Early in the morning of 21 March, 1829 a horse and carriage carrying the then Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, drove through The Green Park and along the King’s Road before crossing Battersea Bridge to the south of the Thames.
Turning left, they stopped somewhere near the southern end of where Chelsea Bridge would later be built, close to the notorious Red House inn. The PM returned to Downing Street at around 8 a.m. to continue with matters of state, including a visit to Windsor Castle to report to George IV.
Such mundane matters would not need to be mentioned except for one thing. The reason the Duke went to Battersea was to fight a duel with the Earl of Winchilsea. The Earl, a staunch Protestant, was fiercely opposed to Wellington’s change of mind to supporting the Catholic Relief Bill, which he had initially opposed.
The Bill proposed giving limited freedom to Catholics to hold public office, including becoming MPs. Winchilsea had accused Wellington, himself a Protestant, of “an insidious design” that would allow “popery into every department of the State”. The Duke’s honour was impinged. Honour and masculinity were at stake. Winchilsea would not apologise. There was only one way out. And so it was.
Whether the hero of Waterloo fired deliberately to miss or simply aimed badly is still a moot point among some historians. One version, not corroborated, says Wellington’s shot went through his adversary’s hat. Winchilsea responded by shooting his bullet into the air. Reparations were deemed to have been made as Winchilsea had “stood his adversary’s fire”.
It turned out to be the last time a British Prime Minister was involved in a duel. The previous occasion was when William Pitt faced the MP for Southwark, George Tierney, on Putney Heath in 1798. It may also have helped to hasten the decline of duelling in England, where it faded long before it did in the continent (where swords rather than pistols were employed).
The area around the disreputable Red House – now occupied by new Berkeley houses on the site of Battersea Power Station – was the most likely place for a duel, being among other things the place where crack shots assembled to shoot pigeons.
Thomas Kirk, former City missionary in Battersea, described the Red House thus: “If ever there was a place out of hell that surpassed Sodom and Gomorrah in ungodliness and abomination, this was it. Here the worst men and the vilest of the human race seemed to try to outvie each other in wicked deeds”.
We know exactly where the Red House was thanks to excavations by archaeologists from the Museum of London in 2001 on a site at the southern side of Chelsea Bridge. The excavations revealed the walls of the Red House, which can be seen in the photo above right.
Whether there is any relevance of all this to today is arguable. But if ministers had to resort to duels to resolve transgressions we soon might not have any at all.
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