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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

Technical Account Manager - Java, FIX Protocol, FIX 5.0, C++

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Account Manager - Java,...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform