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Sunday, 3 January 2021

The Frost Fair of 1814

The Fair on the Thames Feb 4 1814  by Luke Clennell © Trustees of the British Museum  Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence
The Fair on the Thames Feb 4 1814
by Luke Clennell © The Trustees of the British Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
It seems hard to believe now, but the winter of 1813-14 was so harsh that the River Thames froze solid! The ice was firm enough not only for skating, but also for a fair – a great Frost Fair.

Printed on the ice

Title page of Frostiana by George Davis (1814)
Title page of Frostiana by George Davis (1814)
In his book, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state, George Davis gave a first-hand account of the great freeze and the Frost Fair. He wrote:
An introduction is prefixed, containing a full account of the late severe frost; and, in another part of the work, will be found an amusing narrative of the events which took place on the frozen surface of the Thames, from the 30th of January to the 5th of February inclusive.

As an additional object of curiosity, it may be proper to mention, that a large impression of the Title page of this work, was actually printed on the ice on the River Thames!!1
Freezing fog
A London fog drawn by Duncan in Illustrated London News Vol 10 1847  Wellcome Foundation Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC-BY-4.0)
A London fog drawn by Duncan in Illustrated London News Vol 10 1847
Wellcome Foundation Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC-BY-4.0)
The great frost started just after Christmas, 1813, and was accompanied by a freezing fog. The conditions sound perfect as a setting for a Regency mystery novel.
The great fog which preceded the late frost, commenced in London, on the evening of the 27th December, 1813 … This tremendous fog, or ‘darkness that might be felt!’ continued till the 3rd of January. On most of the roads, excepting the high north road, travelling was performed with the utmost danger, and the progress of the mails was greatly impeded.2
The conditions for pedestrians were perilous:
Pedestrians even carried links or lanterns, and many, who were not provided with these illuminators, lost themselves in the most frequented, and at other times well known streets. Hackney-coachmen mistook the pathway for the road, and vice versa, - the greatest confusion occurring.

On the 31st of December, the state of the metropolis, in consequence of the increased fog, was, at night, truly alarming. It required great attention and knowledge of the public streets to proceed any distance, and those persons who had any material business to transact were unavoidably compelled to carry torches. The usual lamps appeared through the haze no bigger than small candles. The more careful hackney-coachmen got off the box and led their horses, while others drove only at a walking pace. There were frequent meetings of carriages, and great mischief ensued. Among the passengers much caution and apprehension prevailed. Many alarmed at the idea of being run down, made exclamations, such as ‘Who is coming?’ – ‘Mind!’ – ‘Take care!’ &c. Females who had ventured abroad before the fog came on, were placed under great peril; several missed their way.3
Snow and ice

When the fog lifted, the snow came.
Almost immediately on the cessation of the fogs, heavy falls of snow took place. There is nothing in the memory of man to equal these falls. After several shorter intervals, the snow continued incessantly for 48 hours, and this too after the ground was covered with a condensation, the result of nearly four weeks continued frost. Almost the whole of the time the wind blew from the north and north-east, and was intensely cold.4
Travel was disrupted, water-pipes froze, icicles formed ‘full a yard and a half long’.
The Thames, from London Bridge to Blackfriars, was for nearly a fortnight completely blocked up at ebb tide. All the ponds and rivers in the neighbourhood of London were completely frozen, and skating was pursued with great avidity on the Canal in St James’s, and the Serpentine in Hyde Park.5
Feltham’s Picture of London for 1818 wrote:
In severe winters, when the Serpentine River is frozen over, the ice is almost covered with people. In the winter of 1813-14, there were counted more than 6,000 people at one time on the ice, chiefly skaiters.6
A scene on the ice by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)  © The Trustees of the Brititsh Museum  Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence
A scene on the ice by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
© The Trustees of the Brititsh Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Mail disrupted
Never since the establishment of mail coaches did correspondence meet with such general interruption as on this occasion. Internal communication was completely at a stand till the roads could be in some degree cleared; for besides the drifts by which they were rendered impassable, the whole face of the country presented one uniform sheet of snow, no trace of road being discoverable; and travellers had to make their path at the risk of being every moment overwhelmed. Waggons, carts, coaches, and vehicles of all descriptions, were left in the midst of the storm. The drivers finding they could proceed no farther, took the horses to the first convenient place, and there waited till a passage could be cut to enable them to proceed with safety.7
The thaw and refreeze
On Wednesday the 26th, the wind having veered round to the south-west, the effects of a thaw were speedily discernible … On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the 27th, 28th, and 29th, the thaw continued, and the roads and streets were nearly impassable from floods, and the accumulation of snow. But on Sunday the 30th a sharp frost set in, and continued till the next Saturday evening, the 5th of February.

