In the aftermath of a fractious year that had seen the much feared General Strike promise to set Britain ablaze with devastating flames of crisis and sedition, the national papers made the most of an unremarkable start to the New Year. The famous Winnats Pass in the craggy High Peaks of Derbyshire, a favourite rambling and cycling spot among Sheffield city folk, had been the scene of a ‘sensational discovery’. The bodies of a young man and woman who had been missing from their homes in Manchester since January 1st 1927, were found at dusk on Saturday 8th by 17-year old rambler Fred Bannister from Manchester. The victims of the tragedy were Harry Fallows of 28 Hinde Street in Moston, Manchester and 17 year-old Marjorie Coe Stewart of 44 Hinde Street.
Incredibly, the story emerged just days before another missing persons story was resolved. Glasgow-born activist Nancy Graham had disappeared from her home on the evening of Wednesday 5th. Her husband, a naval architect trained at John Brown & Co Ltd in Clydebank, had discovered his barely conscious wife a week later in the empty home of a Presbyterian minister in Upton near Liverpool. If the discovery of the bodies in Castleton hadn’t been linked to the Toplis ‘Grey Motor’ case, the story may well have missed the press columns entirely.
The dead man was 26 year-old Harry Fallows, the former corporal in the RASC Vehicle Office at Bulford base who just several years before had been charged with harbouring and maintaining the fugitive Percy Toplis — legendary leader of the mutiny at the Etaples base camp in France during the war 1. Over a three day period in September 1917, thousands of soldiers transiting through France downed arms and rioted over demeaning camp conditions and the atrocious routine abuses being meted out by instructors and camp police. It was rumoured that Percy Toplis was among the more lawless of them.
On the third day of the riots Field Marshall Douglas Haig wrote in his diary that the disturbances had occurred when “some men of new drafts with revolutionary ideas” produced red flags and refused to obey orders (Douglas Haig: Diaries and Letters 1914-1918). Some two and a half years later Fallows had been the star witness at a hastily convened inquest that saw Toplis — the ‘man with a gold-rimmed monocle’ — tried and found guilty in absentia for murder of taxi-driver Sidney Spicer. The theory that Superintendent James Cox of Hampshire Police was pursuing was that Toplis had stolen the car, murdered the cab driver and taken Fallows on a joyride to Swansea, where Toplis then ditched the car after failing to sell it on. A dramatic nationwide manhunt had been launched before Toplis, the military “Ishmael”, was gunned down by Police in Penrith.
A legend has subsequently evolved that the ambush on Toplis had been sanctioned by the British Home Office and secretly coordinated by British Secret Service. One story published in the wake of villain’s death cast him as an armed and dangerous anarchist with links to an organized Soviet cell operating in the East End of London (World Pictorial News, June 11 1920). Reports in the Highland News and the Highland Times only added to the intrigue. Arriving at a Temperance Hotel in Inverness, Toplis blithely told the owner that he had “recently been in Russia”. The hotelkeeper went on to describe how Toplis, a ‘modern day Yorrick’, had made quite an impression on guests by delighting them with tunes on the piano in the hotel lounge. The tunes he was most fond of playing? “Nearer my God to Thee and the Russian National Anthem” (Highland News, June 5th 1920). The boasts and his playing of the anthem probably did little to help his cause.
Despite being arrested as an accomplice, Harry was only ever called as a witness.
In actual fact, Fallows had been the Police’s only witness.
At the time of their death, Harry was estranged from his wife Alice and his daughter Irene, aged four. Marjorie was a fabric designer at Mayne Fabric Company in Salford. She was young, she was happy and a string of creative talents suggested a life full of exciting options. After a brief spell working a driver, Harry — described by neighbours as ‘a man with a jaunty air’ — had found himself unemployed.
Fred Bannister, the young rambler who found them, lived at 21 Upper Duke Street in Hulme in Central Manchester. Remarkably, the boy had been living little more than a few miles from the couple he alleges to have found by chance in a cave in Castleton. His father Robert Bannister was a dairyman who’d had a few scrapes with the law for selling unadulterated and watered down milk, but was otherwise unknown to Police.
The 27-mile hike from Hulme in Manchester would have been no small achievement for an inexperienced youngster embarking on the journey alone, the recent Winter Solstice having squeezed the hours of daylight into a tight and fairly challenging seven-hour window of opportunity. The shortest route would have taken Fred through the inner city suburbs to Marple Bridge and out onto the Kinder plateau, where he would trudge his way east through the heather-knitted moors of Edale, mostly likely kitted out in an unconventional mix of hob-nail boots, socks pulled up to his knees and the heaviest jacket he could lay his young hands on. It would have been tough going underfoot and after working anywhere between ten and fourteen hour shifts as a labourer, the craving to get out into the hills must have been strong. The 26 shilling wages he would be drawing every week practically ensured a modest kit, and any dawdling or unnecessary sightseeing would have seen Fred tackling the moors in the dark, and almost certainly at this time of year, in the mist. As a reporter at the Sheffield Independent was to write on the Monday, attempting a tramp across the bleak Kinder Scout at this time of year was a stunt undertaken by “only the keenest ramblers.”
With a good dose of stamina and incentive, it was just about doable — at a push.
Until recently, the road through Winnats Pass was little more than a gritty dirt track punctuated unevenly by heathery tufts and sphaggy moss. A stream courses through the Pass during the rainy season and on either side of the cleft the banks rise-up to almost impossible angles, flecked with tremendous rocks. The lofty rugged crags threw weird, illusive shapes along the tops where the rounded, grassy shoulders of the slopes give way to unexpected, sudden-death ledges. The one hope in the Hope Valley, was that you survived long enough to enjoy it. Two parts really creepy to one part ‘holy shit!’.
Fred Discovers the Bodies
In a report dated Monday January 10 1927, the morning after his grim discovery, Fred Bannister tells the Sheffield Daily Telegraph a fairly remarkable story. He had arrived in Castleton on Saturday January 8th to spend the weekend with friends in the village. Around tea-time, curiosity got the better of him and he headed off to explore the caves on the slopes of The Pass. This tortuous, ancient bridle way winds west out of the village and is surrounded by towering ridges, rough pinnacles and silhouettes — a regular magnet for adventurous youths. At approximately 5.00 pm Fred entered a cave on the right-hand foot of The Pass. And it was here that he found the bodies of the couple in the entrance to the cave. His story was made all the more remarkable because he had encountered the same couple — only this time very much alive — in the same spot just seven days before (Sunday January 2nd). His journey on that day had been little different.
Two rambling friends from Manchester who Fred knew only as ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Ambrose’ had set off with him the previous Sunday and had arrived at the Winnats Pass around 4.30 in the afternoon. Fred described how the couple at the time of this first sighting had been ‘sitting side by side in the dark’ at the cave entrance (Sheffield Daily Telegraph 10 January 1927, p.5). “We had torches and they told us to put them out. It was the man (Fallows) who asked us, and he spoke in an ordinary way, without any sign of agitation or anything to arouse our suspicion.” Fred told the reporter they passed on and thought no more about it. He had talked to other ramblers who had gone into the cave a little earlier in the day and remarked that they had found nothing unusual inside them. If Fred’s story is correct, then Fallows and his sweetheart must have arrived at the caves shortly before Bannister and his group, and slightly later than the other ramblers.
When the reporter pressed Fred on why he headed to Castleton on the Saturday he discovered the bodies, the boy said that he had arrived to stay the weekend with Mr and Mrs Young of The Island Gift Shop, just off Buxton Road. Tea-room and gift shop owner Henry Young and his wife Hannah were the parents of Harry G. Young, who had married Clara Bellass, a young supervisor at Westinghouse Works at Trafford Park in Manchester (Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald 01 November 1924, p.11). In previous years the couple’s son, Harry Young Jnr. would lead celebrations as the garlanded King’s Consort on horseback for Castleton’s legendary ‘Oak Apple Day’ — a relic of the Stuart Dynasty commemorating the restoration of the monarchy in May 1660. Few towns and villages bothered with it now. It was only in quirky backwater strongholds like Castleton that this rather Conservative celebration still thrived.
