James Landale

What was once a privilege for a narrow class of aristocrats and gentlemen became common practice among lower orders. The duel, wrote one historian, had become 'vulgarly popular.' The first blow was struck by technology. The newfangled pistol replaced the sword and instantly allowed anyone to be a duellist. In the past, a man would have required the years of training in swordplay. Now anyone, of any class, could stroll into a gun shop, buy a pair of percussion pistols, and shoot his opponent dead in the morning. Editors fought to defend their columns, doctors to defend their procedures, judges to defend their decisions. Another assault on duelling's elitism came from the youthful middle classes themselves. They loved to duel, not least because they thought it made them posh. Duelling was seen as a vehicle for social aspiration and its greatest drivers were snobbish soldiers. Thousands of middle-class officers, who had spent the years fighting Napoleon aping their aristocratic betters, returned after the peace in 1815 and duelled like men possessed. At the same time the professional middle classes—the lawyers, the vicars, the journalists, the civil servants—had a constant injection of new dueiling blood from the second and third sons of aristocrats who were forced to earn a crust by the unrelenting laws of primogeniture. In 1877, Abraham Bosquett wrote that 'no country is at present more addicted to duelling.'

This apparent democratisation of duelling had the curious effect of preparing the way for its decline. The upper classes were horrified to see what had once been their privilege become common practice. As a result, one of the strongest codes of duelling, namely that a gentleman could not refuse a challenge without risk of ostracism, began to weaken. Men no longer considered themselves automatically obliged to accept a challenge if so many of their potential opponents were not of the same class. The duel was no longer in itself a definition of gentle rank and thus the upper classes duelled less.

The older, established members of the industrialised middle classes were as horrified as their aristocratic counterparts. They had been quite content for the landed classes to shoot each other occasionally. But the prospect of young middle-class men getting involved was much more serious. Duelling suddenly became a threat to everything their class represented. The middle classes saw duelling as a dangerous and destabilising antithesis of their bourgeois values of restraint, reliability, and rule of law. Duelling was a threat to profit, prosperity and the public peace. 'There was a world of difference between throwing away your life and saving for a rainy day,' wrote the historian Kevin McAleer. A dedicated capitalist could not afford to risk a duel every time he was involved in a business dispute. Such disorderly public behaviour was an anathema to him, a symbol of the excesses of the last century. More than that, a genuine bourgeois would naturally put his business and family before some spurious and anachronistic concept of personal honour. According to Antony Simpson, the middle classes believed that 'as duelling became more pervasive, it became less manageable and therefore more of a social threat.' As a consequence it was vital for the state to take responsibility for arbitrating between individuals in dispute.

The concern felt among the industrial middle classes spread. Where once the press had gloried in the notoriety and excitement of duelling, the public prints now began to mock. In the wake of the ridiculous duel in 1940 between the Earl of Cardigan and captain Tuckett, The Times was unstinting in its condemnation: 'What the effect upon society in general must be of letting it be understood that there is a crime which must not, or cannot, be restrained or punished because peers and "gentlemen" think proper to commit it while the law declares it to be a felony, we leave those to judge who know the power of example and the aptness of the lower orders to learn evil from their betters. We are firmly convinced that no more pernicious or anarchical principle than that of the defenders of duelling was ever broached by chartism or even Socialism itself.' Strong stuff and note the inverted commas. In the cheekier popular press, duelling was lampooned in cartoons, a once solemn act rendered ridiculous by scrutiny. Fake duellists were exposed and mocked for fighting with pistols charged only with powder or bogus bullets made out of paper or mercury. Notorious duellists were ragged in the street. On the day Lord Cardigan was acquitted by the House of Lords, he attempted to attend a play in Drury Lane but a riot broke out: 'Yells, hisses, shrieks, groans made it impossible for the performance to begin; it being feared that the Earl would be attacked, he was taken out of the theatre by a side door.' Groups and societies were set up to oppose duelling. The most influential, the Anti-Duelling Association, was set up in 1843 'consisting of 326 members, so many of whom were of the two services, or noblemen, baronets and members of parliament.' They denounced duelling 'as contrary to the laws of God and man and eminently irrational as well as sinful.' One of the outspoken anti-duelling activists was an Irishman called Joseph Hamilton who called for stringent new laws. All seconds, he declared, should be fined £1,000 and forced to surrender half their Property to the poor. And as for the duellists: 'Let the body of the deceased be soldered up in a leaden coffin to prevent an offensive smell; let it be drawn on every anniversary of the death for one hour upon a sledge through the most public parts of the town or city next to the scene of action, accompanied by the survivor.' Not surprisingly, Hamilton's ideas did not trouble the parliamentary draftsmen.

Some of these changing views began to filter further down the social chain and opposition grew among ordinary, labouring folk. Above all they resented what they saw as a privilege of aristocracy. Why, they asked, should a gentleman killer escape the law when a thieving peasant could be strung up at the gallows without a moment's thought? Why should there be one law for the rich and one for the poor?

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.