Sunday, January 30
Some venturous persons even now walked on different parts of the ice.

Monday, January 31
During the whole of the afternoon, hundreds of people were assembled on Blackfriars’ and London Bridges, to see several adventurous men cross and recross the Thames on the ice; at one time seventy persons were counted walking from Queenhithe to the opposite shore.

Tuesday, Feb 1
The floating masses of ice … having been stopped by London Bridge, now assumed the shape of a solid surface over that part of the river which extends from Blackfriars’ Bridge to some distance below Three Crane Stairs, at the bottom of Queen-street, Cheapside. The watermen taking advantage of this circumstance, placed notices at the end of all the streets leading to the city side of the river, announcing a safe footway over the river, which, as might be expected, attracted immense crowds to witness so novel a scene. Many were induced to venture on the ice, and the example thus afforded, soon led thousands to perambulate the rugged plain, where a variety of amusements were prepared for their entertainment.
Among the more curious of these was the ceremony of roasting a small sheep, which was toasted, or rather burnt, over a coal fire, placed in a large iron pan. For a view of this extraordinary spectacle, sixpence was demanded, and willingly paid. The delicate meat when done, was sold at a shilling a slice, and termed Lapland mutton. Of booths there were a great number, which were ornamented with streamers, flags, and signs, and in which there was a plentiful store of those favourite luxuries, gin, beer, and gingerbread.8
The Frost Fair
Frost fair on the River Thames in 1814  from Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs by WAndrews (1887)
Frost fair on the River Thames in 1814
from Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs by W Andrews (1887)
Wednesday, Feb 2
The same sports were repeated, and the Thames presented a complete Frost Fair. The grand mall or walk was from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge; this was named ‘The City Road,’ and lined on each side with tradesmen of all descriptions. Eight or ten printing presses were erected, and numerous pieces commemorative of the ‘great Frost’ were actually printed on the ice.

Thursday, Feb 3
The adventurers were still more numerous. Swings, bookstalls, dancing in a barge, suttling-booths, playing at skittles, and almost every appendage of a fair on land was now transferred to the Thames. Thousands of people flocked to behold this singular spectacle, and to partake of the various sports and pastimes. The ice now became like a solid rock of adamant, and presented a truly picturesque appearance. The view of St. Paul’s and of the city with the white foreground had a very singular effect; - in many parts, mountains of ice were upheaved, and these fragments bore a strong resemblance to the rude interior of a stone quarry.9
A suttling booth was a mobile stall where civilians sold provisions and other small items to soldiers.
Friday, Feb 4
Every day brought a fresh accession of ‘pedlars to sell their wares,’ and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost. Books and toys labelled ‘bought on the Thames’ were seen in profusion. The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of 2d. or 3d. before he was admitted to the Frost Fair; some douceur also was expected on your return. These men were said to have taken 6l each in the course of a day.

Many persons were seen on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly picturesque and beautiful. With a little stretch of imagination, we might have transported ourselves to the frozen climes of the north—to Lapland, Sweden or Holland.

Saturday, Feb 5
The morning of this day augured rather unfavourably for the continuance of Frost Fair. The wind had shifted to the south, and a light fall of snow took place. The visitors of the Thames, however, were not to be deterred by trifles. Thousands again returned, and there was much life and bustle on the frozen element.

The footpath in the centre of the river was hard and secure, and among the pedestrians we observed four donkeys which trotted at a nimble pace and produced considerable merriment. At every glance, the spectator met with some pleasing novelty. Gaming in all its branches threw out different allurements, while honesty was out of the question. Many of the itinerant admirers of the profit gained by E O Tables, Rouge et Noir, Te-totum, wheel of fortune, the garter, &c were industrious in their avocations, leaving their kind customers without a penny to pay their passage over a plank to the shore.

