Spicer, Sidney 1920 April 30th Thruxton
THE MOTOR CAR TRAGEDY
SALISBURY DRIVER MURDERED NEAR ANDOVER
THE STORY OF THE CRIME
A painful shock was caused in the city and district on Monday morning by the announcement that the body of a Salisbury taxi-cab driver, named Sidney George Spicer, who lived at 59, London Road, had been found behind a hedge in a lonely spot on Thruxton Down, about five miles from Andover, and on the main road thereto from Amesbury. The discovery was made early on Sunday by a man named Burridge, who was cycling on the road and at first thought what he saw was a man asleep. On going closer he found it was the body of a man who had been shot through the head and evidently dragged across the road, and through the hedge to the spot where it lay. The police were informed and began to make investigations into the mysterious tragedy.
It was learnt that Spicer was in Salisbury Market Place on Saturday night, where he is said to have talked about having a large sum of money in his possession, but it has since been stated that he did not have more than about £15. There was no money on the body when it was discovered, and his gold watch and driving license were also missing. The name on his collar led to the body being identified.
It appears that having made up a party for Bulford Camp he left Salisbury in a car at 9.15pm, his passengers comprising two NCOs and their wives, and a soldier. Near Amesbury railway bridge he had engine trouble, and while he was correcting it a man in the uniform of a company sergt-major asked if he could take him to Andover. It is assumed that he agreed to do so, and that after taking his passengers on to Bulford he returned to Amesbury to pick up his new fare, and there purchase a tin of petrol. From this point the facts are somewhat uncertain.
THE ABANDONED CAR FOUND
The car was found abandoned at Swansea on Monday afternoon, with one of the back wheels and the mudguards damaged. Two soldiers had been seen in it earlier in the day and the police entered upon a careful search of the neighbourhood in the hope of tracing them. In this they were assisted by an officer from Andover. It was discovered that the men who brought the car to Swansea acted with boldness. They reached Swansea in the car on Sunday night and garaged it in a public garage in the very centre of the town, a place where its unconcealed number plate could have been seen by hundreds of passers by. They themselves put up at a temperance hotel, explaining that they were soldiers on leave. At 11.30 on Monday they paid their hotel bill and calmly drove away, and it was not till they had proceeded a little distance through the town that a big newspaper contents bill brought home to them the fact that the murder had been discovered and that they were wanted men. They were cool enough to stop the car while one alighted to buy a newspaper. They must then have driven on in the direction of the Mumbles while one read the report, and seeing that the identity of the car was so described as to be unmistakable there was no alternative but to get rid of the incriminating evidence.
Ordinarily it would be easy enough to do so by removing the number plate, but in this case the number is also painted in big white letters on the radiator, and removal of this was hopeless, at least without arousing suspicion. Hence they drove on a little way, turned up a narrow lane, damaged the car and made off.
On its journey to Swansea the car had to stop at Cirencester owing to engine trouble on Sunday morning and the men in it were delayed for two hours while a mechanic put it in order. They stopped for petrol at a garage in Gloucester, where, after reading a newspaper description of the men on the following day, the proprietor informed the police. The car collided with a cow at Newport and the repairs occupied a considerable time there.
On Tuesday the younger of the two men who travelled in the car was found and detained at Bulford Camp, though it is said that he is not a principal in the affair. He stated that he parted with his companion at Swansea at one o’clock on Monday afternoon, and that he was not present when Spicer met his death. He has, however, made an important to the police.
The inquiry into the cause of Spicer’s death was opened in a barn at Thruxton Down Farm on Wednesday morning.
Capt J T P Clarke, Deputy-Coroner for North-West Hants, conducted the inquiry before a jury, and said the police were still making enquiries and he was afraid it would be impossible to think of finishing the case that day.
The first witness was Tom Spicer, farmer, of Hide Farm, Fordingbridge, who said that Sidney George Spicer was his brother, and for a week had been in the employ of Mr Rogers of Salisbury, but previously had been driving a car of his own.
The Coroner : Would you call him a chauffeur?
Witness : I hardly know what. At the outbreak of the war he used to be on a farm. He was going to have a farm of his own next September, and I have been trying to get him a farm for some time. Meantime he had dodging about doing these jobs to occupy his time.
He was a farmer, then, engaged temporarily in driving a motor car? Yes.
Did he serve in the Army during the war? I don’t think so. He was disabled from joining through having a hand fractured.
This disablement occurred some years ago? Yes, seven or eight years ago.
Do you actually know where his hand was broken? Whilst he was at home he had a gun accident and shot away the top of his hand.
And he has been permanently disabled through that injury? Yes.
Edward Charles Gerald Heather, a motor driver, employed by Mr Andrews, of Bulford, then gave evidence. He said: “On Saturday night, at about 9.30, I was in the “Rose and Crown” yard waiting to pick up some people who were inside. I knew Spicer by sight and he came along and deposited his load about 20 yards beyond the “Rose and Crown.” He told me he had another job at Amesbury, to go to Andover, and he was short of petrol. I got into the car with him and went as far as Mr Andrews’ place and fetched him a tin of petrol. He did not use the petrol then, he simply drove on towards Amesbury and I did not see him alive after that.