Another key figure at the Oak Apple Day celebrations was 44 year old Arthur Potter, a guide to the local Speedwell Cavern which lay some 75 yards from the cave. Potter’s hostility towards the mixed-sex rambler camps dotted around Winnats Pass would culminate in a campaign to stamp the nuisance out in the 1930s. As he and other ‘Castleton Ringers’ saw it, the rambler’s camps were a ‘disgrace to civilization’ (Sheffield Independent, 07 June 1935, p.7). The local Tory MP, Major Samuel Hill-Wood probably couldn’t have agreed more. Most of the ramblers were troublesome young Socialists, and in the Major’s eyes, ‘the bulk of the Labour Party were Bolsheviks’. Hill-Wood’s fight was not with the honest and decent men who represented the unions but with ‘them’, the extremists (Derbyshire Courier 11 September 1920, p.3) Going toe-to-toe with daring former-Communist, J.T. Walton Newbold in the High Peaks local elections of June 1927 would only sour his opinion further. But this is something we’ll come back to.
Before making his way to Mr and Mrs Young at the Island, Fred says he went alone to explore the caves, arriving at Winnats Pass around 5.00 pm. He says he passed the cave, which whilst reasonably close to the village, is barely observable from the narrow mud-track road that zigzags through The Pass. Instead, the ‘Horseshoe Cave’ as it was known, lies some 100 yards up a steep incline. Some scrambling on all fours would be required.
Gales were blowing in from the East the day Fred returned to the cave the following Saturday. A deep depression was now sitting between Scotland and Iceland and there’d been widespread flood damage across Britain. The moors around the Peaks had also seen considerable snowfall. The first few days of the New Year had been relatively mild and Fallows and Stewart are likely to have encountered little more than drizzle when arriving in the Peaks on the 1st. The temperatures though were dropping and its unlikely the couple could have survived a full week in the caves. When Fred Bannister arrived at the caves, the pass was being battered by a ‘terrific rainstorm’ (Dundee Evening Telegraph 10 January 1927, p.3).
Although Fred says he had passed the cave at first, something had told him to go back. He returned and entered the outer cave, before squeezing through a bottleneck passage about fifty yards inside. It was here that Fred flashed lamp and made out the legs of a woman, reclining against a rock. She wasn’t moving. His first instinct was to exit the cave, but composing himself he returned and felt the woman’s pulse. She was cold. He felt nothing. Horrified he ran out, having seen nothing of the man. “As I passed Speedwell Mine, I blew a whistle I carry, but there was no one about, and I ran down into the village of Castleton and informed the Police Sergeant Barrett”. Sergeant Barrett and Dr Bailey accompanied Fred back to the cave, and it was then that the body of Fallows was found, lying face down some 10 or 15 yards away from the girl. Both were fully dressed and a broken cup and saucer was between them. A full bottle of Lysol disinfectant was in Harry’s coat pocket and a second broken bottle was found lying at his side. At the feet of the woman reclining against the rock was a handbag. Nothing in the way of provisions or extra clothing were found. A cursory examination of the handbag revealed only a manicure set, a powder puff and a ticket with an address and a telephone number on it. The number and address was that of a woman who Marjorie had exchanged Christmas cards with just weeks before. Dialling the number, Superintendent J.H MacDonald learned that Marjorie had been missing for a week. The man had been absent from Manchester for some days.
In spite of Fred’s story about seeing them alive at the cave the previous week, there was no evidence to suggest that the young couple had been staying in the village from the time of their disappearance to the finding of their bodies on January 8th. No witnesses came forward to say that they had been seen and no one came forward to say whether the missing couple were even familiar with the Castleton district. Fred’s two young rambling friends, ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Ambrose’ could have shed some light on the claims, but curiously the pair never came forward.
Edward Medwell, greengrocer and village sexton conveyed the bodies from the caves to the Castle Hotel in his van, battling against the pummelling high winds which had prevented the van from turning around for quite some time. Once the van did manage to get away, the helpers at the rear of the wagon were seen to topple awkwardly over the bodies. The gale coursing through The Pass provided nothing in the way of shelter and even less in the way of mercy.
The Sheffield Telegraph was quick to point out that whilst Winnats Pass was frequently visited during the summer months, particularly by Manchester people, winter visitors were comparatively rare. The doctor wasn’t able to say if Fallows had taken his own life before or after Marjorie. The pair were both believed to have been dead some days. There were no signs of a struggle and their bodies were ‘well clothed’ in their everyday city attire. As Dr Baillie explained to the press, “they were obviously not ramblers” (A Dead Couple in A Cave, Dundee Evening Telegraph 10 January 1927, p.3).
If what Dr Baillie says is true, then they were also not sufficiently kitted out for spending five days in a cave in the High Peaks in winter. So where did they stay?
At 2.30 pm on Sunday 9th Mrs Lily White, the sister of Harry Fallows, arrived in the village with her father, Edwin. They spent a few minutes at the Castle Hotel identifying the bodies and after a brief conversation with Sergeant Barnett returned to Manchester. The hotel occupied a fairly private location just off Cross Street, a hundred or so yards from Bannister’s friends, the Youngs at The Island Gift Shop. The once mighty Peveril Castle loomed high on the cliffs above it, offering a safe, reassuring embrace. Marjorie’s sister and parents, William and Hannah visited the home of the minister where they discussed the business of burying the couple together — an unconventional arrangement even under normal circumstances, and certainly more so now given Harry was still married to Alice.
Mass Ramble in the Pass
If Fred Bannister’s account was accurate, then Harry and Marjorie would be have arrived in Winnats Pass when it was crawling with hundreds of ramblers. This was a key date on the walking calendar: a New Year’s celebration at the Peak Hotel in Castleton wedged neatly between a series of mass tramps across the moors of Kinder Scout. Turn-out had increased three-fold in recent years and many of the group had started out the previous morning. There would be a welcome meeting at the hotel on the Saturday before walks would conclude on the Sunday.
It was ramblers day and ramblers were everywhere.
Reporting the event on Monday January 3rd, The Sheffield Independent wrote,
“At every bend in the winding moorland path, and at each guide-post that marks the twisting lanes the wanderer would have been met with cheery greetings for the New Year. Some were veterans of the game, others were young and vigorous, and quite a number were girls, bobbed and shingled, who strode alongside their male companions quite unabashed in heavy boots and breeches. The majority of youths were hatless and bare-necked, although one braved hill and dale in Oxford bags and a beret.”Sheffield Independent 03 January 1927, p.10
The hundred or so ramblers were drawn from all parts of the surroundings districts: Rotherham, Worksop, Sheffield, Manchester, Rotherham and Barnsley. As on most other occasions turn-out was very good and this year the annual New Year tramp would be celebrating its 26th anniversary.
As usual, the man who had organised the event was G.H.B Ward, founder of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers, formidable Labour activist and self-styled Prince of the Ramblers. “The truest rambler could go anywhere”, Ward would say as he prepared the annual toast on the first day of 1927. Self-improvement was the rambler’s sole objective, mentally, physically and spiritually. In Ward’s eyes the finest nation would be the one where the greatest percentage of its people were devotees of the open air, the valleys and its mountains. For Bert it was about the working man or woman seizing control of their destiny, plotting a course and preparing for a life with purpose and direction. In doing so, the working man would enjoy the same natural rights as his landed masters. The gravel beneath ones feet gave way equally to knight or knave, sire or scuzzer, baron or bastard. Ward, who had forged a close personal friendship with the Spanish anarchist revolutionary, Francisco Ferrer during his trips to the Canary Islands at the start of the century, said that rambling stood for the ‘pride of a manly heart, a swinging stride and a personality that could penetrate and was not afraid’. The revolution, one might surmise, would start in the lungs and the heart and the spirit.