Skittles was played by several parties, and the drinking tents filled by females and their companions, dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat round large fires, drinking rum, grog, and other spirits. Tea, coffee, and eatables, were provided in ample order, while the passengers were invited to eat by way of recording their visit. Several respectable tradesmen also attended with their wares, selling books, toys, and trinkets of every description.

Towards the evening, the concourse became thinned; rain fell in some quantity; Maister Ice gave some loud cracks, and floated with the printing presses, booths, &c to the no small dismay of publicans, typographers, &c. In short, this icy palace of Momus, this fairy frost work, was soon to be dissolved, and doomed to vanish, like the baseless fabric of a vision, ‘but leaving some wrecks behind.’10
Frost on the Thames 1814 from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
Frost on the Thames 1814 from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
The end of the Frost Fair
Sunday, February 6
At two o’clock this morning, the tide began to flow with great rapidity at London Bridge; the thaw assisted the efforts of the tide, and the booth just mentioned was hurried along with the quickness of lightning towards Blackfriars Bridge.
On this day, the Thames towards high tide (about 3 p.m.) presented a very tolerable idea of the Frozen Ocean; grand masses of ice floating along, added to the great height of the water, and afforded a striking sight for contemplation. Thousands of disappointed persons thronged the banks; - and many a ’prentice boy and servant maid, ‘sighed unutterable things’ at the sudden and unlooked-for destruction of Frost Fair.

Monday, Feb 7
Large masses of ice are yet floating, and numerous lighters, broken from their moorings, are seen in different parts of the river; many of them complete wrecks. The damage done to the craft and barges is supposed to be very great. From London Bridge to Westminster, twenty thousand pounds will scarcely make good the losses that have been sustained.12
 Notes
1. Davis, George, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state (1814).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
7. Davis op cit.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.

Sources used include:
Andrews, William, Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain (1887)
Davis, George, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state (1814)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 3

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Ice skating in Regency London

Skating Lovers (1800)  Drawn by Adam Buck; published William Holland; engraved by   Piercy Roberts & JC Stadler © British Museum no. 1932,1019.1
Skating Lovers (1800)
Drawn by Adam Buck; published William Holland; engraved by
Piercy Roberts & JC Stadler © The Trustees of the British Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 
I love to use real historical events in my novels and in A Reason for Romance, the soon-to-be-published sequel to A Perfect Match, set in 1810, some of my characters go skating on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London. The downside of wanting to be historically accurate is my sometimes-frantic searching for details. In this instance, amongst other things, I wanted to know whether it would have been possible for a lady to go skating. 

Skating on the Serpentine

Winter, figures skating (1790-1811)  Drawn by Isaac Cruikshank  © British Museum no. 1931,1114.105
Winter, figures skating (1790-1811)
Drawn by Isaac Cruikshank
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)  
According to Feltham’s Picture of London for 1810 under almanac of amusements:
In time of frost, the Canal in St. James's park, and the Serpentine River in Hyde-park, are covered with skaiters; here a stranger will find much amusement.1
The Picture of London for 1810 gave more details under Promenade of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens:
In severe winters, when the Serpentine River is frozen over, the ice is almost, covered with people. In one winter there were counted more than 6000 people at one time on the ice. A number of booths were pitched for the refreshment of the populace; and here and there was a group of six, eight, or more, fashionable young men, skaiting, and describing difficult figures, in the manner of a country dance, with peculiar neatness and facility of execution. In general, however, the English do not excel in this exhilarating and wholesome exercise.2
The London freeze of January 1810

Fashionable figures ice skating (c1795-1810) French school (?)  © British Museum no. 1931,1114.556
Fashionable figures ice skating (c1795-1810) French school (?)
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)  
On 13 January 1810, the temperature dropped below freezing and continued to fall. The Serpentine River froze, attracting skaters from all walks of life, both beginners and experts.

The Morning Post on Monday 22 January reported:
The Serpentine River
Was yesterday a scene of attraction. The banks on the north-side were lined with elegant equipages, and those on the south with numerous groups of pedestrians. The day was cheered by the rays of the sun having dispersed the fog. The air, although keen, was invigorating. The ice was good, and the skaiters were in numbers incalculable. 

A subscription of several guineas having been made for the sweepers (they forming a strong phalanx) the circles were kept in good order. As is customary the best performers were confined within a very narrow space next to the edge nearest the carriages. 

