Park life: What’s the best park in London to hold a duel?

Wellington vs Winchelsea, March 1829. Image: Getty.

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.

Green Park

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

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.


Regent’s Park

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.

Battersea Park

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.

Hyde Park

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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.