Ward may have forged his trade amongst the smouldering twisted metal of the steelworks of Sheffield, but he had the restless soul of a poet.
As usual, the Clarion Club’s annual New Year dinner was held on the Saturday evening at the Peak Hotel. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph of January 4th reported the club’s members spent a jolly evening singing songs, making speeches and making merry. Ward made a toast to the Club’s treasurer W.H Whitney, and remarked that the club was now like an oak tree, well-established, strong with numerous branches. If they wanted the moors to be free, they must free them for themselves. Rambling was the sport of levellers, smoothing away the social boundaries that divided men of small and large means. As celebrations got underway a glass was raised to rambler James Evans, a Manchester railway worker who had gone missing not far from Castleton in the first week of January 1925.
The weekend was also marked by the arrival of the Young Communist League of Manchester and Sheffield, a more unmatured blend of the two local radical youth organisations: the Young Workers’ League and the International Communist Schools Movement. The youth section of the Communist Party of Great Britain, led by the indomitable William Rust, had embraced the same purposeful stride and free spirit of the Clarion Ramblers and had attended the mass rally at Winnats Pass the previous summer. Rust’s influence was at its. The last week of December was spent marching his 120-strong YCL members through the streets of nearby Sheffield to the Primitive Methodist Chapel on Stanley Street, home of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, where Clarion Rambler Ward had been serving as Chairman.
As the saying goes, ‘the boy’s will is the wind’s will’ and Rust wasted no time in directing its boisterous airflow through the city’s steel districts in the run-up to Christmas 1926. And what a sight you would have seen; a miniature Red Army swarming like flies across Lady’s Bridge, down past the Wicker Arches to the banks of the mighty Don. Youths of fourteen and children as young as eight, screaming for the overthrow of the capitalist state and the hanging of General Strike pariah, Jimmy Thomas — all boisterously carried out to the tune of John Brown’s Body (Leeds Mercury 20 December 1926, p.5).
Claiming to represent the interests of 1,500 young miners, ‘Lord Rust’ and his Communist kindergarten hoisted red banners brandishing Russian and German slogans, as speakers — often in knickerbockers — expressed scruffily prepared protests about everything from cane-swishing schoolmasters to the ongoing failures of trade union leaders like Thomas. Communist youth, Rust explained were “now a real force in the class struggle”. They knew what they wanted and how to get it (Communist Kindergarten, The Observer, Dec 19, 1926, p.17). At an earlier event in Openshaw, Manchester the children had received a message of support from the Young Communist International in Moscow. A note of warning from several British soldiers was also read; bad food and living conditions had made the Red Army the only choice. ‘Scab workers’ came in for it too. Comrade William Halpin of Neville Street, said that feeling was getting stronger against the “dirty blacklegs who worked while others went on strike” (Comrade Children in Conference, Manchester Guardian, Feb 15 1926).
As a response to the success of the congress in Sheffield, a small delegation of of Young Communist Leaguers, including 13-year old speaker, Clifford Roberts would embark on a trip to Moscow in June the following year. Joining him on his visit was 12 year old Edward Turner from Openshaw in Manchester, Nancy Hall from Birtley, Thomas Stevenson of Fife, William Baker from London and Norman Paton from Glasgow (Off To Russia, The Scotsman 23 June 1927, p.10). The boy from Tylerstown in Rondda and his delegates would spend a month in Russia visiting schools, playgrounds, rest houses and a fully equipped ‘children’s city’ built on estates seized from the fleeing Tsarists.
Rust himself had only recently been released from prison after serving a 12-month stretch for Incitement to Mutiny, his attendance of the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1925 having considerably fired-up his youthful devotion to direct action. One of those sentenced alongside Rust that day was J.T Murphy, a colleague of Ward at Sheffield’s Amalgamated Society of Engineers, where Ward had been serving as chairman.
Little secret was being made of attempts by the Communists to mobilize the ‘Baby Reds’, but the kids had ideas of their own. A special correspondent for the Daily Mail described an increasing appetite among youngsters for violent revolution. ‘Comrade Lee’ of Manchester was reported as saying, “We young ones have learned to use big words and technical terms, and if we don’t take care, we shall become word-bound to the older Communists. We had to learn to make ourselves simple.” It was action they wanted now, not words (Our Baby Reds, Daily Mail Dec 20 1926).
J.T Walton Newbold — A Communist for Castleton
Was activist William Rust accompanied on any of his trips to Sheffield by his old Comrade, J.T Walton Newbold? Newbold, himself a keen and experienced rambler, was still a regular contributor to The Clarion, so it’s plausible. His close friend Shapurji Saklatvala was certainly there, having made a lighting trip from Battersea in London to provide a short but supportive address. Just six weeks previously in November, Mi5 Director Sir Vernon Kell queried a visit that Saklatvala was rumoured to be making to Derbyshire. If he’d made the trip, it would have been something of a hero’s return for Saklatvala, having worked for several months at Smedley’s Hydro as secretary to his uncle, Ratan Tata of Tata Steel. His wife Elizabeth Marsh was from nearby Matlock and the couple would return frequently to the Peaks.
The son of Buxton cattle agent Thomas Newbold, the prospective MP for Castleton, John Turner Walton Newbold, had built an astonishing career as Britain’s first elected Communist. In August 1926, he switched his electoral hopes from Motherwell to Buxton, where he would be standing not for the Reds this time but for Labour. It was a clever, strategic move. The rural playground that was Edale and the Peaks provided fertile election soils, with Ward’s much hyped ‘Access to Mountains Bill’ promising to unite left leaning Liberals and Communists alike. As Newbold and Ward saw it, industry was encroaching on the beauties of the Peak District.
The arrival of Newbold in Buxton must have sat prettily uneasily with local Conservatives. The last few years had seen the gap narrow considerably in this once safe Tory stronghold. At Britain’s next General Election, Salford Trade Unionist George Bagnall would more than double the Labour vote. And with Newbold still carrying no small amount of weight in Russia, the heathers around the Peaks must have been bristling a little more intensely than usual. As the Motherwell Times wrote in June 1926, the 39 year-old Newbold had seriously deep connections to the “inner circle of the aristocracy that controls and directs the Communist International in Moscow and its constituent parties everywhere.”
Shortly before his selection as candidate for the High Peaks, Newbold was heard boasting to a crowd at Wishaw near Glasgow. In a typically barnstorming address, Walton recalled that when serving as a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1924, he had received his private letters and news from Moscow in the uncensored mail bags of the Russian Trade Delegation in Highgate. If his break with the Communist Party of Great Britain had been as clean and acrimonious as he’d been suggesting, then bragging about it now ahead of his shock return to the Peaks may have been the clearest indication yet that there were plenty of ‘red cells’ still oxygenating his political blood.
Despite frequent trips to Canada and the United States, Newbold plodded on with an uncomfortably low-profile campaign, unevenly punctuated by lavish broadswipes at Lord Beaverbrook and the impact of ‘commodity civilization’ on the refuge of the Peaks.
Every weekend Newbold would greet ramblers off the Saturday noon and early Sunday morning trains: “Miners from Nottinghamshire, steelworkers from the Don Valley, mill girls from Oldham, clerks out of Manchester … each of them escaping for a few brief hours on the windy, rain whipped uplands” (Another People’s Playground Going West, Daily Herald 22 April 1927, p.4)
In January 1928, Newbold withdrew suddenly from the High Peaks face-off with Hill-Wood citing health reasons. Recovery must have been quick, as within months he was back in business at Epping. Here he would go up against prodigious cross-party medal winner Winston Churchill at the next general election.