Here exhibited their skill in circles and figures; on Saturday, the Honourable Mr Byng, of the Torrington Family, Mr Cavendish Bradshaw, Colonel Arthur Upton, Mr Stanhope, and Mr Grant. Mr Upton particularly excelled in what school-boys call a Turk’s-cap ie cutting the figure of three, three times, and thus forming an entire circle. We have seen Mr Cavendish Bradshaw skait more adventurously, but never with a greater degree of elegance and precision. – Lord Cochrane performed very well for a British tar; his efforts never exceeded a straight forward movement. Mr Chisholm, that elegant young man of fashion, and Mr Scott, were among the learners.3
The only mention of a lady was as a pedestrian, not a skater:
The beautiful Mrs Russell Manners was among the humble pedestrians on the ice on Saturday. She was habited in buff kerseymere, with a broad margin of blue velvet; the costume was strictly a la Spaniola.4
A female skater

Winter Amusements - A Scene in France (1803)  Published by Laurie & Whittle © British Museum no. 1931,1114.287
Winter Amusements - A Scene in France (1803)
Published by Laurie & Whittle © The Trustees of the British Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)  
I was delighted when I discovered the following newspaper report from a few days earlier. It confirmed that there were a few ladies who skated, and in this instance, the lady ‘decidedly excelled’ her companions. The report is from The Morning Post on Friday 19 January 1810:
Among the fashionables who took the diversion of skaiting on the Serpentine River on Wednesday was the Duke of Argyle. An elegant female, in a green spotted dress, with a scarlet Spanish mantle, was attended by two Gentlemen. They were allowed by the amateurs to be perfect masters of the art; but the Gentlemen were decidedly excelled by the Lady, who cut out the letters O.P. with a precision and neatness truly astonishing.5
It does not say what the letters meant. Though I suppose the letters O P could have been her initials, I wondered whether it was a reference to the Old Price riots which had plagued Covent Garden Theatre during the preceding months. You can read about the OP riots here.

A sliding swan

Not everyone skated on the ice. Sliding was also very popular. The Morning Post on Saturday 20 January 1810 mentioned a young lady slider, notable because of her dress:
Serpentine River
The skaiters continue to be very numerous. A young Lady made a very conspicuous appearnce yesterday. She was attended by a servant, and appeared to take particular delight in sliding. The peculiarity attached to her was her dress, which resembled the covering of a swan, being a pelisse made entirely of swan’s down, and white feet.6
The Persian ambassador

During his stay in London, Mirza Abul Hassan, the Persian ambassador, observed the skating on the Serpentine River:
I went in the carriage with Sir Gore Ouseley and some other friends to the park. The weather was so cold that the river was frozen over and a large crowd of men and women was gathered there. Some of them had razor-sharp iron blades fixed to the soles of their boots and they moved like arrows across the ice. They say that ice-skating is a healthy winter exercise. If the ice should break and someone fall in, small boats are at hand to come to the rescue.

I conceived a fancy to slide on the ice in the English manner and we got out of the carriage. But there was such a crowd of milling people that I soon lost courage.7
The Humane Society

Boat house of the Royal Humane Society from The story of the London Parks by J Larwood (1874)
Boat house of the Royal Humane Society from
The story of the London Parks by J Larwood (1874)
Skating on the Serpentine was not without mishap. Sometimes people fell through the ice. Feltham’s Picture of London for 1810 wrote:
From the number of accidents which happen annually on this river when frozen over, his majesty gave the Humane Society a spot of ground on its banks, on which they have erected a most convenient receiving-house for the recovery of persons apparently drowned; it cost upwards of 500l and is worthy the inspection of the curious. The society, during the time of frost, keep men on the river to guard the unwary from danger, and to relieve those who may require their aid.8
Cold Broth and Calamity by Thomas Rowlandson  after Henry Wigstead (1792) The Met Museum DP885280
Cold Broth and Calamity by Thomas Rowlandson
after Henry Wigstead (1792) The Met Museum DP885280
The great frost of 1813-14