Did you have any conversation with him? No, he was in a hurry. I suppose he wanted to pick up his fare, as things are none too brisk.
Dr E A Farr, police surgeon, of Andover, said he saw the body at 4.30 on Tuesday afternoon in the barn at Thruxton Down Farm. Spicer was a particularly well developed and powerful man. Examining the head he found a circular abrasion two inches across over the left frontal eminence, also one an inch and a quarter across on the right frontal eminence, an abrasion on the front and left side of the nose, and a number of scratches on the left cheek. There had been slight hemorrhage from the nostrils and the left ear. A small quantity of mud was between the upper lip and the upper front teeth. In the scalp was a round wound half an inch across, 2½ inches in a straight line backwards from the middle of the left ear. The hair was not singed, but the edges were slightly turned and inverted. A probe passed into the wound taking a direction obliquely forwards and slightly upwards for a distance of 4½ inches, when it impinged on bare bone. There was no bruise upon the body. There was an old scar at the base of the right thumb, the little finger and the three fingers of the right hand having been amputated.
He next made a post mortem examination and found in the head a bullet with a flattened nose. From the position of the external wound and the direction the bullet took within the skull the shot must have been fired from behind by a person on the left of the man. The firearm must have been held nearly horizontal. From the absence of bleeding within the skull death must have been instantaneous. The wound could not have been self inflicted. All the other organs of the body were healthy. The cause of death was a gunshot wound in the head.
The doctor added that certain technical evidence he had given meant that the bullet went right through the brain and cut off the connection between the brain and the rest of the body and stopped all the vital functions.
Answering a question, he said the wounds on the face were no doubt caused by the man being dragged along the road. The waistcoat was covered with mud. Spicer was a heavy man and it would take an equally heavy man to lift him.
The Coroner : There was no singeing? No; these high velocity bullets do not usually have black powder connected with them. A person sitting down on the back seat of a motor could have leaned forward and fired the bullet. If a person had been sitting by the driver’s side the direction of the bullet would have been more transversely across.
This was all the evidence and the Coroner said the police now wished the enquiry to close, and he would adjourn it for a fortnight.
Further information about the case was obtained on Wednesday. It was stated that a man who is wanted, Private Percy Toplis, a deserter from the Army, called at Bulford camp late on Saturday night and persuaded Private Henry Fallows, of the RASC (who is detained by the police), to accompany him to South Wales in the motor car, promising to pay his fare back to Bulford. Fallows was brought before a magistrate at Andover on Wednesday and remanded till today (Friday).
Toplis is understood to be a native of Derbyshire, where some of his relatives reside. He is known to the police in the North, and has served in the Royal Air Force, but deserted from Uxbridge about a month ago. It is said that he was seen in London last week wearing a blue suit of clothes and fawn trilby hat, but was seen later in khaki, and wearing an RAF cap, with a black band round it and no badge. When he got into Spicer’s car he had a knapsack which was seen in his possession later at Swansea. It is supposed that he left his civilian clothes in some station cloak room or hotel. On Saturday he was at Southampton, where he told some companions he was going to make use of his revolver. He showed them the weapon.
Motor Car Tragedy 1920 May 7th
DEVELOPMENTS DURING THE WEEK
Photographs of Percy Toplis, the man who was wanted in connection with the murder at Thruxton Down of Sidney George Spicer, the Salisbury taxi-cab driver, appeared in numerous papers on Friday morning, with the result that during the day the police received reports from various parts of the country that he had been recently seen. On London, Southend and Twickenham there were men under suspicion, while a man travelling through the Midlands by train was also watched. No important developments came to light that day.
At Andover, Harry Fallows, private soldier, age 19, was brought on remand and charged with “on April 24th receiving, Harbouring, and maintaining one, Percy Toplis, who had lately before committed the crime of murder, and well knowing that Toplis had committed the said crime.”
The Clerk of the Court read the evidence given by Supt Cox, who was unable to be present. The superintendent said that at 11.15 on Tuesday he saw the prisoner Fallows at Bulford. He told him he believed he knew something, and Fallows replied, “Yes, I know Toplis. I saw him on Saturday afternoon and about 11pm that night. He came to the cook-house door in a motor car and he promised me a ride and I went with him on a run down to Wales. He had a loaded revolver with him but I did not know what had happened until I read it in the papers. I am glad I am able to inform someone.”
He was again remanded.
On Monday it was announced that reports had come from Bath and Bradford-on-Avon, where Toplis was said to have stayed. At Winsley he was believed to be acquainted with a young woman, whom he first met in a train, and had since visited her on several occasions, the last being Easter Day. He also wrote to her from Bath, in the name of Percy Grant. Under that name a person, very similar in appearance to Toplis, stayed at the Star Hotel, Bradford-on-Avon, for two or three days at the end of January.
The Bath police stated that a man tallying in every detail with the description of Toplis, stayed in the city from April 3rd to April 5th. He was wearing the uniform of the Royal Air Force.
