One sight that’s sadly disappeared from our parks in the 21st century is the duel: two idiots enter, shoot guns (or, earlier, wave swords) at each other according to a pre-agreed and often arcane set of rules, then somewhere between none and two idiots leave.
Why in parks? “Trying to, at absolute best, maim each other” was not particularly encouraged by the authorities: the sanctioned version, trial by combat, wasn’t officially abolished until 1819 but in practice hadn’t actually happened since the 17th century. And so, city-based fans of the hobby were forced to do in the relative isolation a park in the early hours of the morning.
If you’ve been wondering the what the best London park to try and mutually murder an acquaintance you’ve had a very mild disagreement with, here are some you could go to and imagine it very hard while definitely not doing it because CityMetric does not condone duels, except when they are funny.
1730: MP William Pulteney and political writer Lord John Hervey had already spent time slagging each other off via the medium of newspaper columns (Pulteney co-owned a newspaper) and pamphlets (Hervey didn’t), basically because one liked the Prime Minister and one didn’t. But at some point one of them got too furious to hold his pen (according to some sources, when Pulteney passed comment on Hervey’s sex life; he was bi) and they took to the park to try and blow chunks out of each other, which they successfully did, albeit that they were small, non-fatal chunks.
1771: Lord Edward Ligonier offers Italian dramatist Count Vittorio Alfieri out for a fight after Alfieri shags his wife. Alfieri gets shot, but survives. Edward divorces his wife, who becomes a high-class prostitute and then, according to a legend, gives him a dose of the clap when he accidentally sleeps with her at a masquerade ball. Epic fail!!!
Finsbury Park tube station features some tiling with an image of a pair of duelling pistols, because the area was once known as a duelling site. Except that smart asses will tell you that when actually this was a cock up when the station was built and actually it was Finsbury Fields – now Finsbury Square, in the City – where they did the duelling.
Except: actually people did duelling bloody anywhere halfway suitable, including Hornsey Wood, the remains of which was turned into Finsbury Park. For example, an 1821 incident recorded by the London Morning Post, involving “two Gentleman extensively engaged in Stock Exchange transactions” who decided to make a risky investment in the “possibly being shot to death market”.
And while it doesn’t involve pistols, A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Duelling by Carl Thimm – one of a number of highly relatable Victorian who seems to have mainly got into writing for the lists – records a “duel, with dagger knives, by two Germans” taking place in Finsbury Park itself on 25 February 1872.
An 1821 duel between a Captain J and a Mr H obviously a necessity after Mr H was heard to be using “strong language” about Lord Nelson in a pub. H is shot in the shoulder, but survived to cuss Nelson bad another day.
Later the same year a Captain T and a Mr R faced off after the Captain had given “unsolicited attention” to a lady friend of Mr R whilst at the opera (which, judging by the records, is a curiously common place for duel-beef to get started), for which his penalty was to be shot in the knee.
Or at least, the fields that later became Battersea Park – where in 1829 the actual sitting Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, challenged the Earl of Winchelsea to a duel after the Earl announced that the PM’s policy of allowing Catholics to be MPs was “popery”. In the event no-one actually got hurt – Wellington missed, either deliberately, or because he was crap at shooting and Winchelsea fired into the air, then issued a pre-written apology.
Still, this does suggest a more interesting format for Prime Minister’s Questions.
The London park of London parks inevitably saw a lot of the city’s duelling action. Two notable incidents occurred in 1792 – one involving two law students facing off because one of them had declined to continue drinking the night before, which is some pretty hardcore peer pressure.
The other demonstrated that duelling wasn’t just for the lads: a Mrs Elphinstone questioned the true age of a Lady Almeria Braddock sparked “the petticoat duel”. An initial exchange of pistol shots resulted in one damaged hat: at that point they switched to swords and after a palpable hit to the arm Elphinstone agreed to settle the matter with a handwritten letter of apology.
People would duel about more or less anything – In the 19th century there were at least two recorded Hyde Park duels that were sparked because one of the duelist’s dogs was too naughty.
But as in Battersea, one of the most notable duels was political: in 1763 MPs John Wilkes and Samuel Martin faced off in the park. Martin had laid into Wilkes during a speech in the House of Commons, at which point Wilkes turned around and said “Yeah, well up yours it was me who’s been been writing all those anonymous newspaper pieces about how much of a dick you are!” (I paraphrase), so there was NO OTHER OPTION than to try and kill each other. Outcome: Wilkes was shot in the groin, but survived to, among other things, make publishing Hansard, the parliamentary record, legally possible.
But what’s particularly notable about this duel is the rumour that Martin had spent six months practising with his pistol daily and had then deliberately trolled Wilkes into his duel-worthy admission in order to have a pseudo-legitimate reason to shoot him as part of an assassination conspiracy.
Given the current state of British politics, if you are in a park early one morning and do see any Members of Parliament hanging about together, probably just call the police immediately.