James Lock Cox was the Superintendent of Andover Police who led the investigation into the murder of taxi-driver, Sidney George Spicer at the end of April 1920. Toplis was his only suspect. In 1923, after 32 years of dedicated service, Detective Superintendent Cox retired. Over his career he’d served at Andover, Tidworth Garrison and Boscombe. It was after serving as Inspector at Havant that he took his post at Andover. The year was 1916. His retirement came shortly after accusations of using excessive force during a ‘distraint’ proceedings.
Toplis Loose-Ends Cleared Up
On May 6th 1927, just four years after retiring, Cox died ‘somewhat suddenly’ at his home. The press reported that he was still a keen sportsman and was at one time on the Council of the Hants Football Association and Borough Council. He was just 49 years of age.
Cox’s death arrived at a curious time, as 1927 was to see a sequence of Toplis-related stories come bouncing back into the headlines.
Just a few months before in January 1927, the body of Cox’s key witness in the Toplis case, Harry Fallows was found dead in a cave in Castleton, Derbyshire, the victim of an apparent double-suicide plot in an area popular with The Clarion Ramblers and the Young Communist League. 17-year old rambler, Fred Bannister from Hulme found the body. Curiously, G.H.B Ward, founder of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers had assembled with club members at the Peak Hotel in Castleton on the very day that Fallows also arrived in the village. Ward, a formidable trade unionist, had been a close personal friend of Anarchist-Educationalist, Francisco Ferrer ever since the Spaniard’s post-trial visit to Sheffield in 1907. He’d also been a leading force in British agitation after Ferrer’s execution in Spain, helping to mobilize and assemble a demonstration in Trafalgar Square featuring a crowd of some 8,000 Social Democrats, and an energized Victor Grayson.
In February that year, Etaples Mutineer and founding Communist Party of Great Britain member, James Cullen published a series of incendiary articles in the Glasgow Weekly Herald (later reprinted in the British Fascisti periodical, The British Lion that July). The articles featured an explosive account of the mutiny in Etaples. Cullen’s article, published on February 19th 1920 was the first full account of the troop ‘disturbances’ to appear anywhere in the British press.
That same March, King Edward VIII, on the recommendation of the Conservative Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks appointed Charles de Courcy Parry as one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary. It was Parry who coordinated the 1920 ambush on Toplis, during which time he was in direct communication with the Undersecretary of State to the Home Office, Edward Shortt and his Aberdeenshire, deputy John Baird.
Parry, who’d handed in his resignation to Cumberland and Westmorland Police in April 1920, found himself brought out of retirement. It’s not entirely clear what prompted this change of heart, but there is some suggestion it was for ‘financial reasons’ (see Western Mail 04 February 1927, p.8).
Parry’s father Captain Fred J. Parry of the Royal Marine Light Infantry had himself served as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary. Charles Parry had received his CBE in 1920. The Home Secretary who appointed him, Sir William Joynson-Hicks was fiercely anti-Labour and anti-Communist. He was also fiercely anti-Semitic. It was in fact Joynson-Hicks who had conceived the 1925 show trial of Harry Pollitt and other leading communists, using the Incitement to Mutiny Act. Coming as the appointment did, so shortly after the Great Strike of 1926, it’s possible that Parry’s arrival was an indication that a more hard-line approach was going to be taken with Left-Wing subversives and the Communist threat. The controversial raid on All Russian Co-operative Society (Arcos) offices in May 1927, shortly after Parry’s return to policing, makes it all the more plausible.
Shortly before Parry’s appointment, Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks made an announcement in the House of Commons that the activities of subversives and Communist agitators in the country were being very closely monitored, and that the Cabinet would be seeking ‘new powers’ to deal with them. This was rolled-out in tandem with a bill designed to make permanent the Aliens Restriction Amendment Act of 1919, currently due to expire. The Second Reading of the Alien Restriction Bill was passed on May 6th 1927, despite drawing grave reservations from the famously imperialistic, Lord Haldane, who argued that the provisions of the act were appropriate to war time and not peace time.
