Toplis, Percy 1920 June 11th Cumberland
LAST DAYS OF TOPLIS
SHOT IN CUMBERLAND BY THE POLICE
After a hunt lasting six weeks the police have found Francis Percy Toplis, a young soldier who was wanted in connection with the murder of Sidney George Spicer, a Salisbury taxi-cab driver, on Thruxton Down, near Andover. He was encountered on Sunday evening near Penrith. Constable Fulton, together with Inspector Ritchie and Sergt Bertram, met him on the highway. They were all in plain clothes, but as they approached the man he seemed to guess they were police officers, and at once whipped out a revolver. He began to fire. The officers at once returned the fire, and one of the shots took effect. It struck the man in the body, and he dropped and died almost immediately.
In all he managed to fire two shots, but fortunately the police escaped unhurt.
Entries in a pocket-book found on the body show that he was at Bulford Camp on April 24th, the day the Andover murder was committed, that he afterwards passed through Wales, and then made his way into Scotland. From Speyside he travelled south, passed through Edinburgh, where he pawned his watch, and was in Carlisle on Saturday. The only money found in his possession was half-a-crown.
The inquest was held on Tuesday by Colonel Halton, the East Cumberland Coroner, and the jury found that Percy Toplis, aged 23, had been justifiably killed by a revolver bullet at Plumpton by police officers who were attempting to effect his arrest while a fugitive from justice; and they commended the police for their pluck, intelligence, and promptitude.
The body was identified by Mrs Bowles, of Shoreham, Toplis’s sister, and Sergt Harry Smith, of the RASC, stationed at Bulford.
Superintendent Cox, of the Hampshire Constabulary, related the circumstances of the murder of the motor driver Spicer at Thruxton, and declared that the body of the man in the mortuary tallied with the description of the man wanted for the murder.
PC Alfred Fulton described his first meeting with Toplis near Low Hesket, 11 miles from Penrith, and added that when he returned home he looked up his police information and noticed that the description of Toplis was similar to that of the man he had spoken to. Returning on his bicycle he found Toplis in a plantation, and said, “Hullo boy, is this as far as you have got?” The man jumped up and, pulling a revolver from his pocket, shouted out, “Hands up.” Fulton obeyed, and Toplis continued, “It is me you are looking for, is it? If you are, I am Toplis. It was me who shot the policeman and farmer, and if you act the same, you go too.” He compelled Fulton to drop his handcuffs and truncheon on the ground. The witness told him not to be silly and to put the revolver away. He then said “I will kill or be killed.” The witness told him to get out of the district altogether. He went away, and the witness returned home, changed into mufti, and went to Penrith for assistance.
Supt Oldcorn, of Penrith, said that on receiving Fulton’s report he ordered Inspector Ritchie, Sergt Bertram and Fulton to go in search of Toplis in a motor car. Knowing that the man was armed and was a dangerous character, he provided Ritchie and Bertram with a revolver and six rounds of ammunition each, telling them to use the weapons with great discretion.
Inspector Ritchie said that the police in the motor car first saw Toplis after passing through Plumpton. They drove on 50 or 60 yards and then got out, sent the car away, and concealed themselves behind some farm buildings until Toplis approached.
When he got opposite to me (continued the inspector) I sprang out and said, “Stop. Pull up.” He apparently noticed me at the same moment, as he sprang forward and commenced running towards Penrith. He ran about five yards; then he turned round, still running, and fired direct on the police. He pulled the revolver out immediately he saw me.
The Coroner : Where was your revolver?
Witness : In my hand. We knew he was a desperate character, so we were ready. After firing the first shot he ran a few yards and again fired a shot, still running. Then the police fired. I fired one shot and Bertram two. Toplis was laying his revolver dead at us for the third time, but I think he was unsettled, as I was close up to him and he did not get a direct aim. I was about five yards away and was gaining on him rapidly. He turned his revolver direct at me. One of our shots took effect, and he fell. Before he fell I caught him in my arms and laid him down. Then we returned to Penrith. When we examined his revolver we found four good cartridges and two spent ones in it.
Bertram said that Toplis’s second bullet whizzed past his ear. Mr Norman Parry, son of the Chief Constable, who accompanied the police car on his motor cycle, said that he was certain that if the police had not fired when they did Inspector Ritchie would have been killed.
Deputy Chief Constable Barron said that in Toplis’s possession was a diary, which gave indications of his movements since the beginning of the year, but all the items were abbreviated. The diary mentioned visits to Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, London, Swansea (“robbery”), Bristol again (“monocle bought, 15s”), Bath, Chepstow, Salisbury, Southampton, Winchester, Bath, Freshford (“with Dorothy”), Bulford (on April 2), and so on, down to May 24th, when there was written in the diary “Hunting West Wales. Some hopes.”
The Coroner summed up at considerable length, and after three minutes’ consultation the jury returned the verdict already stated.
The body of Toplis was buried in Penrith Cemetery at 9 o’clock on Wednesday morning. His mother and sisters left the previous evening. The Rev. H Law, Vicar of Christ Church, Penrith, officiated.
The coffin was carried on an aerated water manufacturer’s waggon, and covered with rugs.