The winter of 1813-14 was particularly harsh. George Davis’s book Frostiana gave a first-hand account of the freeze and the Frost Fair on the frozen River Thames. Davis wrote:
All the ponds and rivers in the neighbourhood of London were completely frozen, and skating was pursued with great avidity on the Canal in St James’s, and the Serpentine in Hyde Park. On Monday, the 10th of January, the Canal and the Basin in the Green Park were conspicuous for the number of steel-shod heroes who covered their glossy surfaces, and who, according to their respective qualities, administered to the pleasure of the throng which crowded their banks; some by the agility and grace with which they performed their evolutions, and others by the tumbles and other accidents which marked their clumsy career. There was, as usual, a motley collection of all orders of his Majesty’s subjects, engaged in the busy scene, who seemed all alike eager candidates for the applause of the multitude, and whether sweep, dustman, drummer, or beau, each seemed conscious of possessing some claim, not only to his own good opinion, but to that of the fair belles who viewed his movements. There were several accidents in the course of the day, but none we believe of a serious nature.

While these Parks were thus numerously attended, Hyde park had to boast of a more distinguished order of visitors, who, in the course of the afternoon, flocked in prodigious crowds to the banks of the Serpentine, which was covered with most excellent ice. Notwithstanding the keenness of the breeze, several females of dash, clad in robes of the richest fur, bid defiance to tis chilling embrace, and, on the fragile bosom of the river ventured their fair frames. The skaters were in great numbers, and were of first-rate note. Some of the most difficult movements of the art were executed with an agility and grace which excited universal admiration.

A lady and two officers performed a reel with a precision scarcely conceivable, and attracted a very numerous circle of spectators, whose boisterous applause so completely terrified the fair cause of their ecstasy, as to induce her to forego the pleasure she herself received from the amusement, and to put an end to that which she afforded to such as were disposed to admire her in silence.

Two unfortunate accidents occurred; one skating lady dislocated the patella or kneepan, and five gentlemen and a lady were immersed in the icy fluid, but received no farther injury than a severe ducking.9
It continued:
On the 22d of January, and for some days afterwards, the ice on the Serpentine River exhibited a singular appearance, from the mountains of snow which the sweepers had collected together in different situations. The spaces allotted for the skaters were in the forms of circles, squares, and oblongs. Next to the carriage ride (on the north side) were many astonishing evolutions displayed. Skipping on skates, and the Turk-cap backwards, were among the most conspicuous.10
What did Regency skates look like?

English skates from Skating by JM Heathcote et al (1892)
English skates from Skating by JM Heathcote et al (1892)
The skates were not separate shoes but fixed to the boots by way of straps. Early skates were wooden but by around 1800, blades were generally made of metal.

Frostiana stated:
The English, though often remarkable for feats of agility upon skates, are very deficient in gracefulness; which is partly owning to the construction of the skates. They are too much curved in the surface which embraces the ice, consequently they involuntarily bring the users of them round on the outside upon a quick and small circle; whereas the skater, by using skates of a different construction, less curved, has the command of his stroke, and can enlarge or diminish the circle according to his own wish or desire.11
It compared the English to the Dutch:
To the native of Holland, skating is quite as familiar as walking, and he puts on his skates with the same indifference as we do our shoes; - the instruments, indeed, are indispensable to the Dutch in the winter season; and are used by men, women and children, constantly … Skating is pursued in England as an amusement only, and for a single week, perhaps, in the course of the year; but in Holland, it is absolutely necessary, and supplies a cheap and commodious method of transport to all classes of people.

The Dutch skates are not so finely shaped as those we use; and the skaters are more remarkable for the ease, than elegance of their execution.12
How fast could they go?

Skaters on the reservoir at La Villette (1813)  Fashion in Paris (1898) from British Library
Skaters on the reservoir at La Villette (1813)
Fashion in Paris (1898) from British Library
Frostiana stated:
We have heard that some skaters in the fens of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, have skated two miles in two minutes, the strokes on an average being each ten yards. This velocity exceeds that of most race horses, and the fatigue occasioned by it is much less.
A very remarkable skating-feat is said to have taken place during the late frost. A Mr Maxwell, celebrated for his skill and dexterity in this useful art, skated from Long Acre to St James’s Park in four minutes and fifty seconds. This was for a wager, and the given time was five minutes.13
Did Jane Austen skate?

