Secret Terrorist Societies Unearthed – Lloyd’s News May 9th 1920

As Toplis made his getaway north, Lloyd’s Sunday News reported that Scotland Yard were making progress with their investigation into a number of alleged anarchist groups infiltrating the higher echelons of British civil society. Police believed a ‘special order’ had been given by the new Bolshevik leaders in Moscow to ‘foment unrest’ on British Soil and that criminal activity matching that of the Sidney Street Siege in scale and character, was being planned in London’s East End. The investigation also coincided with raids on the offices of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Worker’s Dreadnought, a journal that Special Branch suspected of laundering Bolshevik funds in the UK. The manager of the journal was Harold Percy Burgess, a former private in New Zealand’s Auckland Infantry, discharged as medically unfit in February 1917. On May 14th Burgess was charged with supplying anarchist material, including a pamphlet entitled, ‘Soviets for the British’ among the Irish Guards. It’s believed that Burgess was inciting the troops to mutiny. Revolution, it was said, was going to happen sooner than some people expected. He is believed to have quizzed his contacts in the Irish Guards about the trafficking of munitions. Meetings between Burgess and Private Joseph Brady of the Irish Guards took place at one of Toplis’s favourite haunts in London, The Strand.

Interestingly, Burgess and the Worker’s Dreadnought had been the first to publish an eyewitness account of the Etaples Mutiny (Worker’s Dreadnought, November 3rd 1917). A letter had been mailed to the Dreadnought’s offices at 152 Fleet Street bearing an official army stamp. The letter went on to describe the conditions at the camp and the ‘big racket’ that had taken place when a ‘10,000 men had cleared the place from one end to the other’ and demanded that the war be stopped. The author of the letter remains a mystery.


On 27th May Burgess was tried at Bow Street Magistrates and sentenced to six months imprisonment.

Is there anything to link the Yard’s investigation of ‘Secret Terrorist’ groups with the hunt for Percy Toplis? Well if there is, it’s not explicit. That said, in the immediate aftermath of Toplis’s death, the World’s Pictorial News ran a story that claimed Toplis had been an anarchist and ringleader of a ‘Free Love Club’ operating in the East End of London. This ‘secret and infamous organization’ which was setting out ‘to destroy the very foundations of ordered life and government’. Was this the same Bolshevik-affiliated ‘Free Love Club’ described in the report published by Lloyd’s Sunday News on May 9th? In his book Detective and Secret Service Days (Jarrolds, 1929), Toplis investigator Edwin T Woodhall’s devotes an entire chapter to the Sidney Street Siege and French anarchist (and motor thief) Jules Bonnot. His chapter on Toplis also makes the claim that after his escape from the Etaples compound, Toplis had sought refuge among the organized criminal gangs of Montmatre in Paris – a district favoured by anarchists and Bolshevik exiles. And whilst the evidence for any of this remains elusive at best, it’s fair to say that Special Branch may have been actively pursuing the information as a credible (or maybe even not-so-credible) lead in their hunt for Toplis. Teasingly, the report uses the word ‘stunts’ to describe the anarchist plots and it is a word that features prominently in Toplis’ diary, when he makes reference to a ‘stunt’ being pulled in Edinburgh. The column also ends with an update on the search for Toplis.

If a man were to be charged on subtexts and hysteria alone, then the Police may have thought they had enough to convict him.

Below is a copy of the report as it appeard in Lloyd’s Sunday Newspaper of Sunday May 9th 1920. In a diary entry dated May 10th, Toplis makes reference to The Daily Mail on S.T’. The report claimed Police were now of the opinion that Toplis was being sheltered. Within 24 hours Toplis had bolted from the farm that he had found work on to spend three days in Inverness. It would mark the beginning of the end.


Reports on the arrest of former New Zealand soldier and Worker’s Dreadnought manager, Harold Percy Burgess (May 15th-May 20th 1920) plus Toplis Diary and corresponding Daily Mail report

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