The last duel in London was fought on July 1, 1843. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.
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Story time. History time.
In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare talks about “star-crossed lovers”
I’ve come to think that some London places are “star-crossed.”
They’ve got a past. It’s not a good past. And it lingers on – you can feel it.
Camden Town’s a case in point. You know some of its history you have to wonder has that past conditioned, coloured, stained the present? Is Camden Town edgy today because of things that happened there 180, 200 years ago? Events that are still making their presence felt?
I’ll put the marker down now. The main event. The event for today, July 1st. I’ll just adumbrate it. (There, always wanted to use that word.) Then move off, touch a few other relevant Camden Town history bases – and then come back to the main event. Give it to you in full.
So here’s the marker: the last duel in London was fought in Camden Town on this day, July 1st, 1843. It was a fatal duel. A man was killed.
Ok, now backing off from that for a moment – resighting – what is it about Camden Town? Camden Town had form when it came to duels. There was a notorious literary duel fought in Camden Town 22 years earlier. Same result: one of the duelists was shot dead. That one took place on a wooded knoll beyond Chalk Farm Tavern on February 21st, 1821. A lot of duels had been fought there. It was secluded. No neighbouring houses. It was screened off from the nearest road by a phalanx of trees. An open field behind a country tavern.
One of the duellists, a 35-year-old journalist named John Scott, had left half a bottle of wine at the tavern. He told the landlord he’d be back later to finish it. He came back but not to finish the wine. He came back – rather he was brought back – to die. The man he faced on that field – a lawyer and literary dilettante named John Henry Christie – had given him a mortal wound. Scott was hit on his right side. The ball had ripped through him and lodged in his stomach. That was a fatal wound in 1821. Scott was carried to the tavern. He lived two days. His wife was summoned. She was at his bedside when he died. The inquest was held at the tavern. Scott was buried at St Martin in the Fields. I love that church and now its history has just got that bit richer for me.
We can also think about Dickens’s great railway novel, Dombey and Son. His unforgettable description of Camden Town being ravaged.
Here’s a taste: The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that point, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep, unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babels towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth, and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.” Spellbinding isn’t it. That was 1833-1837.
Now let’s get to our main event, the last duel in London – fought in the same neighbourhood – on July 1st, 1843.
The principals were a couple of military men. Lieutenant Colonel David Lynar Fawcett and Lieutenant Alexander Thompson Munro of the Royal Horse Guards.
They were each other’s brother-in-law. They’d married sisters.
There’d been an altercation. An insult.
One of the sisters – Lieutenant Munro’s wife – expressed her deep regret at what had happened but added, that gentlemen, especially military men, could not brook insult let it come from whomever it would. She was sorry that Colonel Fawcett had insulted Lieutenant Munro in such a way that there could be no other possible remedy than that adopted.”
Here’s what happened. This is a newspaper account taken from testimony at the Inquest – be sure to notice the fine points of the language, especially the social nuances. Early on the morning of July 1st a Constable on duty in the Tottenham Road, near the Camden Villas, and the keeper of toll-gate near the Brecknock Arms tavern had observed two private cabs, the first containing two gentlemen, the second three gentlemen, making their way to an isolated spot on the Camden Road. The coaches stopped. The men got out and made their way across a field, to an area behind a hay mow.
Not long after, the constable and the toll-gate keeper were alarmed by hearing a single shot fired and then shortly afterwards the two cabs returning at a very speedy rate with but three of the five gentlemen and driving in the direction of the Regents Park. This circumstance excited great suspicion, and immediately after several labourers, who had just come to commence their labour for haymaking in the adjoining field gave information that a gentleman was lying in the field adjoining, who had been shot. On hastening to the spot the police found a gentleman, who gave his name as Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett and his address 188 Sloane Street, lying on the grass, bleeding from a wound in the right side, and another gentleman who gave his name as George Gulliver and who stated himself to be the surgeon of the Royal Horse Guards, standing by the wounded gentleman’s side. On the police inquiring what had happened, Colonel Fawcett replied, “What is that to you. It is an accident.”