I have not come across anything to say that Jane Austen skated, but her brother Frank loved to skate. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra from Southampton in January 1807:
We did not take our walk on Friday, it was too dirty, nor have we yet done it; we may perhaps do something like it to-day, as after seeing Frank skate, which he hopes to do in the meadows by the beech, we are to treat ourselves with a passage over the ferry. It is one of the pleasantest frosts I ever knew, so very quiet. I hope it will last some time longer for Frank's sake, who is quite anxious to get some skating; he tried yesterday, but it would not do.14
Notes
1. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
2. Ibid.
3. The Morning Post, Monday 22 January 1810 from British Newspapers Archive.
4. Ibid.
5. The Morning Post, Friday 19 January 1810 from British Newspapers Archive.
6. The Morning Post, Saturday 20 January 1810 from British Newspapers Archive.
7. Hassan Khan, Mirza Abul, A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10, edited by Margaret Morris Cloake (1988)
8. Davis, George, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state (1814)
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Jane Austen to Cassandra, January 7, 1807 in Austen, Jane, The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne ed Sarah Woolsey (1892)

Sources used include:
Adams, Douglas, Skating (1892)
Andrews, William, Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain (1887)
Austen, Jane, The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne ed Sarah Woolsey (1892)
Brokaw, Irving, The art of skating (1915)
Davis, George, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state (1814)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
Hassan Khan, Mirza Abul, A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10, edited by Margaret Morris Cloake (1988)
Heathcote, John Moyer; Tebbutt, CG; Buck, Henry A; Kerr, John; Hake, Ormond; Witham, T Maxwell, Skating (1892)
The Gentleman’s Magazine (1810)
The Morning Post (January 1810 from British Newspapers Online, British Library)

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Duels - a Regency History guide

A duel by Robert Cruikshank from The English Spy by B Blackmantle (1825)
A duel by Robert Cruikshank from The English Spy by B Blackmantle (1825)
What was a duel?

A duel was a planned combat between two gentlemen using lethal weapons in the presence of witnesses. Duels were often referred to as affairs of honour because a gentleman fought to ‘remove the stain which he conceives attaches to his honour.’1

In his 1821 book on ‘ordeals’, Gilchrist described a duel:

The term 'Duel' signifies a single combat originating in a feeling of personal offence, and followed by a regular Cartel, or challenge, fixing a time and place, mutually convenient to the combatants. These individuals are termed principals, and are usually accompanied to the field, by two gentlemen, in the quality of friends, or seconds, for the purpose of arranging, and superintending, all the preliminaries, and proceedings of the combat.2

The challenge

If a gentleman took offence at another gentleman's actions or words, he could challenge that gentleman to a duel. The challenger demanded satisfaction from the offender. It was considered more gentlemanlike to meet each other in a duel than to descend into a fist fight like the lower classes.

In The Duelling Handbook (1829), Hamilton’s third rule in the royal code of honour stated:

In a case which appears to require recurrence to a duel, the challenge should always emanate from the individual who first conceives himself offended. 3

Did a gentleman have to accept a challenge?

Hamilton’s first rule in the royal code of honour said:

No duel can be considered justifiable, which can be declined with honour, therefore, an appeal to arms should always be the last resource. 4

In Principles of Politeness (1798), Trusler wrote:

I am happy to find that gentlemen, men of honour, and even military men in some cases, appeal to the civil laws of their country, when challenged, instead of the sword; and they appear to be countenanced in so doing. 5

The trouble was that most gentlemen found it hard to decline a challenge ‘with honour’, afraid of being labelled a coward.

In a speech against duelling in 1830, Crampton said:

No man loves to fight for fighting sake; he fights because he fears he cannot honourably decline the combat. 6

There was no slur on a gentleman’s character if he refused a challenge from a man who he deemed unworthy in rank (such as a servant) or character (such as a known criminal).

Two gentlemen duelling with pistols W Sams (1823) Wellcome Collection
Two gentlemen duelling with pistols W Sams (1823) Wellcome Collection
Could an apology be made?

It was the first duty of the seconds to try to effect a reconciliation between the parties. True gentlemanlike conduct was for the challenger to accept an apology if he could do so with honour.

Hamilton’s code of honour stated that:

Every apology which may be proposed, should be as dignified as the nature of the circumstances will admit of, it being inconsistent with true honour, to attempt the unnecessary degradation of an adversary. 7

The first offence required the first apology, even if the retort was more offensive than the insult.

If blows had been exchanged, no verbal apology could be given.

Hamilton stated:

An apology, with its usual accompaniment, the offer of a whip or switch, should always be accepted for a blow, or for any other offence, which may be considered an assault. 8

The weapons

Most Georgian duels used duelling pistols, but some were fought with swords. It is not clear whether the challenger or the challenged chose the weapon.