The moors are well-nigh trackless because ‘an alien band has seized the land’ as old Socialists used to sing, and so are as yet deadly dangerous to townsfolk, but many of us there are who have loved to have tread them in the rain and to be pulled on cliff edge in mist.Walton Newbold in Buxton, Daily Herald 25 June 1935, p.6
There was nothing very complex to understand about the relationship between Marxism and mass rambling. It didn’t take some zealous old Commissar to work out that Communism and mass rambles were expressions of the same free spirit. It was self-determination with boots on. The grey mist rolled in from the moors in the same saturating fashion as the steam from Sheffield’s foundries. As the Daily Worker put it, a well organised camp or ramble could forge a ‘close-knit unity’ among its members. It was collective pursuit which brought men and women together in a ‘fine spirit of comradeship’. The forum provided opportunities for learning and political development, building physical and mental stamina and giving young workers self-belief. It also took Marxism right across the British borders. Manchester Communist Harry Pollitt had been urging his comrades to go out on hiking expeditions for years, and when they did so to take copies of the Country Standard and Worker’s Weekly to spread the word. For the Clarion faithful, the very air you took in as you walked was full of freedom, the earth beneath your feet the property of no one. Like two perfectly balanced clouds, the steam of the foundry floor bore witness to the toil, whilst the mist of the heathery moor offered the moist, miraculous relief.
One of the most commonest materials in the world is perovskite, a mineral compound of silicon, magnesium and oxygen, and named, appropriately enough after the Russian scientist who discovered it. And despite making up the greater part of the earth’s mantle and possessing powerful sources of energy and untold wealth, it does little more than prop up the ground beneath your feet. As prevalent and abundant as it is, you can’t own it any more than you can see it. And it was much the same with borders; it was only when you crossed across the world’s borders on foot that you realised that the borders had never really existed in the first place. As vast as it was, and as dense as it was, the land of hope and glory was a seamless continuity marked only by milestones and the occasional sheep droppings.
That first week in January 1927 wasn’t the only occasion that the windy, desolate slopes of Winnats Pass had played host to an organised Socialist gathering. Just six months before the discovery of the bodies in the cave, somewhere in the region of 300 ramblers and Labour activists were assembling along upon its banks for a major demonstration in support of the ‘Access to Mountains’ bill (Demonstration in Winnats Pass, Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1926, p.11). As on other occasions, representatives from the various radical groups mingled among the hordes of happy enthusiasts and the more businesslike Clarion Ramblers. Curiously, a picture that appeared in The Sphere the following week shows one of the speakers at the demonstration — Rochdale Labour MP, R.J. Davies — addressing a crowd of ramblers just a hundred or so metres from the cave in which the bodies of Fallows and his sweetheart were found. As the Manchester Guardian was to write, one “might well have imagined that he had stumbled upon a gathering of persecuted Dissenters holding a meeting in the wilderness” (A Demonstration in the Winnats, Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1926, p.11).
The fanfare and anticipation that had accompanied General Strike just four weeks previously had diminished into a hopeless anti-climax. The revolutionary movement which had promised to inflict such ‘great suffering on the great mass of innocent persons’ now gathered formlessly on the side of a hill, the intense heat of the will of the people cooling like magma on its slopes. The organizing of pickets, and the canon roar of slogans was now little more than echoes around The Pass. Over 2000 workers had been arrested and some 1200 were now languishing in jail.
Re-amassing its worn out troops on the blustery plains of the High Peaks must have seemed the most natural way in the world of pumping fresh gallons of air into the workers’ sagging lungs. The clarion called, and the hopeful returned. And with them, plenty of new blood.
Accompanying the throng was prospective MP for Castleton and the High peak, J.T Walton Newbold, fresh from a blistering tour of Lanarkshire and back living in nearby Buxton after his selection a few weeks earlier. Perhaps Fallows, compelled by either idle curiosity or loyalty to Stewart, sacrificed his trip to the bookies that weekend and rolled along with the rest of the crowd to the Peaks.
The Cheetham Hill district in Manchester where Fallows had grown up was responsible for several prominent members of Salford’s Young Communist League: Bert Maskey, Cyril Bowman, Syd Abram, Jack Askins, Henry Suss, Jud (Julius) Colman. Winnats Pass played host to several other major demonstrations by the groups over the years including the famous ‘Mass Trespass’ of 1932 organised by the Young Communist League’s Benny Rothman, a 21-year old protegé of Rust who also served as Secretary of British Workers’ Sports Federation, closely affiliated to Ward’s Clarion Ramblers. On that occasion Ward stayed in the background, his position as civil servant and existing ten year ban, precluding him from getting his boots — or his hands — dirty.
Like young Fred’s Castleton associate, Clara Bellass, Cheetham Hill’s ‘General’ Rothman would work at both Vickers and A.V Roe’s Avro factory at Newton Heath. His family on Granton Street would live just a five minutes’ walk from Toplis’ friends, the Aaronsons — also of Russian heritage. Naval deserter, George Patrick Murphy, charged and convicted alongside Sheffield’s Cecil Green, for the theft of a Bristol taxi-cab in March 1916, was another of Percy’s Pennine pals. In fact Murphy’s home in Hulme put him literally around the corner from Fred Bannister, the 17 year-old rambler who found the bodies. It was alleged that Police had become so concerned that Toplis had fled to the North West that they stopped to check the licences of every car passing through Denton, Stockport, Hyde and Manchester (Manchester Guardian, 18 May 1920). At the time of the offence Murphy had been living at 47 John Street, little more than 500 yards from the Bannister family on Upper Duke Street, making a sneaky incursion into South Manchester a reasonable option for the fleeing Toplis. By contrast, Green’s address on Hunsley Street in Brightside put him within a whisker of G.H.B Ward, leader of the Sheffield and Brightside Labour Exchange on Cricket Inn Road and the Stanley Street meeting house of the Young Communist League. This was Sheffield’s formidable steel district. Cecil’s father Robert was an Iron Turner in the local steelworks.
The Bristol Motor Gang
The ‘Bristol Motor Gang’ as they became known, was an unlikely collection of lads. Toplis had just enlisted with the RAF whilst Murphy and Green had recently gone AWOL from HMS Vivid 1, a sprawling signalling and telegraphy training school on a naval base in Devonport. Both men had served capably during the war and despite Murphy spending several days in the cells for drunkenness, the character and abilities of both men were ranked ‘good’. It’s impossible to say for certain how their paths might have crossed, buts cars, girls and gambling probably featured somewhere, a shared too restlessness, perhaps. Regular exposure to danger would have pushed their tolerance for excitement upward, and every effort may have been made to recapture the thrill and the risks of war, making the postbellum Adrenalin-junkie dangerously susceptible to radical callings and harebrained criminal schemes.
The trial of the men took place little more than a week after Toplis was gunned down in Plumpton. The four men had assembled at the YMCA ‘Dug Out’ in Bristol on the afternoon of March 5th. Murphy, a mouthy Irishman with a cocky disregard for court formalities, gave a flippant, but fairly accurate description of the legendary Toplis: he had a ‘proper swanky way and was wearing a monocle’. Killing time that afternoon Percy had sung hymns and played the piano. The group were observed by Reginald James Reynolds, a YMCA steward, who confirmed the presence of an auburn-haired man around 25 years of age wearing a brown suit, a trilby hat and a three quarter length officer’s warm coat who the others referred to as ‘Ginger’. It was a Saturday afternoon and the group were in ‘close conversation together’.
Within hours the two young naval recruits and a third man, Henry Sutton were in custody. A full account of what took place was provided by the four men’s victim, Frederick William Hugo, a cab-driver with the Bristol Tramways and Motor Company, owned and controlled by Sir William Verdon Smith of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, a regular target for spies and swindlers.
