Pistols at dawn: duelling in the Victorian age

Laws passed in the 1840s should have put an end to duelling, but that didn’t stop determined men from settling a dispute with pistols at dawn. Margery Masterson explores...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

The Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea in a duel at Battersea Fields. (Culture Club/Getty Images)
 

Victorian travellers boarding a London-bound train in Weybridge would have thought nothing of encountering a party of gentlemen armed with sketchbooks. The picturesque Surrey town had become a popular destination for metropolitan artists in the mid-19th century. What would have surprised fellow passengers, though, was that on a May day in 1852 the sketchbook cases actually contained duelling pistols.

Equally shocking was the identity of the duellists: two parliamentary candidates for Canterbury: Colonel Romilly MP and the Hon G Smythe. The combatants were unhurt but rode in grim silence, their moods darkened – and perhaps their aim disturbed – by a pheasant bursting from the undergrowth at the critical moment in their duel.

However, Romilly and Smythe did not remain mute once they were back in London. In fact, no sooner had they stepped off the train than they where announcing their encounter in a newspaper. This declaration must have perplexed readers at their breakfast tables and on their way to work – after all, the same newspaper had been boasting for a decade that duelling was dead.

 

Ruined reputations

Honour has always been at the heart of duelling. What separated a fatal fight with swords or pistols from a common murderous assault was its potential to restore wounded honour. Centuries before Romilly and Smythe’s encounter, medieval lawmakers had added verbal insults to existing codes proscribing physical assault and murder. In doing so, they sent out a clear message: to ruin someone’s reputation was tantamount to depriving them of life itself.

Contests decided by single combat, such as jousts, were central to medieval courts. By the early modern period, the idea of defending individual honour – as opposed to fighting for a liege lord – was flourishing among the aristocratic classes. This is how the modern duel was born.

In the 18th century, the British mercantile middle classes encroached upon many traditional aristocratic privileges, including duelling. And it is from the Georgian period – the heyday of duelling in Britain – that we derive our stereotypical image of the duellist shedding his wig and frockcoat before fighting for the honour of a lady.

An illustration of a duel between two characters in the Charles Dickens novel 'The Pickwick Papers', which was first published serially from 1836 to 1837. (Ken Welsh/Design Pics/Corbis)
 

During this period, the many civil and military laws classifying duelling as murder were largely ignored – there was in effect one set of rules for gentlemen and another for working men – and objections to the practice as unchristian were steadily rebuffed. In the famous dictum of a duellist in the 1749 comic novel Tom Jones: “I love my religion very well, but I love my honour more.”

In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the Napoleonic Wars and a widespread rejection of militarism that the campaign to abolish duelling in Britain gained momentum. Several shocking incidents – most famously the Duke of Wellington’s duel (when prime minister) with the Earl of Winchilsea over the Catholic Relief Bill in 1829 (neither was injured) – served to sour the public view of the practice.

It was a voluntary association – that oh-so Victorian of enterprises – that did most to popularise the anti-duelling movement. The Association for the Discouragement of Duelling won widespread public support, and, by 1844, campaigners were hailing the passage of new laws as the end of duelling in Britain.

Yet duelling persisted. Ten years after the Canterbury candidates’ confrontation, and nearly 20 years after campaigners toasted the end of duelling in Britain, an Irish MP Daniel O’Donoghue issued a challenge to Sir Robert Peel – son of the famous statesman and duellist – after the latter accused the former of being a traitor. But it seems that Peel didn’t share his father’s love of pistols at dawn, for O’Donoghue’s challenge was never taken up.

That same spring of 1862, the nation was riveted by the case of a Captain Robertson, who was court-martialled for failing to fight a duel. His brother-officers were none too happy at rumours that Robertson was consorting with a ‘low’ woman, and had him forced out of his regiment for failing to confront his accuser.

The Duke of Wellington (right) fires his pistol at the Earl of Winchilsea in a duel at Battersea Fields, in an 1829 cartoon. Many Britons were appalled by the spectacle of the prime minister risking his life in such a archaic practice. (Bridgeman)

 

Regular news of foiled duels, including one uncovered by the wife of a Bristol surgeon and directly reported to the magistrate in 1860, suggested clandestine encounters did occur. In fact, many observers fretted that duelling was resurgent in Britain, with some insisting that heavy fines and hard labour for would-be duellists were the only way to prevent the average man from suddenly finding himself “at the mercy of any reckless fool, blackguard, and bully”.

So why would duelling not die? The answer is simply that the motivations behind the practice had not disappeared. Victorian gentlemen needed to protect their reputations and they still felt responsible for the honour of their female relations who, a few infamous ‘petticoat duels’ aside, could not enter the field.