Curiously, the announcement by Joynson-Hicks promising ‘new powers’ to deal with subversives, features backhanded support from two maverick Labour MPs who would shortly leave their party to form the British Union of Fascists: Oswald Mosley and John Beckett.
The appointment didn’t escape everybody’s notice, by any means. Colonel Charles Woodcock, Liberal MP for Everton questioned both the cost of an additional Chief and the actual need for Parry. The response was unequivocal: more Police work meant more Police Chiefs.
It was clear that Charles de Courcy Parry was a man who could get things done. An exceptional man for exceptional times.
Toplis Army Service Records
The letter re-printed below is the report sent by Superintendent Cox to the Chief Constable of Hampshire Police, shortly before Inquest into Spicer’s murder. The letter features all that we really know of Toplis’s Army Career as the original records have either been lost or retained by the Ministry of Defence. It is this letter that gave rise to the now familiar cry that Toplis was ‘onboard the Orontes heading to India at the time of the Etaples Mutiny’. As you will be see, it is not strictly clear when Toplis did embark on the Orontes as no dates are included in Cox’s chronology. If anything, the sequence Cox provides is a little muddled, as the one thing the record tells us regardless of anything else is that Toplis deserted the Royal Army Medical Corps from Salonika on June 15th 1918 and not, as Cox claims in the letter, from India or Egypt. This is backed up by a report in the Police Gazette dated October 18th 1918. There is also no indication of which unit of the Field Ambulances that Toplis served in. The 39th Field Ambulance Company cited in his biography at Penrith Museum, certainly arrived in the Dardenelles in the Summer of 1915. And this is where Toplis earned his Victory and 15 Star medals (his medal roll shows the date 11.07.15).
If Cox wasn’t just confused about the chronology, or hadn’t just been totally misinformed by the War Office, then it’s possible that having Toplis serve out his days in India would have better suited the narrative of Percy as a shirker who had spent much of the war in and out a succession of ‘cushy’ posts. Bombay didn’t see any fighting and there would have been scant sympathy among ex–Soldiers for a career criminal who had seen little action. In fact the word ‘cushy’ is derived from the Indian (Hindi) word ‘khush’ meaning “pleasure”. Salonika and the Dardenelles, on the otherhand, saw some of the most atrocious conditions and some of the worst disasters of the First World War. Churchill’s handling of the Dardenelles campaign in which Toplis took part was deemed a complete and utter shambles. To prevent Toplis being sheltered by sympathetic ex-Soldiers who shared the mental scars of war, perhaps his service record was tweaked a little.
Cox also mentions that Toplis enlisted in the Royal Air Force. A closer look suggests that this was on March 22 1920 at the RAF Halton base in Wendover (service no. 340978). Again, Cox’s chronology isn’t quite accurate as Cox’s letter has him deserting the RAF in March, not enlisting. Cox clearly didn’t have all of the facts at his disposal.
In a handwritten police statement he provides to Police on April 29th, witness Harry Fallows makes an equally unusual claim: Toplis had alleged that he had not deserted the RASC but had been discharged by a Captain J.C Jennings. Toplis is alleged to have shown the witness discharge papers dated 28/12/1919 by way of evidence. Cox’s suspect also made the claim that he had been granted a month’s leave to purchase ‘cheap cars’ for the RAF (he had enlisted as Air Mechanic, so its possible, but far from likely).
Sadly, whilst Percy does have an entry in the Royal Air Force service records, they appear to have been ‘extracted’ by an ‘R. Thomas’ and held in the ‘AD/SERVS’ archives. I’m not entirely sure what the term refers to, but it may allude to a department within ‘Air Defence’. Who knows?
The letter also tells us that Toplis spent some time with his aunt in Newport, South Wales. This opens up a parallel line of enquiry that I’ll take up in a separate post.