1920 May 28th Adjourned Inquest on Sidney George Spicer
The Coroner for the Andover district in which the shooting of Sidney George Spicer, a Salisbury taxi-cab driver, occurred on April 24th, resumed the enquiry on Wednesday at Shipton, when the jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against Percy Francis Toplis.”
Pte Henry Fallows, RASC, said he was night cook for the company mess, No3 Depot, Bulford. On April 24th he was resting in the afternoon, when some one said a sergeant-major wished to see him. He went out and saw Toplis in the institute playing the piano. Toplis promised him a ride on Sunday afternoon in a car. At 11 o’clock that night Toplis turned up at the cook-house and exclaimed, “For God’s sake, give me a drink. I feel as parched as hell.”
He gave him a drink of tea, and Toplis said, “If you don’t have your joy ride now I shall not be able to let you have it later, as I have some business on.” So he went out with Toplis and got into the car. At North Tidworth they asked a policeman for water, and then Toplis changed his hat for witness’s. For some time Toplis wore a crown on the sleeve of his British “warm,” and sometimes he took it down.
There was a revolver on the seat of the car loaded in six chambers. He asked Toplis what it was for and he replied, “If any body gets in my way I will do them in.”
During the whole of the journey to Swansea Toplis only spoke about 40 words. He was unable to steer a straight course, looked nervous and worried, and appeared as if he had had some drink. In Savernake Forest they stopped and Toplis got out of the car and burnt some clothes which he got out of the front of the car, saying that they were rags and were of no use.
They arrived in Swindon about 2.30 on Sunday morning, and at 6.30 left for Cirencester. On the road to Cardiff Toplis drove into a cow. They arrived at Swansea about 6.45 on Sunday evening, and there had a wash and brush up.
Toplis left him for about three hours, and when he came back asked if anybody had been talking to him. He said, “Yes,” and Toplis wanted to know why he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. They slept at the Grosvenor Hotel.
Toplis had his revolver with him. He asked witness to call him at eight o’clock. At four o’clock Toplis was making such a noise in his sleep that witness woke him up and asked what was the matter. He replied, “Nothing.” They slept on till about 10 o’clock, and after breakfast in the hotel Toplis went out and had a shave and then went on to the Alexandra Hotel, where he came for the car and had a farther ride.
They went on to Cardiff. There was a policeman at the bottom of the next hill, and Toplis said, “That man is looking at us.” So they went to a side street to avoid him.
Down that street they found another policeman, and Toplis said, “There’s a policeman. Is he looking? You get down here. I will be back soon.” Toplis borrowed witness’s spectacles and drove on. On returning again in about ten minutes time without the car he said, “Another chap has it.”
Toplis then advised him to get back to Bulford quickly, and gave him £1 to pay his fare. He also gave him his cap. They walked to the railway station, but whenever Toplis saw a policeman he got behind witness and said, “Is that policeman looking?” Witness told him he seemed rather frightened about policemen, and Toplis answered, “So would you if you had had as much to do with them as I have.”
At the railway station Toplis told him to take a ticket for Bristol and then for Salisbury, and said he was going on for London. They travelled together and when they parted Toplis said, “I will either write you or come down and see you on Thursday.” Witness got to Bulford the same night.
Toplis paid for everything throughout the journey.
Pte Holdrick, RASC, Bulford, now attached to the Embarkation Depot, Southampton, said he knew Toplis. On the afternoon of April 24th he saw him in High Street, Southampton, and asked him what he was doing. Toplis said he was in the Air Force, having had his ticket from the RASC.
Toplis said, “Do you know the light car that was missing from Bulford on Boxing night. I sold that in Gloucester for £400. I am after another one. I am going to Bulford to get one. If I can’t get it by fair means I shall do it with this,” and he produced his Webley Mark VI revolver. Toplis put the revolver back in his pocket and he left.
Driver Sellwood, RFA, said he was one of the party of five who left Salisbury in Spicer’s motor car on the night of April 24th. Near Amesbury railway station Spicer got down and put some petrol in the tank. While he was doing this a man dressed as a sergeant-major came out of the hedge, and had a conversation with the driver. He wanted to go to Andover in the car, but Spicer said he was engaged and couldn’t take him, but he would be back in a quarter of an hour and would take him. Spicer then started the engine and took his fare to Bulford.
Witness added that he would be able to identify the “sergeant-major” if he saw him again.
1920 May 28th Case of Private Harry Fallows
Soldier Accused of Harbouring Wanted Man Discharged
Pte Harry Fallows, charged with “Harbouring and maintaining Percy Toplis,” after the murder on April 24th, was discharged by the Andover magistrates on Friday.
Mr Sims, the Assistant Public Prosecutor, said that when Fallows was brought before his commanding officer after his joy ride with Toplis to Swansea, he made statements which covered all his doings during the trip.
They had been proved correct after careful examination, and there was nothing in them to show that Fallows had the slightest conception that Toplis had committed murder.
In these circumstances he asked that the prisoner should be discharged. Fallows describes Toplis as a desperate, determined, person, who was in the habit of carrying bout with him a loaded, six-chambered revolver.
See also the inquest of Toplis, Percy