to leave them at his unmarked grave.