A Lieutenant Colonel of the horse guards bleeding out in a hayfield in Camden Town. Something had to be done. A door was fetched. The officer was lifted onto the door and carried to the Brecknock Arms Tavern. They refused to admit him. There was another tavern a few hundred yards away, the Camden Arms in Randolph Street. Stretched out on that door, he was carried there. They admitted him. He was put in a bed in a room. A Kentish Town physician was sent for. As was Colonel Fawcett’s wife.
That bed in the Camden Arms was Colonel Fawcett’s death bed. The ball had entered his right side, passed through his right lung and dropped into the intestine. One of the doctors in attendance, Sir Benjamin Brodie pronounced it a fatal wound. So it proved. Colonel Fawcett died two days later.
Other particulars. Lieutenant Munro had been 40 paces away when he fired. So, yes, the two of them had stood back to back, took twenty paces, turned and…
Well, Munro had fired. Colonel Fawcett told his wife he had not fired nor did he intend to do so.
Closure? To use that cant word. Well, yes and no. It was four years before Lieutenant Munro was brought to trial. By then, it was well in the past and fading, tempers had cooled. Lieutenant Munro was found guilty of murder but with a strong recommendation of mercy. He spent a year in prison and then was released. It was never disclosed what the insult was that had triggered – if that’s the word – the flare-up, led to the challenge being issued and the denouement in the tall grass in that field in Camden Town.
Any takeaways? Yes, several, I think. First of all, from the perspective of our London there’s almost something dreamlike about their London, their Camden Town that comes into view. That that was a place where duels took place. Obviously the protagonists – even though they lived in Chelsea and Knightsbridge respectively – knew that the fields outside Camden Town were the place to go to settle this matter. And thinking of what it was like less than ten years before – what Dickens pictured for us – well, what was it like, what did they drive through that morning? And the farm labourers and hay fields and a hay mow and lonely, isolated taverns on country roads. The very name Roads – Camden Road, Tottenham Road – provide a clue. Roads went through the countryside, streets were urban.
And the episode pulls back the curtain on a social dimension of London in 1843. First of all, a tiny but telling detail: the way the newspaper referred to Regent’s Park. It called it “The Regent’s Park.” We’d just say Regent’s Park. That direct article – “the Regent’s Park” – speaks volumes.
And as for London addresses, those officers living in Sloane Street and Brompton Square. They were obviously well-heeled. And the social deference is readily apparent. The mortally wounded Colonel’s clear contempt for the police constable. His disdain for him when the constable asked him, deferentially I’m sure, what happened. “What’s it to you?” And some weird – to my way of thinking – sense of honour. Lt. Colonel Fawcett’s saying, “it was an accident.” The whiff coming off the whole episode is that the army was almost a law unto itself.
Honour, dignity, pride, aristocratic bearing – and yet what does all that come to? Not so much splendour in the grass as squalor in the grass. A mindless, stupid act of folly in a stricken, cast out, tormented, once pastoral now fallen London place.
As is so often the case, great English writers get us in closer. We’ve already heard from Dickens about the neighbourhood where the last London duel was fought. What about the sense of “honour” that fuelled the episode. Here’s Shakespeare – well, his great character Falstaff – having his say about honour.
PRINCE HENRY says
Why, thou owest God a death.
He exits and Falstaff’s got something to say in response to that cliche.
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon.
A scutcheon is a shield. Especially one displaying a coat of arms. Precisely the bit of kit a soldier taking to his heels would cast aside.
Ok, Today in London. How about going to Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett’s neighbourhood. Remember, his house was in Sloane Street. Sloane Street, connecting Chelsea and Knightsbridge.
Going to the National Army Museum in Chelsea. They’ll have a scutcheon or two. To say nothing of the appurtenances of military showmanship and honour and bearing and pride and dignity. And the iron fist in that velvet glove – pistols and muskets and the round lumps of lead that come out of the business end of a pistol and that can reverse Midas touch, the squalor of slumping to the ground in a field in Camden Town and being carried on a door to a tavern and dying there in a blood-soaked bed.
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