The heist described by the cab-man Frederick Hugo was as absurd as it was elaborate. Whilst en-route to pick up a fare he was flagged down buy four men – two sailors and two civilians. Toplis was the first to step forward and asked the driver if he was engaged. Hugo replied that he was, but had half an hour to spare if the trip was local. Toplis said he would need the car for a couple of hours, and accepted the driver’s offer to pick them up at the Tramway Centre an hour or so later. The men met him there and entered the cab, giving him instructions to drive to RAF Filton. As they approached the aerodrome near Patchway Bridge, Toplis directed him down a country lane where they arrived at Hempton Farmhouse in Almondsbury, some two miles from the base. At the side entrance the men hopped out, and instructed the Hugo to wait. After 30 minutes, the cab-man started complaining of the long wait and indicated his intention to leave. In an effort to stall him, Toplis made some light conversation about the car. What kind of engine did it have? Was it easy to drive? The chap they had come to collect was having a cup of tea, and wouldn’t be long. A full half hour went by.
Seeing the driver’s frustration with the continued delays and a stream of flimsy excuses, the gang directed him to a nearby hotel, and all four went inside for a drink. A little time later they returned to the farmhouse and it was here that the attack took place. The driver was subdued with chloroform and then coshed on the back of the head, the gang making off for Newport.
Resting in a lay-by near Llanvair Discoed on the Newport side of Caerwent in the early hours of Sunday morning the four men were confronted PC Davies. They had broken into the nearby Pill House Farm and stolen several items of clothing, some paint brushes and green paint – evidently to disguise the car. When PC Davies found the vehicle, it was still wet and it was clear from the inexpert way it had been handled, that the lettering on the index plate had been tampered with. In his opinion the men had made attempts to camouflage the car with the paint – although for what purpose, he didn’t know. A spate of ambushes on Police and Military barracks in Northern Ireland had featured cars repainted a similar colour. It’s entirely likely that the Irish Murphy and the cars proximity to RAF Filton may have made Davies fear the worst. A ten year beat in South Wales meant he was no stranger to violent radicals, having been drafted in to disperse the riots at Tonypandy in 1910 and again at Newport in 1919.
Reports would emerge a few months later of a plot by the Irish Self Determination League to drive taxis packed with explosives into Whitehall. Murphy had already lied to the navy, giving Manchester as his place of birth when he had, in actual fact, been born in Ireland. According to a Home Office Intelligence report dated February 12 1920, over 500 members of the Irish Self Determination League were currently active in the South Wales area and trouble was brewing. Support was strongest in nearby Newport at a branch controlled by Richard Crowley and in Longsight, Manchester by Liam McMahon who had helped co-ordinate the conveyance of IRA leader Eamon de Valera from Sheffield to Manchester the previous year (Liam McMahon, Bureau of Military History, 1913-1921, WS0274).
Word on the ground was that some kind of action was being planned for St Patrick’s Day in ten days time. Further Home Office reports were describing the ‘temper’ as ‘ugly’ and warnings to that effect would have been circulated among Police. A few minor raids had been launched on aerodromes on Ireland, so the trip to RAF Filton is likely to have aroused suspicion once the gang had been caught, heaping further pressure on Toplis to stay north.
As far vigilance was concerned, the Police and the press needed little encouragement, as the weekly ‘scare bulletin’ compiled by Director of Intelligence Sir Basil Thomson, was doing a consummate job of subsidizing national paranoia. Two parallel threats were emerging in Britain: Communism and Irish Republicanism. The intelligence may been speculative, the tone may have been alarmist but the Report on the Revolutionary Organisations of Great Britain, cheerfully distributed by former Secret Service man and Under Secretary of State John Baird, was forging all the fear and loathing necessary to defeat the Green and Red Armies. A government white paper revealed that Fenian parliamentary candidate, Patrick McGartan had made a secret trip to Moscow to negotiate a treaty between the Soviets and the as yet unrecognized Irish Republic. The trip was alleged to have been made during the latter half of May 1920 and if true, would have been the first tangible sign of ‘intercourse’ between the Bolsheviks and Sinn Fein (Intercourse Between Bolshevism and Sinn Fein, Parliamentary Papers, Session 1921, Vol. XXIX, p.489) .
A few weeks prior to the drama, a rally had taken place at the Albert Hall in which thousands of Irish residents from Manchester, Liverpool, London and South Wales had declared their allegiance to the Republican cause. In among the predictable quota of Irish songs were rousing renditions of the Russian National Anthem and the Internationale (Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, TNA, CAB 24/98/20). The following year, Charles Murphy, a former Belfast Volunteer who had recently re-located to George Patrick Murphy’s hometown of Chorlton-on-Medlock, turned Kings evidence at the trial of 19 Irishmen at Manchester Assizes. The trial followed a raid at the nearby Irish Club in Hulme in which one man was shot dead (The Irish Conspiracy, Evidence for the Crown, Manchester Guardian, July 9, 1921, p.12). Edward M. Brady, a member of the Irish Secret Service would subsequently allege that Murphy was in the pay of the English as an agent provocateur. Police would subsequently discover a large cache of firearms and explosives stored at a property on Upper Chorlton Road (Secret Service In England, Edward M. Brady, Talbot Press, 1928).
There’s little doubt that Murphy and Green’s substantial Signals training would have piqued the interests of the Police.
In a ROROGB bulletin dated November 4th 1920, a report on a ‘Red Officer’s Signals Course’ provided a full military briefing for the would-be Red Officers in Britain. Alleged to have been written by Navy and RAF officer-turned-Communist, Cecil L’Estrange Malone, the handbook instructed the movement’s recruitment agents to “pick out ex-Servicemen and earmark the specialists” including “Signallers and Engineers”. According to a statement made by Soviet Spy and Spy Handler, Jacob Kirchenstein in 1952, the Russian Secret Service focused on recruiting “men of Irish origin … with strong nationalist sympathies with Ireland” (KV2/1391, FBI Interview, p.62). Another group that ranked highly in their list of priority targets were the rank and file NCOs of the Royal Corps of Signals at Chatham Dockyards. According to other files in the security archives, the Signals Corps at Chatham was a ‘centre of Communist activity’ and had been ever since the armistice (TNA, KV2/1594, Report/Aldershot, 1928).
Within weeks of leaving prison, Toplis pal, George Patrick Murphy would be dishonorably discharged from the British Royal Navy and re-enlist with the Royal Corps of Signals at Chatham, only leaving in June 1927. But the timing of Murphy’s discharge and Jacob Kirchenstein’s Manchester spy factory, is something we’ll need to come back to.
Back in Bristol, PC Charles Davies described the scene to the court. Although amenable enough at first, Percy is alleged to have grabbed the steering wheel, put his foot down on the accelerator and torn off into the night with Davies still in the car. The policeman made a valiant grab for the wheel and the car overturned. In a fit of desperation, Toplis is alleged to have kicked and bundled the officer out of the way and made a dash for it across the fields, disappearing off toward Portskewett.
It was a perplexing and faintly farcical sequence of events by any standards. The farmhouse where Toplis and the gang had stopped appears to been a deliberate part of the ruse. The man they intended to meet there didn’t exist. Its sole occupant was 70 year old Ellen Biss, the widow of a local coal supplier whose only son Reginald had died in Gallipoli in 1915. Toplis had gone to the side door out of sight, making some bogus claim about needing water for the tank. The four men could easily have overpowered the driver and used the chloroform when they had stopped the cab near RAF Filton or had pulled up near the farmhouse. Instead, Toplis is alleged to have embarked on the elaborate charade of engaging Mrs Biss in a diversionary conversation without any discernible benefit. And not once but twice; first when they arrived at the house and the second time when they returned to the farm after having drinks at the hotel. If anything, the conversations were risky and counter-productive, his encounters with Mrs Biss providing the gang and the Police with another positive ID of Toplis.
If the sole intention of the gang had been to steal the car, then what was with all the stalling?
The re-painting of the car was another mystery. The crude paint job the gang had done to disguise the car could only have been a temporary measure at best, and what use they would make of the stolen clothes was anybody’s guess. Murphy remained chipper and dryly flippant throughout the trial, the laughs and jokes only subsiding when a sentence of 12-months hard labour was awarded by the judge. When pressed by the judge on the identity of ‘Ginger’, the prosecution alleged that his identity was known there was “good and sufficient reason for his absence from the dock.”
