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 a 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 had been 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 had 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 the men involved.
On the third day of the riots Field Marshall Douglas Haig had written in his diary that the disturbances had occurred when “some men of new drafts with revolutionary ideas” had 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 then been launched before Toplis, the military “Ishmael”, was gunned down by Police in Penrith.
As a result of 1978 book by John Fairley and William Allison and a barnstorming drama by Alan Bleasdale in the 1980s, a legend has 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 had 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 in the murder of Spicer, Harry never faced any formal charges and was only ever called as a witness.
In actual fact, Fallows had been the Police’s only witness.
At the time of the couple’s deaths in the Dark Peaks, Harry was estranged from his wife Alice and his daughter Irene, aged four. His new sweetheart Marjorie Stewart 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 as a driver, Harry — described by neighbours as ‘a man with a jaunty air’ — had found himself unemployed.
Fred Bannister, the young rambler who had found them in the cave, lived at 21 Upper Duke Street in Hulme in South 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. From here 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 for the Sheffield Independent was to write on the Monday, attempting a tramp across the bleak Kinder Scout in the first few weeks of the New 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 coursed through the Pass during the rainy season and on either side of the cleft, steep banks would rise-up to almost impossible angles, flecked with tremendous rocks. Here the lofty crags would throw weird, illusive shapes and the rounded, grassy shoulders of the slopes would 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 very same couple — only this time very much alive — in the same spot just seven days earlier (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.” In the aftermath of the drama he 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 had 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 Younge of The Island Gift Shop, just off Buxton Road. Tea-room and gift shop owner Henry Younge and his wife Hannah were the parents of Harry George Younge, a keen fell runner who had married 27 year old Clara Bellass some three years earlier. Clara, a supervisor at Westinghouse Works at Trafford Park and her brother Albert, a clerk at Vickers-Metro, had lived at Trafford Grove in Stretford, putting them little more than a few miles from young Fred in the southern districts of Manchester and just a hundred yards from future Communist and A.E.U leader, Hugh Scanlon on Chester Road. In previous years the Younge’s son, Harry 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 the 1600s. By 1927, the whole event had been largely forgotten. 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. The cavern stands to this day some 75 yards from the cave at the entrance to The Pass. Just a few years later, Potter’s hostility towards the mixed-sex rambler camps dotted around Winnats Pass would culminate in a campaign to stamp the nuisance out once and for all. As he and other ‘Castleton Ringers’ saw it, the rambler’s camps were a ‘disgrace to civilization’. The “free and easy manner” in which the sexes were mixing was totally unacceptable and something needed to be done (Sheffield Independent, 07 June 1935, p.7) (Sheffield Independent, 07 June 1935, p.7). Castleton’s Tory MP, Major Samuel Hill-Wood probably couldn’t have agreed more. In the Major’s eyes, most of the ramblers were unruly young Socialists and ‘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 Younge 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 New Year’s Day. The temperatures though were dropping and its unlikely the couple could have survived a full week in the caves without any kind of provisions. 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 week previously, there was no evidence to suggest that the young couple had been staying in the village from the time of their disappearance to the discovery 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, a greengrocer and village sexton, who had married the Younge’s daughter Doris, 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. Neither the doctor nor the constable was able to say if Fallows had taken his own life before or after Marjorie, although the pair of them 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 enough 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 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 rambling celebration at the Peak Hotel in Castleton wedged neatly between a series of mass tramps across the moorlands of Kinder Scout — the highest point in the Peaks. Despite protests, the pathway across the mountain had been closed in recent years and an annual ‘trespass’ had been built into the fabric of the celebration. As Ward was want to repeat, rambling did not consist of a perambulation from one public-house to another, or disrupting Sunday morning worship with a heinous concertina on street corners. An open and honest roam across Kinder was all they sought, and a vow had been made to go there every year until they could cross it as ‘free men’. It may have been a whole New Year for the Clarion men and women, but it was the same old battle they were fighting.
Turn-out had increased three-fold and many of the group had started out the previous morning, some getting the train from Manchester, whilst members of the Sheffield faithful had started off on foot from Fulwood by way of Stanage Pole. All being well, 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 surrounding 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. Among those likely to have attended the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout on the Saturday would be future Trespass leader, Benny Rothman and his young friend, Hugh Scanlon, the future Communist and A.E.U leader who lived just 100 yards from Clara Bellass and Harry Younge at 8 Trafford Grove in Stretford.
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. The resolution this year, as it was every year, was the relentless, blister-popping advance toward self-improvement: mentally, physically and spiritually. In Ward’s eyes the finest nation would be the one where the greatest percentage of its people were disciples of the open air. 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. He 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 that 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 it 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 of the New Year Clarion Ramble was also marked by the arrival of the Young Communist League, a more unmatured blend of the two local radical youth organisations: the Young Workers’ League and the International Communist Schools Movement. The group, led by the indomitable William Rust, embraced the same purposeful stride and free spirit of the Clarion Ramblers and provided a fractious rearguard at the landmark Winnats’ Pass rally arranged by Ward just six months earlier. Rust’s influence was at its peak. The last week of December 1926 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 Ward had been serving as Chairman 2.
As the saying goes, ‘the boy’s will is the wind’s will’ and the 24 year-old Rust wasted no time in directing its boisterous airflow through the city’s steel districts in the run-up to Christmas. Anybody still wrestling with their Yuletide goose or lugging a tree down West Bar or the Quays would have been confronted by a miniature Red Army swarming like flies across Lady’s Bridge, down past the Wicker Arches to the banks of the mighty Don. Bursting through the mists of the quays, youths of fourteen and children as young as eight, would be heard 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). To the average onlooker it must have looked like Santa’ elves had arrived en masse one week too early, bearing the darkest of gifts from the Kremlin.
Claiming to represent the interests of 1,500 young miners abandoned and betrayed by the leaders of the General Strike the previous spring, ‘Lord Fly’ Bill 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. The “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). As was the case with an earlier event in Manchester a message of support from the Young Communist International in Moscow was read aloud by one of the children. A note of warning from several British soldiers was also repeated; bad food and living conditions had made the Red Army the only choice. ‘Scab workers’ came in for it too. Comrade William Halpin of nearby 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 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 would be 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). That year, the 13 year old 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 jail after receiving a 12-month custodial sentence for Incitement to Mutiny at the Old Bailey. His attendance of the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1924 had considerably fired-up his youthful devotion to direct action and Rust and his comrades had been encouraging troops not to shoot on striking workers. 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
One man you might have expected to see at the New Years’ Clarion meet was the recently appointed Labour candidate for Castleton and the High Peak — J.T Walton Newbold who had joined Young Communist League leader William Rust in the Political Bureau of Britain’s fledgling Communist Party, back in 1923. Newbold, himself a keen and experienced rambler — and a local man to boot — was still a regular contributor to The Clarion newspaper, so it’s plausible. He may also have attended the Young Leaguer’s congress in Sheffield just two weeks before. Newbold’s close friend Shapurji Saklatvala was certainly in the city that week, having made a lighting trip from Battersea in London to provide a short but supportive address to Rust and his young red followers.
Born in Bombay in 1874 to a prominent Indian business family, Sakatvala had formed a precocious friendship with Russian Revolutionary and eminent bacteriologist, Vladimir Haffkine whilst studying at university. After arriving in England shortly after the 3rd Russian Social Democratic Labour Party Congress in London in 1905, Shapurji quickly got involved in the various émigré communities emerging in London and Salford, eventually running as Communist Party candidate in the 1922 General Election.
Just six weeks prior to the Communist Youth Congress in Sheffield, Mi5 Director Sir Vernon Kell queried a visit that Saklatvala was rumoured to be making to nearby Derbyshire. If he’d made the trip to the Peaks, it would have been something of a hero’s return for Saklatvala, having worked in the region for several months at Smedley’s Hydro as secretary to his uncle, Ratan Tata of Tata Steel. His wife Elizabeth Marsh was from Matlock — a popular site for radical gatherings — and the couple would return frequently. He’d joined the Clarion Club in Manchester in 1909 and his profile around Edale and the Dark Peaks had remained strong.
The son of Buxton cattle agent, John Turner Walton Newbold, the prospective MP for Castleton, had built an astonishing career as Britain’s first elected Communist. In August 1926, he switched his electoral hopes from Motherwell in Scotland 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 fast 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 flamboyant 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 tremendously complex to understand about the relationship between Marxism and mass rambling. It didn’t take some fanatical 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 steel 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 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 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 were now little more than echoes around The Pass. Over 2000 workers had been arrested during the strike 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, Walton Newbold, fresh from a blistering tour of Lanarkshire and back living at his home in 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 this occasion Ward would stay in the background, his position as civil servant and existing ten year ban, precluding him from getting his boots — or his hands — dirty.
Another leading figure in that demonstration was Billy Buxton, born and bred in Hayfield where the rally got off the ground. After massing at Bowden Bridge, the 400-strong young ramblers led by two youths in four columns marched up to Ashop Head where they encountered a violent hand-to-hand struggle with local gamekeepers and Police. Several youths, including Rothman were arrested and charged with several of those injured being whisked to Stockport Infirmary. That very same year in November, a 23 year old Fred Bannister would marry his sweetheart, Harriet Wild in Hayfield. Bannister’s new home at 1 Cuckoo Nest on Valley Road would place him just 100 or so yards from the Bowden Bridge rallying point selected by Rothman and the Young Communist League. The couple would eventually make their home in the nearby village of Charlesworth, where Fred would see out his days.
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. He had friends there. He had support.
Five minutes down the road on Rumford Street was Clarion member and secretary of the local branch of the Social Democratic Federation, Ezra Holloway. Ezra would gas himself to death just months after Fallows was found in the cave. A rather dramatic farewell note was found by his side: “I know the hour when it strikes. It has struck for me” (Nottingham Journal 05 August 1927, p.5)
By contrast, Percy’s other Pennine pal, Cecil Green lived on Hunsley Street in Sheffield. His Brightside address 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, where Rust and Knickerbocker Communists parted the red seas of the Don. This was Sheffield’s formidable steel district. Cecil’s father Robert was an Iron Turner in the local steelworks.
Even if the particulars were still difficult to determine, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the revolutionary legends of Toplis were knitting themselves quite firmly with the post-war hurly burly of militants in Sheffield and Manchester. And the one man providing much of the yarn was Cheetham Hill’s Harry Fallows, whose suicide in The Pass was bringing the anarchy of Etaples and the pandemonium of a dramatic manhunt to the breezy moors of the Peaks. Understanding the events that led to the Police ambush on Percy Toplis were now promising to shed some light on the fate of Fallows.
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 at 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 restlessness too, perhaps. Regular exposure to danger would have pushed their tolerance for excitement upward and the boys were making every effort to recapture the thrill and the risks of war. As far as the government were concerned, such a reckless pursuit of adventure made 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 with the car.
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 Murphy’s Irish accent and the car’s proximity to RAF Filton may have made PC 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. 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 in Manchester by Liam McMahon. In a plot as complex as it was audacious, it McMahon was who had helped co-ordinate the escape and transportation of IRA leader Eamon de Valera from Lincoln Prison to Manchester the previous year. Passing through Sheffield he was assisted by members of a co-operative group operating in Norton (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 were being 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 escape north to Scotland.
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 all on its own. Two parallel threats were emerging in Britain: Communism and Irish Republicanism. The intelligence may been speculative, the tone may have been alarmist but the weekly Report on the Revolutionary Organisations of Great Britain, cheerfully distributed by former Secret Service man and Under Secretary of State John Baird, was producing all the fear and loathing necessary to defeat the Green and Red Armies. And there was no shortage of support from Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Denis Henry. A government white paper, commissioned by Henry, 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 3, 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).
Exactly 12-months after Percy Toplis was shot in Penrith, another story emerged in the press. William Maud Alphion Robinson, Jeremiah Minihane, William Affection and Dennis Tangley — an unlikely combination of students and labourers — had ambushed a taxi-driver, stolen the cab and embarked on a series of wire-cutting raids on railway signals boxes throughout London. Confronted by Police they had opened fire with hollow-point ‘dum-dum’ bullets wounding an officer in the neck. In their Greenwich flat were found copies of The Irish Exile, the Irish Self-Determination League, the Case for Irish Independence and Sinn Fein Series No.12. As with the Bristol Motor Gang, some improvised means of altering the number plates had been made. The men were sentenced to defiant cries of “God Save Ireland” — the same phrase used by the Manchester Martyrs (Sinn Fein Raids, Daily Mail, June 18 1921, p.6, p.7).
Is it possible there was a link?
After their arrest, there’s little doubt that Murphy and Green’s substantial Signals and Telegraphy training, Murphy’s Irish heritage and the crude attempts to camouflage the car would have been a huge concern to Special Branch. Especially the part about Signals training.
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 and couldn’t have been any more different to clinical execution of the cab-driver Toplis is alleged to have murdered six weeks later in Andover: one shot to the back of the head, fired at close range using hollow point ‘dum dum bullets’ — a method favoured, at least in the press, by political assassins and Irish rebels.
The farmhouse where Toplis and the gang had stopped appears to have 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 and that 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 his marauding Red Army. By March 1920, the ‘Red Bandit’ as he became known in England, had a thousand pound bounty on his head. Four hundred miles across the border in France, the few remaining members of the notorious ‘Bonnot Gang’ were launching 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 and Toplis had been shot dead, 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, the two 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 when it was found that he had penned a mildly seditious article for 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 written for the same newspaper had seen him gloating over 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 had fled to England. Six years later he was dragged back into politics by Irish revolutionaries, Countess Markievicz and Maud Gonne, where he claims to have played a minor role in the legendary Easter Rising. Springhall, by contrast would go on to become Secretary to the Young Communist League, taking personal responsibility for the six young delegates dispatched on a tour of Moscow in 1927 (Schoolgirl Reds, Sunday Mirror 12 June 1927, p.2).
Another belligerent naval deserter who had lived close to Cecil Green in the Attercliffe district of Sheffield had been making headlines of his own in mid-January that year. John Frederick Hedley and his Russian-heritage wife Bella Sarah Hedley, had been charged with sedition in Rotherham. The Home Office weekly report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom painted a pretty disturbing picture. Fred had told the 200-300 people who gathered for a ’Red Guard’ meeting that during the war he and his fellow seamen had been instructed by the Admiralty to sink several their own submarines as part of an ongoing propaganda exercise (TNA, CAB-24-97-24, Jan 29 1920).
Curiously enough, Fred Hedley was also found to have had close links with Sinn Fein, and had faced similar charges of inciting a revolution in Belfast in June 1919 (Sentenced for Sedition, Sheffield Daily Telegraph 21 May 1921, p.8). Fred remained active in both Irish and Communist politics, founding the short-lived Revolutionary Socialist Party of Ireland with Charles O’Meagher and Simon Greenspon, and eventually organizing a series of mini-Soviets in Munster for Big Jim Larkin’s ITGWU. The ship he’d absconded from in 1919 was the HMS Vindictive, which suffered a spate of non-violent mutinies on account of it being deployed against the Bolsheviks in the post-Armistice war with Russia.
In sinister twist, the Hedleys’ friend, George William Frengley, charged alongside the couple in May 1921 was found dead in the sea at Southsea shortly after completing a six week jail sentence. A verdict of “suicide while insane” was returned at the inquest. The 44 year old man was the son of respected watchmaker and jeweller, Jacob Frengley of No.5 Crow Street Dublin. George had served his apprenticeship in Devonport, Germany and Switzerland under the watchful eye of Charles Dietschey, a senior board member at the Catholic Young Men’s Society in Plymouth. There were even greater surprises in store when another of Hedley’s partners, the Reverend Thomas Edward Pickering became the unexpected poster-boy of the 1922 Hunger March. The event, co-organized by Etaples Mutineer turned Branch Secretary of National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, James Cullen, saw some 100,00 ex-service men march to Whitehall to present a petition to the Prime Minister. The press were quick to dismiss it as a Bolshevik plot and an exploitation of the unemployed (Pall Mall Gazette 21 November 1922, p.2)
In reports published shortly after Toplis’ death in June 1920, special mention was made of an entry in his diary placing him in around Plymouth and Portsmouth in the first few months of the year. The Police quizzed friends and former sweethearts on the matter, and there may be several clues as to why. There had been a spate of naval mutinies arising from fleet-wide objections to the Admiralty’s post-war activity in Russia, the disaffection experienced on the HMS Vindictive little more than the tip of the iceberg. The problem was simple: the men had enlisted to take on Germany, not the Bolsheviks. The ringleaders of this particular group of militants were believed to be colluding with their counterparts in the British Army. Credible or not, if rumours were already circulating of Percy’s involvement in the mutiny in France, any possible link to the rumblings of discontent on the ‘Lower Decks’ would have almost certainly grabbed the interest of Special Branch (Percy at Plymouth, Cornishman 16 June 1920).
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.
What Toplis did have was a passion for reading detective stories. During long absences from duty Percy had immersed himself in the worlds of heroic Scotsman, Richard Hannay and the mercurial shapeshifter, Sherlock Holmes. The lines between fantasy and reality were becoming blurred. One day he would dress as a Sergeant Major and the next, an itinerant traveller. A flair for acting had been with him since childhood. A touring theatre company in his hometown of Mansfield had been so struck by the eleven year old’s precocious acting abilities that they had offered him a full-time place in the show. His sister Winifred recalled that the greater part of his time on stage was spent in dodging policemen.
If the unpredictable demands of war had taught Toplis anything, it was that appearances could be fluid. Like so many other men returning from Europe, Toplis had found no small amount of faultlines developing along traditional class boundaries, where all the unnatural resources of wealth and privilege could now be tapped. The influence enjoyed by the elites had always been something of a confidence trick. All you really needed was the guts, energy and the dedication to perform, the skills to memorize dialogue and the ability to enter another character and truly engage with an audience. In war, all men were re-created equal. The differences between men were arbitrary, and could be easily overwhelmed by some simple affectations; the addition of a few pips and chevrons, the wearing of a monocle, the swaggering of a stick — and finding oneself the platform and opportunity to amaze.
According to Scotland Yard, the well-educated former Blacksmith was a “wizard at disguises” and could wriggle out of any scrape (Western Gazette 07 May 1920, p.12). On one occasion Toplis had kept a promise to write to Fallows, and did so telling him to reply to the Union Jack Club in Waterloo, under the name of Private Wilson, RAF. The letter had been posted outside the Union Jack Club a day or so before Fallows’ arrest. Fallows, under the direction of Scotland Yard, addressed a decoy reply to Toplis as Private Wilson, the Police then waiting at the club to pounce when Toplis claimed the letter. Toplis, anticipating the move, is believed to have watched quietly from afar, using the identity of a sailor called Mabb whose discharge papers he had robbed at breakfast. Chairs were kicked over, tables were overturned, rooms were ransacked, random servicemen pushed and prodded but the raid by Police produced no sign of Toplis who had simply melted into the crowd, confident that Harry Fallows was now in the pay of Police and that his support network had been rumbled. If there was a flaw, it was that Percy’s innate ability to add flesh to his idle fantasies was drawing him into an increasingly dangerous confrontation with Police. As a result of his plausibility the daydreams were becoming real, and so too was the threat he posed.
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 one thing was clear at least: they weren’t short of imagination. Criminal anarchy, it seems, was trending.
Back to Winnats Pass
In contrast to Toplis and his gang, the groups who converged in Winnats 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. The well-organised gatherings were generally successful in weeding out any obvious trouble-makers, but as with any group with plans to change the world 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 various criminal and Jihadist milieus have been merging in recent years, the extremist impulses of the post-war revolutionary were flourishing in the shadows of petty and organised crime. The shitty trade-off between disaffection in Her Majesty’s Forces and the gruelling shortages they were now experiencing, meant a crime-terror nexus was developing apace. The line between the fledgling revolutionary and the socially estranged delinquent whose violence was a scream to be heard, was becoming dangerously blurred. With some subtle re-tuning and calibration the indiscretions of a misspent youth could be transformed into a noble cause. Skills developed in stealing cars, forging documents and handling weapons would prove indispensable to their life as insurgent. The ferocious clashes between the legendary Razor Gangs made famous by fascist Billy Fullerton and the Young Communist League were becoming as common in Cheetham Hill and as they were in Glasgow and London. 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, any fresh, freckled fury they’d experienced as young men had now grown as weary and benign as liver spots. There’d been too much exposure to widespread apathy for them to make any last-minute 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 and as a result, the Chief Constable, P.J Sillitoe had found it necessary to make an unprecedented appeal to magistrates to award exemplary sentences in a bid to repress both the crimes themselves and to reduce 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 and shown the ground where you would be 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. Communist Kid Commodore William Rust, on the otherhand, was offering rebellion. Kids stopped kicking their heels and started kicking one another.
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 over 200 workers imprisoned during the Great Strike under the Emergency Powers Act. 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 an unusually large number of Communist and Labour supporters. The room for the public meetings in the hall was relatively small, and despite the much vaunted-arrival of head fascist, R.B.D Blakeney the Manchester branch was pathetically outnumbered. It was a meeting that began in order, was punctuated by regular silliness and one that ended in chaos with one half of the room belting out the National Anthem and the other half drowning it out with The Red Flag. A speaker, not always intelligible blamed Britain’s downfall on the German Illuminati and the whole thing descended into farce (Uproar in Manchester, The Manchester Guardian, Dec 17, 1925, p.11).
Despite its slapstick beginnings, January 1927 didn’t just mark the death of Harry Fallows, it 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 commensalistic political underground. His experience in the Special Political Department of The Met had proved that there was little difference between the ‘hysterical fanatic’ and the ‘definitely criminal’. Indeed he thought the criminal the lesser of the two evils, often avoiding many of the ‘extreme measures’ that would almost certainly land him in jail.
Seconded to the Military Foot Police in the immediate aftermath of the Etaples Mutiny, Woodhall claimed encountered Toplis, a military deserter of ‘singularly ferocious character’ in the deserter camps that sprang up around the wells, woods and tunnels of Camiers. After an exhaustive hunt Woodhall describes running the villain to ground in the village of Rang de Fleur, only for Toplis to make an audacious bid for freedom with another notorious prisoner with a death sentence hanging over his head. Toplis is alleged to have tunnelled down under the sand of the barbed-wire detention camp and escaped into the woods around Le Touquet and then to Paris. It might be the legendary ‘Painter’ Woodhall discusses in the earlier chapter, but Toplis is clearly defined in the strokes: a shadowy figure directing burglaries and other outrages in the East End of London — a ‘rogue rat of society’, despised by government and Bolshevik alike. Not that Woodhall wasn’t without 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 out 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). It was like two opposing weather fronts colliding in the Peaks that day; the cool common-sense of the Labour veterans meeting the prickly rising heat of the restless Socialist youth. A storm was inevitable.
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. The pamphlet, sub-titled, An Open Letter to British Soldiers, had been printed in Bowman’s Syndicalist newspaper, and caused no shortage of ripples. The letter, based around a series of caustic requests, asked British Soldiers not to shoot on their fellow countrymen if ordered to do during a National Strike. A previous version of the letter had appeared in the Irish Worker, at that time unsigned. The year was 1912, the year of the first National Coal Strike and it couldn’t have kicked-off in a better place: the Sutton and Blackwell Pits of Alfreton in Derbyshire where a 16 year old Toplis made an occasional display as Pony Driver. On February 26th 10,000 men downed tools and walked out prematurely. The Derbyshire Miners Association had scheduled the strike for the following week, but Toplis and his workmates had clearly had enough. At four o’ clock on the Monday, the pit lifts stopped and the men walked out. Like William Rust some twelve years later, Guy Bowman and Tom Mann were convicted under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797. Their prison sentences were quashed only after considerable public pressure.
The man who organised the Clarion weekend on which Fallows disappeared certainly had deep, extensive roots in the ‘direct action’ movement. The only thing not showing signs of action or even movement now was Fallows.
Wheels Within Wheels
Another trusted ally of Ward, Rust and Rothman was Herbert H. Elvin. Like Ward, Elvin had emerged in Britain’s blooming Trade Union movement, quickly recognising the positive trade-off between working men’s groups and sport. The Clarion Ramblers and Clarion Cyclists were among his earliest successes. Combining his role as General Secretary of the National Union of Clerks with his passion for physical and spiritual improvement saw him play a central role in the formation of the Workers Travel Association (1921). A letter signed by Elvin, described how a ‘cooperative effort’ was needed to make foreign travel as cheap as possible. The war meant that nations would need to rebuild and reconnect, not as enemies now but friends. Fascinating holidays and knowledge of continental people would help broaden Britain’s horizons and lead to a spirit of fellowship. There would be another positive outcome; properly organized travel would not only help heal a fractured post-war world, it would greatly increase the spread and resilience of International Socialism among workers.
The class politics that dominated the period between 1918 and 1926 had seen unprecedented militancy. Workers’ organisations took a sharp intake of breath and prepared for the imminent collapse of capitalism. The General Strike, six months before the death of Fallows, had represented something of a watershed moment. First the Unions had realised that large industrial action had the volume and the potency to influence government decisions, now it was the turn of sport. And it was from this same chamber of egalitarian high spirits that the British Workers Sports Federation would emerge, first with global competitions like the Workers Summer Olympiad in 1925, and then with more localised ‘shock and awe’ efforts like the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout. The BWSF’s first Secretary was 55 year old Tom Groom, the original founder of the Clarion Cycle Club. His mantra remained constant throughout: through mutual aid and good fellowship ‘the Propaganda of the Principle of Socialism’ would remain strong. The future peace of the world could be secured in the ‘democratic arenas’ of International Sport. It was ‘footballs instead of canon balls’. The group’s formation, however, instinctively provided a lucrative opportunity to push International Communism.
Within years of being formed, the well-meaning Groom was none too gracefully shouldered out. In his place were two emerging talents of the mighty Young Communist League — Wally Tapsell and George Sinfield. Under this famously obstinate pair, the BWSF would be re-calibrated under the banner and direction of International Marxism. The change couldn’t have been more profound or more successful. It put flesh on its bones and fire in its belly, trebling membership overnight. But solidarity was short-lived. To reap any real benefits at the polling booths, the aims, objectives and sympathies of the Sports Federation needed to remain close to those of the TUC and National Labour. Even Lenin had acknowledged the value of an affiliation with Labour during the ‘Open Turn’ debate of the Second Congress of the Communist International. And what he was thinking about was ‘mass’. Labour was in a more capable position of revolutionizing the masses; the Reds could get in on the Labour ticket.
As a result of an increasing misapplication of agitprop and a cruder, more truculent influence within the Manchester branch in particular, the mood among Labour members shifted from one of support of the BSWF to one of intransigence and in 1931, some months ahead of the General Election, Herbert H. Elvin and champion Clarion Cyclists, Ernest and John Deveney formed the National Workers Sports Association as an attempt to wrestle sport back into the more electable Labour mainstream. So far so straightforward.
The Derbyshire-born Elvin, however, had a skeleton in his closet that betrayed his public switch to the more press-friendly Labour Party.
The Russian Brotherhood
By the unlikeliest coincidence, the census of 1891 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 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1907. Some thirty years later, ‘Stalin’s Englishman’ Guy Burgess, of the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring, found his way to the heart of the British Government as a Private Secretary in Ernest Bevin’s post-war Foreign Office. In September 1937 Elvin had replaced Bevin as President of the T.U.C but the Union men had remained close allies ever since lending their support to the founding of the National Travel Association in the early twenties and the formation of the Scientific Advisory Council in the thirties. Both men saw science as the key to progress in the fight against ‘Social Evils’ (New Advisory Committee, Guardian, 21 Aug 1939). Elvin’s youngest son Harold, who would eventually marry Indian actress, Tanguturi Suryakumari, would subsequently write of seeing Stalin at a four yard range with nothing between them. Harold, at that time serving as a member of staff at the British Embassy in Moscow, remarked that few pictures did him justice. “Where do they show the sensitiveness? It is some water quality behind the pupils of the eyes. He looks like a too good father” (A Cockney in Moscow, Harold Elvin, 1958).
A closer look at the early life of Elvin reveals a tantalizing possibility.
At little more than six months old, Elvin had been taken by his parents to India. His father Henry Elvin was a Troop Sergeant Major in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers. The troopship Euphrates left Portsmouth on January 9th 1875 and arrived in Bombay on February 10th with over 1,400 men and women on board and some 145 children in tow. One woman and two children had died during the crossing and there is some indication that Elvin’s Derbyshire-born mother, Mary Ann Parr may have been one of them. Having moved to Jubilee Street in Whitechapel in the mid 1880s, Elvin attached himself to the East End congregational movement and became a street preacher. Elvin’s wife Mary Jane was the daughter of Congregational Minister, George J. Hill of Commercial Road in the Mile End district of Whitechapel. George led the Seamen’s Chapel on George Street, later re-named the Stepney Temple and it is almost certain that Elvin’s associates in East End Congregationalist movement brought him into contact with Reverend Arthur Baker of the Brotherhood Church on Southgate Road. The Church’s founder J.C Kenworthy had handed leadership of the East End church to Baker shortly after returning from a trip to Moscow where the Russian novelist and political reformer Leo Tolstoy had given him full rights to publish English translations of his work. The church would eventually play a key role in advancing Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution (J. C. Kenworthy and the Tolstoyan Communities in England, W. H. G. Armytage, 1957).
Like Elvin, Baker had been born in Bombay, his father William Adolphus Baker a respected general in the Royal Engineers who indulged in flights of outrageous religious prophecy based upon complex arithmetical calculations and morbid daydreams about the Antichrist. For several years William had served as the city’s Under Secretary of State, serving additionally as the director of the Ganges Canal Railways in the country’s Public Works Department. In May 1907, the 45 year old Arthur Baker invited Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky to the hall of his church on Southgate Road to host the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The press had a field day, as crowds of gawping loafers and Special Branch detectives mixed freely with the swarthy cortège of ‘dangerous revolutionaries’. For the first few nights of the two week congress, Stalin is believed to have stayed at doss house on Fieldgate Road before being offered the relative comfort of a cramped first-floor apartment at Elvin’s former home on Jubilee Street.
Were either Elvin or Baker responsible for moving Stalin? It seems plausible enough, although Stalin himself would remain unusually quiet about his stay in London in later years. Both men seemed surprisingly comfortable with villains and revolutionaries, Baker having already made the acquaintance of ‘Manchester Anarchist’ and later Sheffield Trade Unionist, Alfred Barton, during his early missions in Salford. A pamphlet written by Baker and published by the Socialist newspapers, The Clarion and New Moral World in 1896 paid tribute to the early Tolstoyan communities and co-operatives being popularized by the likes of J.C Kenworthy and Bruce Wallace of the Brotherhood Trust, the Labour Chronicle describing it as the ‘handsomest and most interesting series of pamphlets in the Socialist movement’. Baker’s A Plea For Communism would provide a ‘sound and practical guide’ to Communism built around tried and tested facts rather than theory and featured a favourable review of Barton and William MacQueen’s Free Commune in Ardwick and Chorlton on Medlock, a vibrant and experimental community knitting together the far-reaching philosophy of Nietzsche and Engels with the rich moral tapestries of Tolstoy. Barton, who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain on its launch in August 1920, was on close terms with exiled revolutionary Prince Kropotkin whose work he published. MacQueen, meanwhile, was subsequently jailed in America for playing a leading role in the Paterson Silk Strikes. Like Toplis associate George Patrick Murphy, the men had taken up residence on Cottenham Street in Chorlton on Medlock and it was here that the Christian Socialist Baker had forged a mutually constructive bond with the bellicose pair.
Among their group was Barton’s brother-in-law, Herbert Stockton whose description of an annual anarchist gathering at Monsal Dale in the Peaks vividly evokes the copious “fresh air and fellowship” enjoyed by the early Socialist League:
We roamed through splendid mountain and river scenery and forming in a group close to a waterfall, we sang revolutionary songs amidst the splashing of the water. The effect was enough to arouse the enthusiasm of all hearers. Thus without government, policemen or social democratic would-be political despots everything passed off harmoniously. There being no authority we went where we liked and rambled in groups along the river banks till we came to some boards which said on them, Trespassers Will be Prosecuted. We held a discussion as to the meaning of the words and finally decided that they were relics of the Antedeluvian period and thought it best to knock the boards down and throw them into the river.Herbert Stockton, August 1893 — Herbert Stockton’s Strangeways, Christopher Draper
The meet on this occasion had been organised by Robert Sykes Bingham of the Sheffield Anarchist Group from its base at 63 Blonk Street in the city’s perpetually bristling Brightside district. A few years earlier the group’s comrades David J. Nicoll, editor of the Sheffield Anarchist, and Frederick Christopher Slaughter had been jailed as part of the so-called Walsall Plot on charges of conspiring to supply French and Russian anarchists with explosives. The Sheffield group’s founder, John Creaghe, an associate of Ferrer and Ward from Limerick in Ireland had preempted the arrests by heading back to South America via Spain. Upon his release in 1896 David Nicoll used his temporary base at in Sheffield’s Broomhall to launch the Walsall Amnesty Committee in what become a bold and successful effort to release the pair. Among its supporters were legendary Manchester Chartist, William Henry Chadwick (another man from Chorlton on Medlock) and Reverend Arthur Baker’s Brotherhood boss, J.C Kenworthy, who had only that year returned from visiting Tolstoy in Russia.
Chadwick, who had served a six month stretch at Kirkdale Gaol for sedition during the last of the Chartist Riots, had led the first of the Mass Trespasses on Kinder Scout just two years previously. With the backing of Moravian solicitor, Charles T. Tallent-Bateman and a formidable army of ramblers threatening to make way over the mountain in a flagrant violation of the rights of the landowners, his efforts led to the formation of The Manchester Districts Footpaths Preservation Society, which would be extended by Ward in Sheffield some ten years later (Kinder Scout Right of Way, Manchester Guardian, 1894 Aug 1907). At a meeting called by Nicoll at the South Place Ethtical Institute in London Kenworthy took the chair and explained that Nicoll’s comrades had been trapped into a despicable plot by undercover police agent. Also on the platform that day were Keir Hardie and Tom Mann (Walsall Anarchists, Liberty 01 May 1896).
Curiously, one of group’s youngest and most diligent members, Ezra Holloway (b.1882) gassed himself to death just months after Fallow’s body was found in the cave in Castleton. Holloway, who had served as Secretary of the local branch of the Socialist Democratic Federation, and organizer of its Socialist Sunday School had lived on Rumford Street, just five minutes walk from the young Fred Bannister and Toplis associate George Patrick Murphy.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 5th Russia Congress in June, Reverend Baker relocated to Truro in Devon. From here he went to the Channel Islands. In a macabre twist it transpires that Baker died on the very same day that Stalin and his revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The event would subsequently become known as the October Revolution (November 7th — November 8th on the English or ‘New Style’ calendar). The two week congress in London had only served in compounding the fractious rift between the moderates and the extremists. Peaceful regeneration was being rejected in favour of violent revolution. According to the Manchester Courier of May 31st, the Extremists had ‘wrested control’. The champion chess player and speaker of 13 languages was dead at just 54. How he quantified his intervention in Russia’s future isn’t known.
Whilst there is no record of Shapurji Saklatvala attending the 1907 congress there’s every possibility that he did. Elvin and Saklatvala were both active in the National Union of Clerks at this time, and along with Reverend Arthur Baker both men shared a common history in Bombay. Given his position as Under Secretary of State and his role with India’s Trade Council, there was every likelihood that Baker’s father William had encountered Saklatvala’s Uncle, Ratan Tata of Tata Steel. It also seems curious that within weeks of the Congress in London, the prominent Indian radicals, Hemchandra Kanungo, Madame Cama and Bipin Chandra, who was known to have met Saklatvala in London and Manchester, made their way to Paris to be trained in the art of explosives by maximalist Russian emigrés Nicolas Safranski and Ilya Rubanovich. Saklatvala’s old mentor, Professor Haffkine had well established links in the city, courtesy of university colleague, Élie Metchnikoff, another physician and revolutionary who had been forced to escape to France. Saklatvala, who had a brother in Paris, would also make several visits to the city over the years.
For the next twenty years, Indian Nationalists like M.P.T. Acharya and Mohammed Barkatullah with their methods and skill-sets greatly extended by their Bolshevik mentors, would play a vital role in Soviet attempts to destabilize the British Empire. At that the forefront of those efforts in England was Communist MP and friend of Walton Newbold, Shapurji Saklatvala (TNA, KV2/611).
Elvin would eventually 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 links between the networks of radicals in the East End of London and those in the Cheetham Hill and Chorlton on Medlock districts of 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 the base camp. 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 Snr 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 and mentors.
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 stumble 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 isn’t quite 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.
2 A young Percy Toplis had lived next door to The Primitive Methodist Chapel in Stanton Hill with his grandmother Alice Webster. The Primitive Churches were firmly rooted in the nonconformity movement of various religious ‘dissenters’ and had a long-standing affiliation with ‘Saints and Socialists, Ranters and Radicals, Schismatics and Separatists’. The feeling among Conservatives in the area was that its ‘politics are more of their religion than the gospel’ (Mansfield Reporter 14 September 1888, p.5) . The church retained strong links with Christian Socialism and Charles Bradlaugh, whose suspected Horatio Bottomley became ‘Soldiers Champion’ during the Mutiny at Etaples in 1917.
3 Percy Toplis did have extended family in Chorlton on Medlock, including his father’s namesake Herbert Topliss, born the same year as Percy’s father and who died just 12 months later in the third quarter of 1919. The Manchester side of the family were related to the same root line in Ticknall Derbyshire which dated back to the early to mid 1800s. Herbert Topliss from Chorlton served as a Solicitor’s Clerk like his father George. They also lived in Ardwick during the peak of the Ardwick Anarchists Herbert Stockton, Alfred Barton and Billy MacQueen.
4 If Percy’s re-enlistment as an engineer in the RASC served any militant objectives, then its curious that he should enlist into the same unit within a week or so of Manchester’s John (Jack) Deveney who became a leading member of the Clarion Sports Committee and the National Sports Association alongside its President Herbert Elvin whose old family home on Jubilee Street was used by Joseph Stalin during the two week RSDLP congress at the Brotherhood Church in 1907. Jack’s brother Ernest was also a strong Clarion supporter. There’s currently no evidence to suggest the Fred Walker who enlists alongside them is Fred E Walker, recently discharged from the navy.
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
The Fifth Commandment, Biography of Shapurji Saklatvala, Sehri Saklatvala, Miranda Press, Salford, 1991
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