 

Dying to be polite

The alternatives to duelling were to proclaim a personal grievance in the newspapers, which might result in a libel suit, or to go directly to a court of law. Both procedures were messy, and might require a family to wash their dirty linen in public.

Frustrated by the supposed impunity with which slanderers operated, many people thought that the abolition of duelling was premature. It was not so much the duel itself that they were defending, but the effect it had upon British society. Ironically, duelling’s advocates credited it with making people more polite; they worried that, without duelling, the younger generation would become less ‘gentlemanly’.

However, this younger generation were turning the deadly practice into pranks. A Cambridge undergraduate, who had been the victim of bullying, discovered as much when he was encouraged to challenge his chief tormentor to a duel in 1864. The farce was played out most seriously until the two men had harmlessly ‘snapped a cap’ at the other, whereupon the challenger realised that he was the victim of one more practical joke.

A young officer in the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons similarly sought revenge upon his bullies through a duel in 1855. He complained that his horse, worth £80, had been deprived of its tail. His grievances did not move the old sergeant who arrested him en route to the duelling spot.

Another challenge to the ban on duelling was that duels continued to be fought around the globe, and Victorian Britons ventured abroad in unprecedented numbers for both business and pleasure. Young men who were eager to see continental hotspots like the Mabille Balls in the Champs-Elysées – weekly entertainments where Parisian crowds enjoyed the illuminated fountains, 30,000 gas jet lamps and energetic bands – were cautioned about being drawn into duels by locals. Yet Britons disliked the idea of ‘their’ young men backing down if challenged by a foreigner. The Crimean War (1853–56) and Indian Mutiny (1857–58) were directly followed by several French invasion scares, which inspired many men to join the armed forces. In this environment, the martial spirit evinced by duelling suddenly had renewed appeal.

A man is shot in a duel with pistols in front of a crowd of onlookers in this illustration from the 1840s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

And it wasn’t only men-in-arms who were drawn to it. In 1853, the British ambassador to Spain, Lord Howden, acted as a second in a duel. The cause was not an issue of policy but the evening gown of the American ambassador’s wife. It was at a soirée in Madrid that her son overheard a French duke joke that the dress was so outmoded it might have been worn by the 15th-century duchess Mary of Burgundy. In the flurry of challenges and counter-challenges that followed, the British ambassador stood beside his American friend. That Howden was not harshly censured, despite rumours that he nearly fought the Austrian ambassador, suggests Britons disliked their representatives to appear cowardly, especially to continental competitors.

For too long, we have believed the Victorian claim that they defeated duelling by the 1840s. The image of pistols at dawn does not fit with our idea of Victorians as the first Britons to exchange romantic ideas of personal honour for the practical benefits of social order. However, the lack of an appealing alternative, coupled with aristocratic bullies and foreign temptations breathed life into the practice well into the 19th century.

In fact, it took the sweeping social changes of the 20th century – bringing with them the end of aristocratic dominance and the postwar abhorrence of violence – to make duelling truly a thing of the past.


How to have a Victorian duel

1) Find an enemy

Common as quarrels are, finding an opponent is tricky. Challenge the wrong man and, as a Colonel Lumley discovered in 1868, he will turn the matter over to his solicitor. Instead of gaining satisfaction, you will be derided in open court as a modern day Don Quixote of dubious sanity. An aristocratic opponent, particularly one with links to the army or politics, is more reliable.

2) Select a weapon

If you are a skilled swordsman, or a reckless youth like the son of the American ambassador to Spain, you can elect to duel with short swords. But you are much more likely to use pistols.

Your weapon will be very similar to the purpose-built flintlock, single-shot duelling pistols used since the early 18th century. Hair triggers and rifled barrels to improve accuracy are frowned upon.

3) Find a friend

The difference between a duel and a brawl is procedure. As such, finding a good second is essential. He will request an apology for you and then issue a challenge. At the duel, he will measure the pre-agreed 10 to 15 paces, load your pistol and, if you are lucky, connive with the other second to load it with clay balls. But remember to bring a surgeon too.

4) Choose a location

The key attributes of a good duelling site are that it is flat, open, relatively unpopulated and yet accessible. England’s many grassy commons might be tempting but, as the Earl of Cardigan found out when he was arrested post-duel in Wimbledon Common in 1840 by a local miller, they are also accessible to officious Englishmen. A lonely beach in Belgium is your best bet.

5) Flee the scene

If your opponent is fatally wounded, you have a poor chance of escaping British law. A Lieutenant Hawkey fled from Southsea beach to France after fatally wounding his opponent in an 1845 duel, but ultimately returned to face justice rather than spend his life in exile. Otherwise, you have the option of keeping quiet – but you will be in good company if you succumb to the temptation of boasting about your brush with death.

Dr Margery Masterson is a teaching fellow at the University of Bristol, who is currently researching violence in the Victorian era.

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