In all fairness, ‘Ginger’ was dead. He’d been shot by Police in Penrith the previous week.
The timing of the whole Motor Bandit story was a little peculiar too. In Germany, the Communist Max Hoelz, a lively desperado with a striking resemblance to Toplis, was producing similarly sensational headlines that very same month. Using a fleet of stolen vehicles, the London-trained revolutionary had led a string of successful raids against German officials in Plauen. Shops were being plundered, locals were being terrorised and the generous proceeds of the spoils were now believed to be funding the marauding Red Army. By March 1920, the ‘Red Bandit’ as he became known in England, had a thousand pound bounty on his head. And in France, the few remaining members of the notorious, ‘Bonnot Gang’ launched a final and bloody assault on Paris, the Anarcho-Socialists and former mechanics dying in a wild, bloody shootout with Police at the Ambrais Railway Station. Among the items found in their possession was chloroform.
Shortly after Murphy and Green were convicted, the Admiralty had another crisis on their hands. Stoker Douglas E. Springhall and Able Seaman, George Edward Crook were found to be distributing Communist materials at the naval base in Devonport. Like Murphy and Green, both men had served on the HMS Vivid I before being transferred to Vivid II. Both men were discharged on November 13th 1920, Springhall’s removal being none to gracefully expedited by his penning of a seditious article in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Worker’s Dreadnought under the alias ‘HMS Hunter’ (Discontent on the Lower Deck, HMS Hunter, Workers Dreadnought, 16 October 1920). A previous article for the same newspaper had stressed the crucial role the navy had played during the recent revolution in Germany and the Russian Revolution of 1905. This would have been a double blow for Special Branch and the Conservatives as one of the ringleaders of that particular mutiny Ivan Beshoff was now deeply embedded in Ireland. Shortly after taking part in the so-called Potemkin Mutiny, Beskoff fled to England before being dragged back into politics just in time for the Easter Rising by Irish revolutionaries, Countess Markievicz and Maud Gonne. Springhall, by contrast would go on to become Secretary to the Young Communist League, taking personal responsibility for the six young delegates dispatched to Moscow in 1927 (Schoolgirl Reds, Sunday Mirror 12 June 1927, p.2).
Toplis’ own politics were less than clear. A natural contempt for authority may have seen him drawn into the orbit of various radical groups, but evidence is thin on the ground. Aside from the posthumous reports of him leading a ‘Free Love’ anarchist group in the East End of London and being described as ‘one of those intellectual Socialists’ by one of his friends in Mansfield, the only indication he had any Irish sympathies were reports of him posing as an ‘Irishman from Dublin’ and a ‘Sinn Feiner’ whilst on the run. And sure, he was known to bang out the Russian National Anthem on the old Joanna from time to time, but Lenin, he was not.
Percy’s dissolute band of brigands may not have had a formal strategy, or even as something straightforward as a plan during their Almondsbury ambush, but they had bucket loads of inspiration. Criminal anarchy, it seems, was trending.
In contrast to Toplis and his gang, the groups who converged in The Pass were generally made up of good-natured young men and women passionate about politics and determined to find its expression in the freedom of the great outdoors. But as with other such groups there were likely to be one or two militants among them, keen to abuse the causes for violent or criminal gain — and doubtless one or two spies. Just as the line between Jihadist groups and criminal underworlds has become increasingly blurred over the years, so too was the line between the fledgling revolutionary and the socially estranged delinquent who just craved violence. The regular ferocious clashes between the legendary Razor Gangs made famous by fascist Billy Fullerton and the Young Communist League were as common in Cheetham Hill as they were in Gorbals. In September 1925 a pitched battle took place between Communists and Fascists in South Islington. The fight had started when Communists tried to break up a meeting protected by some 200 fascists in support of Conservative candidate Tom Forrest Howard.
On the whole though, the anger among the Clarion youth of Sheffield and Manchester was just pocket fluff, the shit that came out in the wash. And for the old, that same freckled fury had grown as weary and benign as liver spots. Too much exposure to widespread apathy to make any further waves.
The same might not be said of the new breed of radicals fired up by William Rust from 38 Great Ormonde Street.
In the municipal elections of Sheffield in October 1926 the Conservative manifesto squared up to the challenge presented by the three ‘-isms’: Communism, Hooliganism and Socialism. In the eyes of many they were one and the same (Sheffield Daily Telegraph 30 October 1926). Gang violence was on the rise in certain districts of Sheffield. The Chief Constable, P.J Sillitoe found it necessary to make an unprecedented appeal to magistrates to award exemplary sentences in a bid to repress both the crimes themselves and the increasing prevalence of hooligan gangs at Conservative meetings. Just two weeks before the death of Fallows and Stewart in The Pass at nearby Castleton, stiff sentences were passed on three members of a razor gang operating from the Shalesmoor district of Sheffield.
The attraction presented by the Clarion Ramblers in the dilapidated districts of Shalesmoor and Cheetham Hill wasn’t terrifically complicated: rambling offered an escape from slum-life and the uphill struggles of the underclass in which slag heaps had replaced the hills. It was simple; the rough hewn clefts of the Peaks were a far more persuasive option than the cheerless ‘Valley of Ashes’ that defined the slums. Better to cough-up your lungs tackling the slopes than to have them lacerate and shrink on the fumes. For the majority of working class people, being born into the slums of Manchester, Glasgow or Sheffield was like being handed a shovel, shown the ground and told to dig your own grave. But out there there was a future.
The poor and the vulnerable were as susceptible to being radicalized as much then as they are now. High levels of social isolation would inevitably result in issues of identity, making the young people of Cheetham Hill and Gorbals easy prey. Groups or individuals offering to solve these issues by violent means were pushing the blackest of candy. On the surface of things, Ward and his Clarion group were offering a route map for self improvement. Rust was offering rebellion. The concern among right-leaning patriots wasn’t totally unfounded. Hooliganism was on the rise.
As early as 1925 the British Fascisti in Manchester were attempting to enlist as Special Constables in the regular City Police Force to help keep law and order (Rejection of Fascisti at Manchester, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 08 October 1925, p.8). The previous year, a clash between the Fascisti and the Communists at Clapham Common in London had resulted in a spate of arrests. The same thing would happen in Hyde Park, first in March 1927 (Hyde Park Scene: Fascisti’s Skirmish with Communists, Manchester Guardian, March 7, 1927) and again in August when mounted police faced down battles between hardcore factions of the far-Right and far-Left spurred on by the fiery addresses of Manchester’s Harry Pollitt (Mounted Police Disperse Crowds, Manchester Guardian, 11 Aug 1927). An earlier clash in mid January had seen skirmishes break out between Communists and Fascists in Trafalgar Square. The Fascisti had gatecrashed a demonstration demanding the release of workers imprisoned during the Great Strike. Words had developed into blows and one man was detained by Police.
Attempts by a J. Clare to set-up a British Fascisti branch in Manchester had only been narrowly defeated the previous year. ‘Jix’s Playboys of the Post-War World’ as they were regularly lampooned by the Left, had turned up at the Memorial Hall in Albert Square only to be heckled down by Communist and Labour supporters. (Uproar in Manchester, The Manchester Guardian, Dec 17, 1925, p.11)
January 1927 didn’t just mark the death of Harry Fallows, its marked the birth of violent extremism among the Fascisti and the Radical Left, attracting thugs and opportunists from both ends of the political spectrum. And in a High Peaks region famous for its vast landslides, the stresses and fractures being experienced among its youth couldn’t have been better placed.
