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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.