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
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
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: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links