This whole subject of criminal anarchy is explored in some detail in Detective and Secret Service Days by Edwin T. Woodhall — the former Special Branch detective who claims to have encountered Toplis in France. As the Toplis detective saw it, criminal elements would ‘creep in and use the movement as tools to bring about their desired ends’. In Woodhall’s estimation the East End revolutionary Peter the Painter never organised a burglary or a robbery without first emphasizing to his comrades a ‘political angle’ to his schemes: anarchist last and criminal first. As Woodhall puts it, his anarchy was ‘used as a cloak’ to ensure the loyalty and commitment of a substantial political underground. Not that Woodhall wasn’t without some sympathy; ‘extreme poverty and conscious inferiority were always at the root of crime’, he wrote (Detective & Secret Service Days, Edwin Thomas Woodhall, Jarrolds, London, 1929).
The Winnats Pass rally of June 1926 was a key turning event in relations between ramblers and landowners, marking a shift from cheerful defiance to outright provocation. The politics that charged the movement was now well and truly of the rucksack.
Several leading Labour stalwarts addressed the crowds that day, including Philip Milner Oliver MP for Salford and Blackley as well as Westhoughton MP and Trade Unionist Rhys Davies. It was Rhys Davies who campaigned alongside Willie Gallacher, George Lansbury and Tom Mann in the belligerent Hands Off Russia committee (1919-1920).
The overlap here is an interesting one as Tom Mann and G.H.B Ward’s friend Guy Bowman had played a leading role in the infamous, ‘Don’t Shoot pamphlet of 1912. As a result of the pamphlet being reprinted in Bowman’s Syndicalist newspaper, Mann, like William Rust some ten years later, was convicted under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797. His prison sentence was quashed only after considerable public pressure.
Another key and trusted ally of Ward, Rust and Rothman was Herbert H. Elvin, then leader of the British Workers Sports Federation which had been established by the Clarion Cycling and Rambling Club some years before. It was the Manchester branch of the federation that helped coordinate the mass trespass under Rothman some five years after the Winnats suicides. What’s more, the Derbyshire-born Elvin had an unusual skeleton in his closet. A closer look at the 1891 census reveals that Elvin’s old family home at 77 Jubilee Street, in London’s East End was used by revolutionary fugitive Joseph Stalin during his attendance of the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1907. Elvin would go on to become Chairman of the TUC in the late 1930s but much of his early energies had been poured into sports. The BWSF would provide the basis for ‘Labour Sport’ which in turn would form the basis of an international fraternity that would replace Militarism with Olympianism.
In the context of the World’s Pictorial News report that linked Toplis to a ‘secret and infamous’ anarchist organization operating in the East End of London it was certainly curious to see Percy’s sidekick, Harry Fallows arrive in Castleton at the same time as Clarion ‘anarchist’ and right to roam advocate, G.H.B Ward. Not least because there were solid network links between the radicals in the East End of London and those in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. It was also curious to see that it was the young rambler, Fred Bannister who had discovered their bodies after the Clarion Ramblers annual New Year event at Castleton’s Peak Hotel. As intriguing as it sounds, the Clarion Fellowship had held its meetings at 27 Cheetham Hill Road for some years. Socialist campaigner, Robert Blatchford, who had launched the Clarion Movement back in 1891, had also founded the very first Independent Labour Party at Cheetham Hill Institute.
Cheetham Hill Radicals
There is within the strata of coincidences and curiosities that make up the Cheetham Hill radicals composited around Fallows and Toplis, another intriguing layer.
Aubrey Aaronson — the son of Russian diamond dealer Harry Aaronson — claims to have befriended Toplis during the mutiny at Etaples. At the time that Stewart and Fallows went missing, Aubrey was living just minutes from the Fallows family home on Cheetham Hill Road. Aaronson’s reminiscences about Toplis are featured at length in John Fairley and William Allison’s Monocled Mutineer, and offer an explosive glimpse of General Toplis assembling his column of troops for a violent push on Etaples. Describing the frenzy of the mutiny, Aubrey writes:
“It was one hell of a riot that went on for nights and days. Some nights drunken soldiers broke into the WAAC billets and chased the girls through the streets. Later the word came down from Toplis; ‘Stop chasing the girls, get the military Police instead’. His order was obeyed. I remember six military Policemen shot during the riots, being buried in one grave just outside Étaples … In the end we got what he wanted, the end of the Bull Ring, freedom of the town and so on.” (Monocled Mutineer, Souvenir Press, p.102)
Whether the Red Caps had been shot or summarily thrown over the railway bridge, as one old New Zealand sapper was to tell the Sydney’s The Sun newspaper in 1930, three days of rioting had left at least six men dead and an inglorious trail of dissent rattling through the British Army’s principal depot and transit camp.
Infantryman Aaronson who had enlisted with the 3rd Border Regiment at Carlisle in April 1917, and been posted to Etaples Base Camp just four weeks prior to the mutiny had been born into a family that was itself no stranger to crime and intrigue. In the spring of 1912, Aubrey’s 45 year-old father, Harry Aaronson, still listed as Russian subject at his home at 361 Cheetham Hill Road, was at the centre of an International jewel heist. The local and national press described how after returning from Belgium, Aaronson had checked in at a hotel in Southampton Row in London before planning his return to Manchester. Half-way through his stay it is alleged that Harry was hustled off a bus by a gang of four men. The men bundled him to the floor and robbed him of a leather wallet containing an assortment of precious stones purchased just days before on the continent. The value of the bag was estimated to be around £3500 (about a £250,00 in modern currency). Despite the crude and boorish tactics used the gang, the Police were of the opinion that this was no random violent robbery. It was alleged that Aaaronson had been followed back to the continent by Bloomsbury-based commission agent, George Windred alias Williams and that this was no isolated case. Windred, who had previous convictions in South Africa and Australia, was believed to be a notorious and clever international jewel thief, operating with organized criminals in Europe.
Another man who lived close to the Aaronsons during the pre-war period was Joseph Tragheim. Just twenty years before, Tragheim had been accused by Leo Hartmann — an infamous Russian anarchist — of being a Tsarist double agent. Exiled for the murder of Tsar Alexander II, Hartmann had fled to New York and it was here that he exposed Tragheim and his brother as agent provocateurs operating between the continent, Manchester and London. The brothers subsequently fled to New York to escape arrest.
In a full page interview with the New York Herald, Hartman expanded on his claims. The accused, Joseph (Theodore) and his brother Samuel Tragheim, had been at the centre of a devious plot to blow up the North Western Railway and then blame it on exiled revolutionaries secreted around London. The plot dated back to August 1880 when a cylinder packed with dynamite had been found on the track between Bushey and Watford. The whole kit had been rigged to explode when a train passed by. Scotland Yard detectives eventually traced the dynamite to agents of the Tsarist Police. The objective was pretty simple: wreck the train and land a deal with the British Home Office that would see the hundreds of revolutionary exiles extradited back to Russia (Hartmann’s Revelations, New York Herald, August 1881).
Tragheim’s plot, conceived under the direction of the Okhrana had been funded by forged bank notes and bonds. The brothers had been partners in a well known jewellry firm in Brussels. It was Brussels that diamond dealer Harry Aaaroson had been returning from in 1912 when he had been the subject of a violent struggle with Windred and his gang. Joseph’s apartment at 81 Greenfield Street in Whitechapel placed him at the centre of a thriving anarchist network with well established branches in Manchester.
In the latter part of the 1800s, Aaronson and Trageheim would both live on Elizabeth Street, Cheetham Hill — Tragheim at No.27 Elizabeth Street, the Aaronsons at No.54 Elizabeth Street. The Fallows family would live just up the road at 69 Coke Street. A subsequent trawl of newspaper articles during this period reveals that Tragheim had been employed as a travelling salesman by Aubrey’s grandfather, George Aaronson (Huddersfield Chronicle, 10 October 1884, p.3). Curiously, during the period in which Toplis and Fallows were alleged to have been criminally active in London, Tragheim’s nephew — Alfred Tragheim aka. George Ingram — had become one of Britain’s most successful jewel thieves (Property Crime in London, 1850–Present, W. Meier, Palgrave, 2011).