Hamilton quoted The Practice of Duelling and the Point of Honor, settled at the Clonmel summer assizes in 1777 and adopted throughout Ireland. These rules stated that the challenged party had the right to choose the weapon, though the challenger could decline swords if he gave his honour that he was no swordsman.

However, Trusler disagreed and said that it was the challenger who could choose:

Duelling is called demanding, and giving satisfaction; and it is the etiquette generally on these occasions that the challenger or party aggrieved, has the choice of weapons; and if pistols are determined on, to have the first fire; and the party challenged, being the aggressor, is to stand quietly to be shot at; when, if he is not killed; or rendered unable to return the fire, it is at his option either to fire at his antagonist, or discharge his pistol in the air; if he does the latter, the affair ends, and the challenger has had the Christian satisfaction of trying to murder his enemy, whom his Redeemer directs him to love. 9

Was it legal?

No! As a result, duels tended to happen at out of the way places, usually very early in the morning. Gentlemen considered that the etiquette surrounding a duel distinguished it from cold-blooded murder should one or both combatants be mortally injured.

In theory, the law made no such distinction, and a man could be sentenced to death for murdering his opponent in a duel, but the courts tended to be lenient, unless there were signs of impropriety.

Gilchrist made a study of duels from the accession of George III up to 1821. He wrote:

It appears, that in one hundred and seventy-two combats (including three hundred and forty-four individuals,) sixty-nine persons were killed; that in three of these neither of the combatants survived; that ninety-six were wounded, forty-eight of them desperately, and forty-eight slightly; that one hundred and eighty-eight escaped unhurt.

From this statement it will be seen that rather more than one-fifth of the combatants lost their lives, and that nearly one-half received the bullets of their antagonists.

It appears, also, that only eighteen trials took place; that six of the arraigned were “acquitted,” seven found guilty of “manslaughter,” and three of murder; that two were executed, and eight imprisoned during different periods. 10

Trusler disapproved of this leniency. He wrote:

The duellist who puts his antagonist to death, to support his honour; and thro' fear of being branded with cowardice, is no less criminal than the woman who puts her child to death, to preserve her honour, and conceal her and though the law punishes the latter with death, and winks at the former, in compliance with prejudice, reconciling it under the idea of self-defence; yet God, who sees not as man seeth, will punish both one and the other. 11

The dance of death: the duel by T Rowlandson (1816) Wellcome Collection
The dance of death: the duel by T Rowlandson (1816) Wellcome Collection
The role of the second

Each gentleman in a duel appointed one or two seconds – friends who would stand by them in the duel.

The first duty of a second was to effect a reconciliation without resort to violence, but failing this, the formal challenge was delivered to the challenged gentleman’s second.

Trusler advised:

If you are reduced to the necessity of giving a challenge, never commit it to writing, but convey it by the friend you have appointed your second; the letter conveying it will be evidence against you in a court of law. 12

It was the responsibility of the seconds to arrange the meeting and ensure fair play. The second of the challenged party set the ground and place of meeting.

In The Practice of Duelling and the Point of Honor (1777) used in Ireland and quoted by Hamilton, it stated that the challenger chose the distance, but it is not clear whether this was the case in England. Hamilton’s code of honour stated that parties should never be allowed to fight at less than ten yards distance.

For pistols, the seconds fixed the time and terms of firing, measured out the paces and loaded the guns.

For swords, the seconds ensured that the ground was clean, dry and even, and similar for both parties, and that the swords were of equal length to ensure fair play.

It was the duty of the seconds to step in and stop the duel after satisfaction had been gained. However, this was not always the case as sometimes the seconds joined in the duel.

Where were duels fought?

The challenged party had the choice of ground. A remote location was generally sought as duels were illegal and the parties did not want the meeting to be stopped by a constable of the law. London duels were fought in places like Hyde Park, Putney Heath, Wimbledon Common and Chalk Farm, north of Camden.

When did the duel stop?

It varied at what point a duel stopped, depending on what the seconds had agreed. would give the challenger satisfaction. Once honour had been satisfied, the parties were reconciled, and the matter considered closed.

