The Monocled Mutineer is innocent

The infamous con man blamed for a First World War rebellion has been unfairly accused, claims actor who played him on TV

More than 80 years after he was shot dead after one of the biggest man-hunts in British criminal history, new details are emerging about Percy Topliss, the First World War's infamous Monocled Mutineer. It seems he wasn't a mutineer after all.

Paul McGann, who played Topliss in a 1986 BBC drama, has continued to study his life along with a team of historians. And they now believe Topliss wasn't even present at the event that first thrust him into the public spotlight.

Topliss specialised in impersonating military officers, to theconsternation of the establishment. And he was believed to be the ringleader of a protest by British troops at a training camp at Etaples, France, just before the battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

"I don't think he was at Etaples," McGann says. "The units that he served with simply weren't around there at the time."

Travel documents show that Topliss was in India in 1917 and that he contracted malaria not long before the Etaples rebellion, according to the researchers on a radio documentary about his life.They believe it is hardly possible that he could have got back to Europe in time.

To some, Topliss was a debonair charmer who challenged the class system. But others see him as little more than a common criminal, confidence trickster and, ultimately, a murderer.

Born in Derbyshire in 1896 to a working-class family, he had embarked on a life of crime by the age of 11 and was regularly in trouble before enlisting in 1914 in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving as a stretcher-bearer in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt and India.

He took to impersonating military officers, appearing as a lieutenant, captain or major, to cross whatever social divide he wanted.

It was after the war, in 1920, that his criminal career took a fatal turn when, while sought for his mutinous activities, he was convicted in absentia of shooting dead a taxi driver in Southampton - even though an eye witness put him 25 miles away at the time.

His photograph was circulated around the UK, and newspapers carried stories about possible sightings, of which there were hundreds in different locations.

Topliss fled to Scotland and lay low in a dilapidated shepherd's bothy until his hideout was discovered. When challenged, he started shooting and seriously wounded two men, so adding attempted murder to his list of crimes.

Within a week, Topliss, who had changed back into his private's uniform, was confronted outside Plumpton, in Cumbria, and shot dead without a word being exchanged.

Eight decades later many questions remain unanswered. Why, for instance, was he shot,rather than captured and brought to trial?

"Topliss was as much a victim of the times as he was a villain," says one researcher, Drew Mullholland, of Glasgow Caledonian University. "Six years after the war started in 1914 the whole social class system of Britain had changed. Topliss's ability to mimic the upper classes may have meant the authorities saw him as more of a threat than he really was."

But two previously unknown occasions on which a man answering Topliss's description could have been involved in murder have also been uncovered by Mr Mulholland and forensic archaeologist Tony Pollard.

When a policeman was shot in Acton, west London, in February 1920, a witness saw an army officer in a white mac running away from the scene. In escaping, he was bitten by a dog. Days later, Topliss went to his mother's house to treat a wound on his leg.

On another occasion, a young woman was murdered on a train to Brighton. A friend who saw her off told police that an army officer, who was never traced but who matched Topliss's description, had boarded the train at the same time.

A list of the con man's previous convictions released during the nationwide manhunt included fraud, larceny, and attempted rape.

"There's a lot he has been accused of which he wasn't involved in," says Mr Mulholland.

In death, as in life, not everything about Percy Topliss is what it appears to be.

But Paul McGann is impressed. "As long as I live," he admits, "I'll never be as good an actor as he was."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders