|Mortuary photo of Percy Toplis|
23 year old Toplis, a deserter, petty criminal, racketeer, and possibly mutineer, accused of the murder of taxi driver Sidney Spicer, had been ambushed and shot two days before by three disguised policemen and the son of the Chief Constable for Cumbria who had tagged along. All were armed with revolvers.
The countrywide manhunt for Toplis had been the subject of much press sensationalism at the time and reporters and public flocked to the inquest. Toplis’ wheelchair-bound and widowed mother Elizabeth and his sister, Winifred also attended the inquest having travelled from Derbyshire. The police were represented by a lawyer during the proceedings ‘in view of certain possibilities’, while Toplis had no legal representation.
After Halton heard the police account of the shooting, to the point of overlooking several inconsistencies in their evidence, it took the jury only three minutes to decide that 'Toplis was justifiably killed by a revolver-bullet fired by a police officer in the execution of his duty' and to recommend that all three officers be honoured for their actions.
Even so, there were unanswered questions and papers like the Manchester Guardian queried the inquest’s verdict.
Although accused of Spicer’s murder in his absence by an inquest, Toplis had not been charged with the crime. Why was he the subject of such an concerted manhunt over a single alleged murder? Why had no attempt to arrest him been made? Why did the policemen disguise themselves? Why did they not identify themselves as police? Why did they shoot to kill? Which of them fired the fatal shot? Who ultimately made the decision to issue them non-regulation firearms? With the only other witness dead, there was no-one to challenge their account.
In the following weeks, the press ran ever more lurid and outrageous stories about Toplis and his time on the run, and the mythologising began.
However, Toplis’ story had one last chapter...