Andover Division 17th May 1920 141
The Chief Constable.
Re PERCY FRANCIS TOPLISS wanted for the murder of Sidney George Spicer on the 24th April 1920 at THRUXTON DOWN, ANDOVER, HANTS.
I respectfully beg to report that the above named is the son of Herbert Topliss [deceased] and was born at Whittington Moor, [Chesterfield] on the 22nd August 1896. His mother being an invalid and when he was very young he went to reside with his Grandmother [Mrs.Webster] at Skegby, Notts and remained with her until he was 11 years of age. He then returned home and remained about 1 year. His parents were then residing at Mansfield at which place he was convicted for False Pretences and also at Chesterfield for larceny. He then returned to his Grandmother and when he was about 13 years of age he tramped to Newport and Monmouth.
During the next year he worked for a short time at Brierley Will Colliery, Stanton Hill, and from 1910 to 1912 his whereabouts were not known, as he was tramping the country and his Grandmother only occasionally receiving a letter from him. During this time he was convicted at Dumfries for Larceny, Pateley for Larceny, and on the 2161 February 1912 he was arrested for attempted rape on Nellie North age 15 at Sutton on Sea and at the Lincoln Quarter Sessions on the 12.4.12 was sentenced to 2 years [hard labour] which was afterwards converted to the Borstal System by the order of the Home Secretary.
On the outbreak of War he joined up in the RA.M.C and a lady at Shipton Bellinger started a school to teach soldiers French. Topliss being one of the pupils. He was then stationed at Park House Camp. Topliss went to the Dardanelles in 1915 with a Field Ambulance Company, and it appears he was either invalided or wounded and sent home to the Depot at Aldershot From there he went on Trooping duty to Salonika, Egypt and back to the Depot and then to India in the Troopship ‘Orontes’. After a few months to Bombay from there to Egypt and it is supposed that in August or September 1918, he was missing and the next that was heard of him was at Nottingham where he was wanted for False Pretences and was later arrested in Clerkenwell as a suspected person. During this time he had been masquerading as an Army Officer and on the 22th November 1918 he was sentenced to 6 months for False Pretences at Nottingham.
Topliss joined the Army again in the name of Percy Topliss at Whitehall, London on the 1 August 1919, in the M.T., RA.S.C. and was posted to Grove Park on the 12nd August 1919, he was drafted on the 22nd August 1919, to Aldershot, drafted on the 26th September 1919 to Bulford, drafted on the 17th October 1919 to Avonmouth, drafted on the 7th November 1919 to Bulford, and on the 26th December 1919, he deserted with Private Morgan R. Gardener and stole a Sunbeam motor car valued about £900. At the time of this Larceny Private Follows now detained at Andover Police Station, was in charge of the Vehicle Office, which is the issuing Office for the removal of motor cars out of the Depot.
Topliss joined the R.A.F. at Wendover in the early part of this year and was posted to Uxbridge, from which place he deserted about the end of March. [dates not yet obtained]. It appears that Topliss has been in the habit of visiting Bulford Camp since he has been a deserter and although known as a deserter by the other soldiers of No.2 Depot Company, they have not arrested him.
[Signed] James L Cox Superintendent.
Memory of the Toplis Murder, 07 May 1927, Portsmouth Evening News, p.12
A Distraint Case, Hampshire Advertiser 17 February 1923
Former Monmouth Officer (Charles Parry), Western Mail 15 March 1927, p.6
Toplis, Topley, Nottinghamshire, Police Gazette 18 October 1918, p.1
How Communists Work, James Cullen, Glasgow Weekly Herald, February 19th 1927
Royal Air Force Airmen Records, 1918-1940
A Warning to Communists: Home Secretary’s Plans – New Powers (Joynson-Hicks who appointed Parry), Aberdeen Press and Journal 06 October 1925, p.7
Happy Annual Gathering at Castleton, Sheffield Daily Telegraph 04 January 1927, p.8