Pembrokeshire Duels

By Simon Hancock Calendar

Simon Hancock is a local historian with a passion for tales of Pembrokeshire. Here he tells of the conventions and traditions of duelling in the county exclusively for our Bluestone Blog. 

When we think of duels we immediately conjure up in our imaginations scenes of eighteenth-century gentlemen in powdered wigs attended by seconds preparing to do battle with swords or pistols regarding some minor and often trivial point of sc-called ‘honour.’ 

Men, and very occasionally women had always sought to resolve differences by combat even back to Celtic times and in the Middle Ages single combat was acceptable. The conventions of almost courtly duelling which emerged from the seventeenth century onwards. Duels were fought over matters of honour between men of equal rank. Any disagreement between a gentleman and social inferior could be laughed off without any loss of face. Such was society then.

Swords were used in earlier duels but by the nineteenth century we find pistols as the only weapons used in Pembrokeshire duels. The first recorded duel in Pembrokeshire history occurred on 4th April 1683 in the last years of the reign of King Charles II when two gentlemen of London, Vaughan Phillips and Thomas Roach fought with swords on The Marsh roughly when the local authority offices are today. Another duel took place which resulted in the death of Thomas Howard in the seventeenth century. If you go to St. Michael’s Church, Rudbaxton you see his image pointing to a red mark on his breast. This is an allusion to a pistol shot or stab wound which caused his untimely death.

No fewer than three famous Pembrokeshire duels took place in the 1790s. On 15 March 1791 a duel was fought in Withybush Park near Haverfordwest between Captain Thomas Picton of Poyston and Hassel. Captain Picton was shot with a leaden pistol shot in his shoulder near his neck and was dangerously wounded. He obviously recovered and resumed his distinguished if highly controversial military career. He died on the field at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

The second local duel of the 1790s was that involving the circumstances of the French invasion near Fishguard in 1797. During the early manoeuvring after the landing the decision of Lieutenant Colonel Knox to retreat from the town with his Fencibles came in for withering criticism so that later, a group of Pembrokeshire yeomanry officers stated their intention to resign their commissions rather than serve under Knox at a future date. His leadership was ‘ignorant of duty and want of judgement.’ Knox was relieved of his command and noting the name of the officer at the head of the list, Lord Cawdor, he sent a servant to Stackpole Court calling for satisfaction. 

Somewhere between the present villages of Burton and Houghton the parties met. We do not know the outcome; it remains only a tantalising possibility that a duel occurred.

The most famous duel in Pembrokeshire history took place two years later and gave rise to the ironic place name today of ‘Fortune’s Frolic’ at Haverfordwest. The encounter involved Samuel Fortune who was a member of an old Haverfordwest family who was born in 1776. He entered his father’s tannery business although in some accounts he is described as a ‘gentleman.’ He befriended John James, an articled clerk who was related to the powerful and wealthy James family of Pantsaeson near Moylegrove in north Pembrokeshire. On 16 September 1799 the two had a trivial row. Rashly Samuel struck his friend on the shoulder with his whip and they parted in anger.

A challenge was issued and without telling anyone Samuel Fortune made his way over to the Croft Field at Uzmaston near Haverfordwest on 21 September 1799 where the tragic events were to unfold. On the field Samuel Fortune refused to fire. John James took deliberate aim so that the lead pistol shot hit him in the lower abdomen which made him stagger. Samuel Fortune asked John James to shoot again since he was sure he was now a dead man. James refused and stated that Samuel Fortune could open fire if he wished to. He chose not to do so. Samuel was brought to his father’s house where he died between on the morning of 22 September 1799.

A legend maintains how the killer’s sister, Miss James was engaged to Samuel Fortune and how she died of a broken heart. The legend states how she was buried in the same grave with him six months later. A Mary James, aged 20 was buried in an unspecified plot in 1801 but whether she was Samuel’s intended we will never be sure. The site of the duel is today remembered as ‘Fortune’s Frolic.’ 

Tenby saw two extraordinary duels in 1839 and 1842 where amazingly the protagonists were current mayors of the town. On the first occasion, 1 April 1839 William Richards of Croft House was one of the parties. He made his fortune in the East India Company. Croft Terrace was built in 1833 and next to it stood Sion House owned by Sir Henry Mannix. It was a dispute over a strip of ground outside Sion House that the duel arose. A challenge was issued and on a Monday morning at Gumfreston not far from the village church, the two men met. Richards fired into the air but Mannix deliberately took aim and shot the mayor of Tenby in the groin. The pistol ball was removed and Richards slowly recovered. Mannix, it was supposed disappeared perhaps back to Ireland.

In 1842 another Tenby mayor was standing on a duelling field outside the town. One party, Charles Cook Wells inherited property from his uncle which brought him to the town. His opponent was Captain Francis Rivers Freeling one time in the in the 92nd (Highland) Regiment of Foot. At any rate the duel, fought outside the town perhaps on 6 September 1842 involved two shots exchanged but happily no injuries.

The last known Pembrokeshire duel took place on the sands near Haverfordwest, surely Broad Haven in November 1843. The names of the protagonists are unknown save for the identity of one as Captain B---y an officer who had recently distinguished himself in the recent wars in Afghanistan. His opponent was Mr T. J---s, surely Jones. Mr Jones was badly injured so that his life was despaired of. No further details are known of this encounter, positively the last to be fought in this Pembrokeshire. It became a criminal offence not only to fight a duel or even to issue a challenge to provoke one. Those pistol shots heard on Broad Haven sands brought the chapter of Pembrokeshire duels to a close.