In all fairness, Fallows couldn’t have been brought up in a more vibrant, more complex and more radical Manchester neighbourhood. And Toplis — who wasn’t unknown to lift the odd jewel himself — couldn’t have had more fascinating friends.
A Short Eventful Life
Was there some intricate criminal connection that would draw all these various strands together? Did Fallows die as the result of some gruesome underworld clash combining local radical politics and the more brutal mechanisms of international organized crime? Had Fallows been rumbled as a police informer? Had the Young Communist Leagues of Manchester and Sheffield discovered they had a spy in their midst? Could it have been a simple case of retribution over the bloody fate of Toplis?
For Fallows, it had been a short, eventful life and the innocent, supporting role in the whole sensational Toplis affair was never entirely convincing. Even his arrival at the Bulford Camp had been a mysterious and slightly awkward affair. Despite claiming he knew Toplis well, Fallows had been with the Royal Army Service Corps at Bulford little more than three weeks before Toplis deserted. A transfer from the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves at the H.M.S. Victory VI training base in Crystal Palace saw the 18 year-old Harry arrive at Bulford Camp in December, shortly after enlisting at Aldershot in mid-November. By the following September he’d been released. Despite several desertions and an arrest on suspected murder, Fallows was honourably discharged under King’s Regulations 392, ‘Services No Longer Required’ on September 21 1920.
Interestingly, the name of the approved society that Fallows disclosed on proceeding to discharge was Salford’s Sons of Temperance — a popular benefits and insurance choice among Wesleyan Methodists like Fallows. The family had been regular attendees at the Wesleyan Victoria Chapel on Queen Street, Cheetham Hill. His older brother, Edward who’d been enlisted into the Royal Scots 15th Battalion wed his wife Lizzie here. Sadly, any marital bliss was short-lived. The 37 year old former print setter died during the gruelling Passchendaele offensive of October 1917. Lance Corporal Fallows had just endured several weeks ‘base details’ at Etaples camp where he would have inevitably caught sight of the riots. The Methodist Baptist church in Low Hesket would also feature prominently in the ambush on Toplis.
Did Fallows and Marjorie attend the mass rally in Winnats Pass in June 1926 and stumbled across the cave then? It’s certainly plausible. But if they had, then it seems equally likely that Fallows was active politically in some way. That said, if Fallows and Stuart had arrived for the mass ramble on New Year’s Day, then why were they wearing city clothes? And if they were intent on seeking a private, secluded spot to take their own lives, then where was the logic in choosing the weekend of the New Year’s Clarion Ramble when there would be literally hundreds of giddy ramblers penetrating the caves around the hills?
Then there was the issue of the cave itself. The cave is not visible from the narrow mud-track road that leads through The Pass to Castleton so it seems probable that the couple knew about the cave in advance, most likely through rambling circles.
By all accounts Marjorie had left Manchester in her party clothes on New Year’s Eve. It might have been an adequate get-up for a glass of bubbly and a shrimp cocktail at G.H.B Ward’s annual New Year’s bash at the Peak Hotel in Castleton on the Saturday, but she would have been ill-equipped for any kind of hiking. Manicure set or no manicure set. So had the couple been preparing for a few nights at The Peak Hotel rather than a weekend roughing it on the moors?
Either way, the possibility remains that the couple met their deaths at another location and that their bodies were dumped in the cave sometime between Wednesday January 5th and Saturday January 8th. Had it all been part of a cynical ploy to smear the Clarion’s Lefty radicals with rumour and innuendo? A Novichok-style poisoning in some sleepy High Peaks village? The original ‘Salisbury poisoning’?
It wouldn’t be the first time there’d been a murder in The Pass. Far from it. Local legend had it that a couple who had eloped here from Scotland were robbed and murdered by a gang of local miners as they made their way through Castleton. The story, first told by Thomas Hanby in John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine, described how the men had driven miners’ picks into the young lovers’ skulls and dumped their bodies in very same cave in which the bodies of Fallows and Stewart had been found by young Fred Bannister (Arminian Magazine, 1785, Volume VIII).
It was a mystery alright.
The outcrops around The Pass are made up of limestone layers, long vertical and horizontal bedding planes that offer glimpses of the earth’s secrets, and leave clues to lives long passed. It this particular region of Britain, nothing can stay buried forever. From time to time the rain washes clean the soil, the sun punches light into the darkest of caverns and the very air that pounds against its ridges renders the stone soft. The ground around here collapses and its secrets, as fragile as its fluorite seams, are exposed. Sometimes they are dull. Sometimes they are sparkling.
The inquest into Harry and Marjorie’s death took place on Tuesday 11th January at the Castleton Restaurant — home to substantial high teas and Mothers Union meetings but seldom suicide investigations. It was presided over by Sydney Taylor, the District Coroner for Buxton and longtime associate of Samuel Hill-Wood, the Bolshevik loathing MP who would be going up against Communist J.T Walton Newbold for the High Peaks ward at the next election. The pair sat together on various local committees including one for the Buxton Cottage Hospital (Buxton Advertiser 12 November 1910, p.3).
Like most things relating to Toplis, the inquest into the couples’ death would leave us with more questions than it would answers. The coroner ruled that there was no evidence to indicate that either party was of ‘unsound mind’ but offered no explanation for why they took such extremes measures. Most of the suicides featuring Lysol intake were dominated by women in disturbed or manic states or men suffering prolonged ill-health and unemployment. It wasn’t straightforward, by any means.
For one of the first time in the history of Winnats Pass and its gem-rich mines, the secrets didn’t sparkle, and the seam didn’t mine.
1 Harry’s brother was William Edward Fallows, killed in action on Oct 22 1917 at Passchendaele. William served with the Manchester-Edinburgh Royal Scots (15th Bat). His Service Records suggests he was at Etaples Base Camp around the time of the mutiny.
Ramblers Grim Discovery: Winnats Pass Mystery, Sheffield Independent, January 10th 1927, p.1
Two Bodies Found In Castleton Cave, The Manchester Guardian, 10 Jan 1927 p.9
The Castleton Cave Inquest, The Manchester Guardian, 12 Jan 1927, p.2
Hull Daily Mail 10 January 1927, page 8
Cave Deaths, Daily Mail, Jan. 12, 1927
Festival Day For Ramblers, Big Tramp Over the Moors, Sheffield Independent, January 3 1927
Communism in Britain, 1920 – 39: From the Cradle to the Grave, Thomas Linehan, Thomas P. Linehan (see the chapter Communists at Play for coverage of mass rambling, pages 150-157)
Nonconformity in the Manchester Jewish Community, The Case of Political Radicalism 1889-1939, Rosalyn D Livshin
Aubrey Aaaronson, British Services Records, National Archives, Regimental No. 34146, 3rd Border Regiment
A Manchester Diamond Merchants Adventure in London, Manchester Guardian, 18 May 1912, p.12
The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy 1900-39: The Invergordon Mutiny in Perspective, Anthony Carew
The All Russian Cooperative Society (Arcos), KV2/818, National Archives, Kew
A History of the Peak District Moors, David Hey
Crime and Consensus: Elite Perceptions of crime in Sheffield: 1919•1929, Craig O’Malley, 2002
Death at Sheffield of Mr William W. Chisholm, Nottingham Journal 09 September 1935, p.11
Across the Derbyshire Moors, John Derry/GHB Ward, Sheffield Independent Press Ltd
Mutiny!, A Killick (Private No. 08907 RAOC), Spark, Brighton 1968
Red Schoolboys Trade Union, Sheffield Independent 21 December 1926, p.7
A Communist at Twelve, Rhondda Boys Russian Visit, Western Mail 20 June 1927, p.9
Sources for the Study of the Kinder Trespass, 1932, Sheffield City Council