Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath were once favoured locations if you wanted to challenge someone to a duel near London.
Common lands south of the river were sufficiently remote to avoid being interrupted and also convenient for an escape should either party be killed.
So it was that exactly 203 years ago today on 21 September 1809, two of the most senior Cabinet Ministers in the British Government sought satisfaction by firing at each other on the heath, even though it was illegal.
Viscount Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, wounded George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, in the thigh. Canning, a novice with firearms, missed his mark. Honour had been met.
Their argument concerned the deployment of British troops during the Napoleonic War. Castlereagh had ignored Canning’s commitment to Portugal and sent them elsewhere. Canning tried to have him sacked and was challenged to the duel as a result.
Both men were widely criticized and though they each continued to hold high office they were never reconciled. Local dueling dated back more than 150 years at the time.
In May 1652, George Brydges, Baron Chandos, had killed Colonel Henry Compton in a duel on the heath. He was convicted of manslaughter and died in prison.
Other meetings usually ended less seriously. On 26 May 1789 the Duke of York, second son of King George III, faced Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Lennox, later Duke of Richmond, at Wimbledon Common.
The Royal Duke had accused Lennox of uttering “expressions unworthy of a gentleman". These were denied and as Lennox’s demands for a retraction were refused he demanded satisfaction.
The duel was reported in The Times. Lennox was said to have fired and “grazed His Royal Highnesses' curl” but the Duke fired in the air, declaring satisfaction given and the matter closed.
On 27 May 1798, Tory Prime Minister William Pitt faced George Tierney, Whig MP for Southwark, on the heath after accusing him of being unpatriotic. No-one was injured.
On 21 March 1829, another Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, met the Earl of Winchilsea after being accused of infringing English liberties by granting civil rights to Roman Catholics. The Duke aimed wide and the Earl didn’t fire at all and later apologised. The most popular venue for duels during the 1830s was near Wimbledon Windmill.
Although most ended without injury, in 1838 a man was killed and the local authorities appointed the miller, Thomas Dann, as special constable to stop any further incidents. Two years later another confrontation really hit the headlines and Dann was unable to pre-empt it.
On 12 September 1840, James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, Colonel of the 11th Hussars, faced the young Captain Harvey Tuckett. Cardigan’s relations with his own officers were poor and he had court-martialed one for placing what he considered the wrong sort of wine bottle on the regimental table.
Headlined “The Black Bottle Affair”, a newspaper published a series of anonymous letters attacking him. He discovered Captain Tuckett as the author and demanded satisfaction. Having shot the junior officer in the chest he was subsequently tried by the House of Lords for attempted murder but denied the charge and was acquitted.
His reputation, already in tatters, would only get worse when years later he ordered his men into the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea.
The last notable duel on the Common came in the same year when the exiled French Prince Louis Napoleon, the future Emperor Napoleon III, challenged his cousin, Comte Leon, to a combat.
Having arrived to fight it out they started arguing about the weapons to be used. This wasted so much time that the police were able to arrive at the scene, arrest them both and bring them before Bow Street magistrates who bound them over to keep the peace. The days of dueling on Wimbledon Common were over.
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