For pistols, typically they fired one or more shots each, either together or taking it in turns starting with the challenger. Alternatively, they could continue until one or both parties were disabled. It was the duty of the seconds to try to end the duel after each round.

For swords, the duel continued until one party was badly wounded, disabled or disarmed, or until blood was drawn and the challenged party begged pardon.

Hamilton wrote:

He must have a truly murderous spirit who will fire at any gentleman after he discharges his pistol in the air, and whether swords or pistols are selected, the appearance of blood should generally terminate a duel. 13

Why were duels fought?

Many duels were fought over serious offences, such as the defence of a woman’s honour, or a gentleman’s character. But sometimes challenges were given for less honourable causes, such as gambling disputes or words spoken rashly, particularly under the influence of alcohol.

From Cecilia by Fanny Burney (1825 edition)
From Cecilia by Fanny Burney (1825 edition)
Colonel Brandon and Willoughby

In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen referred to the duel fought between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby over his ward Eliza’s honour:

“Have you,” she [Elinor] continued, after a short silence, “ever seen Mr Willoughby since you left him at Barton?”

“Yes,” he replied gravely, “once I have. One meeting was unavoidable.”

Elinor, startled by his manner, looked at him anxiously, saying, “What? have you met him to—"

“I could meet him no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.”

Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure it.14

Lord Paget and Captain Cadogan

In 1809, Captain Cadogan challenged Henry Paget, Lord Paget, later 1st Marquess of Anglesey, to a duel for eloping with his sister Charlotte, who was married to Henry Wellesley, a younger brother of Arthur Wellesley, Duke ofWellington.

They met at 7am on 30 May 1809 on Wimbledon Common. Twelve paces apart, they fired together. Cadogan fired; Paget did not aim.

Gilchrist reported Paget as saying:

Nothing could ever have induced me to add to the injuries I have already done the family, by firing at the brother of Lady Charlotte Wellesley.15

William Pitt the Younger and George Tierney

In 1798, George Tierney objected to an expression used by William Pitt in the House of Commons and challenged him to a duel. They met on Putney Heath on 21 May 1798 at 3pm. At twelve paces, they fired two pistols each to no effect. Pitt fired his pistol in the air bringing the matter to a close with perfect honour on both sides.

Lord Castlereagh and George Canning

In 1809, Lord Castlereagh challenged Canning to a duel complaining that he had secretly tried to get him removed from office because of incapacity while continuing to work with him in the open.

The meeting took place on 21 September 1809 on Putney Heath at ten yards. The first shot missed, but in a second, Canning received a flesh wound in his left thigh.

Sir Robert Floyer and Mr Belfield in Cecilia

In Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, Sir Robert Floyer and Mr Belfield fought a duel prompted by a dispute for the right to escort Cecilia out of the pit of the Opera House. Sir Robert refused to make an apology for his rudeness. In the duel, Mr Belfield was wounded but not fatally.

Notes

1.                   Hamilton, Joseph, The Duelling Handbook (1829).

2.                   Gilchrist, James P, A brief display of the origin and history of ordeals (1821).

3.                   Hamilton op cit.

4.                   Ibid.

5.                   Trusler, Rev Dr John, and Chesterfield, Lord, Principles of Politeness and of knowing the world (1798).

6.                   Crampton, Philip Cecil, Speech of P C Crampton, Esq, at a public meeting of the Association for the Suppression of Duelling held in Dublin on Thursday June 10th 1830.

7.                   Hamilton op cit.

8.                   Ibid.

9.                   Trusler op cit.

10.               Gilchrist op cit.

11.               Trusler op cit.

12.               Ibid.

13.               Hamilton op cit.

14.               Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)

15.               Gilchrist op cit.

Sources used:

Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)

Burney, Fanny, Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782)

Crampton, Philip Cecil, Speech of P C Crampton, Esq, at a public meeting of the Association for the Suppression of Duelling held in Dublin on Thursday June 10th 1830

Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda, this edition (1848)(1850)(1896)

Gilchrist, James P, A brief display of the origin and history of ordeals (1821)

Hamilton, Joseph, The Duelling Handbook (1829)

Hopton, Richard, Pistols at Dawn (2007)

Steinmetz, Andrew, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries (1868)

Trusler, Rev Dr John, and Chesterfield, Lord, Principles of Politeness and of knowing the world (1798)

 Pictures from the Wellcome Collection are used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY 4.0)