Published: 20/11/2017 19:00 - Updated: 16/11/2017 16:37

Was Inverness a haven for First World War spies?

Written byVal Sweeney

 

Alan Sargeant
Alan Sargeant outside the Tomintoul bothy where the Monocled Mutineer stayed while on the run.

AN intriguing story about two enemy World War I spies arrested at prestigious Inverness hotel has thrown up another tantalising tale of an infamous wartime character linked to the city - prompting speculation that the area could have been linked to a network of spies or subversives.

The Inverness Courier recently reported on the installation of a plaque at the Royal Highland Hotel – formerly the Station Hotel – highlighting its pivotal role in the arrest of two German spies in 1915 thanks to the vigilance of the hotel’s staff.

The story was spotted by web designer Alan Sargeant who has not only provided the names of the two spies but has also highlighted a long-forgotten link between Inverness and the notorious criminal and imposter Percy Toplis – otherwise known as the Monocled Mutineer - who for a brief spell in 1920 was the most hunted man in Britain before being shot in a gunfight with police.

An Army deserter, he went on the run following the murder of a taxi driver in Hampshire and ended up in the Highlands where he spent time visiting an Inverness hotel and other locations in the area in the weeks before he was finally tracked down.

He had earned the nickname Monocled Mutineer as he regularly posed as a monocle-wearing officer on leave during World War I although he actually served as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

There were also unproven claims that Toplis, whose story was dramatised in a controversial BBC series in the 1980s, played a major part in the 1917 Étaples Mutiny by British Empire soldiers in northern France.

Mr Sargeant (49), of Craigeallchie in Moray, is now trying to discover more about Toplis’s time in the Highlands and whether the area could have been a haven for a network of spies or dissenters.

"I don’t see Toplis as a hero but it is an absorbing tale with a link to Inverness," Mr Sargeant said. "He is shrouded in mystery."

He is particularly intrigued that he made his way to the Highlands while on the run and spent time in Inverness where five years previously the two World War I spies had been arrested.

"It is very interesting," Mr Sargeant said. "I am not exactly sure what the reasons were for him coming to Inverness. He seems to have been able to find work.

"To me, it suggests some kind of network but I don’t know. It is a real mystery. It is about trying to put part of the jigsaw together."

Mr Sargeant’s interest in the story first began during the 1980s when he lived in the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield where Toplis was also born in 1896.

After Mr Sargeant and his family later moved to the Highlands, he discovered Toplis had also spent time in the area while on the run after being found guilty in his absence of the wilful murder of taxi driver Sidney George Spicer who was found dead from a gunshot near Andover in April 1920.

Toplis initially went to London where he posed as an Army officer before fleeing to Wales as the police net closed in. Two months later, he was tracked down to Tomintoul after a farmer spotted smoke coming from a bothy and alerted Police Constable George Greig. 

The two men found Toplis who fired his pistol, wounding them both before fleeing on a bicycle to Aberdeen where he took a train to Carlisle and was subsequently seen in an Army base. On June 6, he was shot dead in a gunfight in Cumberland involving three police officers and the chief constable’s civilian son.

Mr Sargeant, who has studied old newspaper reports and books, believes many unanswered questions remain.

"I have a suspicion that he was being ferried around from place to place to evade capture," he said. "It appears that Toplis first arrived at a farm in Dunmaglass, 15 miles south of Inverness, and worked as labourer."

He then arrived in Inverness on May 11 and booked into the Temperance Hotel just a few minutes away from the Station Hotel where the two spies had been arrested in 1915.

Signing the guest book as G. Waters, he told guests he was a jobless piano tuner and had recently spent time in Russia. He said he had landed the post of caretaker at the nearby Northern Meeting Rooms. Guests apparenty found his "conversational powers" attractive and asked him to entertain playing the piano.

Mr Sargeant said two details in local newspaper reports stand out.

"Toplis was not travelling alone and he had a brown paper parcel that he was ‘most concerned’ about," he said. "When he arrived back at the hotel one night without the parcel the hotel keeper decided to quiz him about it.

"Toplis confessed that he had left the parcel in a nearby public house. He’d been engaged in some business matter and had just received a telegram at the post office."

According to a newspaper report, the hotel keeper remarked to him: "It strikes me there’s a mystery about you, young man".

There was also a question mark over the identity of a man, wearing a bowler hat, seen outside the hotel and said by Toplis to be his cabman although the hotelier said it was not an Inverness cabman.

Toplis later left the hotel without paying the bill and found alternative work, first at MacDonalds Mill in Inverness, then Finnies Mill in Muir of Ord and then finally as a woodcutter on Banffshire’s Delnabo Estate near the Tomintoul bothy.

Mr Sargeant said when the coroner inspected the quality of Topliss’s boots at the inquest in Penrith, he remarked there was barely any wear on them, suggesting the dead mad had enjoyed regular periods of transport.

"This is completely at odds with the depiction of Toplis as a wandering itinerant, rambling randomly around the Highlands," Mr Sargeant said.

"Was someone sheltering him? Who was his companion? Did the police ever follow this up? What brought him so urgently to Inverness?

"Let’s look at it another way. Toplis lands a job on an isolated farming estate in Dunmaglass, some 15 miles south of Inverness and leaves it to spend four days in a densely populated town with all the potential pitfalls and sightings this might present. This would be a substantial risk for a wanted man. What had prompted the move so urgently?"

Mr Sargeant has chronicled his findings so far on Percy Toplis online at https://pixelsurgery.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/percy-toplis-bothy-tomintoul/

He is also keen to find out more information about the former Temperance Hotel in Inverness.

Anyone with information can email alan.sarjeant@gmail.com.

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