The district of Port Phillip seems an overwhelmingly Victorian city. [There’s a little pun there, for those of you not familiar with Melbourne, because the Port Phillip District later came to be known as ‘Victoria’.] Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, when Port Phillip was in its infancy, and the influx of immigrants which became a tsunami in the 1850s gold-rush, embedded the ideas and mindset of Victorian Britain along with the foundation-stones of many Gold Rush era buildings. But there is one manifestation of an older, Georgian-era mindset in Port Phillip during the late 30s/early 1840s – duelling.
There had been a late 18th century revival in duelling in Britain, especially amongst army officers. In 1777 at the Clonmel Assizes a group of Anglo-Irish gentlemen drew up the ‘Clonmel Code’ which comprised 26 rules for duelling. Although it was becoming less popular in Britain in the early decades of the 19th century, it continued in the colonies for longer, especially in Upper Canada, Sydney and Hobart which could perhaps be explained by the heavy presence of army officers in those locations.
It existed alongside, and was often inter-twined with the legal system. Indeed, lawyers were frequent participants. It was both a supplement to the legal system, and was supplemented by it, with disputes involving duelling often being played out through placards, newspaper letters and court cases as well. Hence, while he was serving in Upper Canada in 1828 Judge Willis heard a court case that emerged from a duel that had occurred more than ten years previously, that had been reignited by a letter published in the newspaper.
There were several duels in Melbourne. One famous one involved Peter Snodgrass (good name, eh?) and Redmond Barry who was later to become Chief Justice, and famously acted as the judge in the Ned Kelly trial. Peter Snodgrass had been involved in an earlier duel as well.
As Edmund Finn tells it in The Chronicles of Early Melbourne (p. 776)
On the evening of the 1st January 1840, a select dinner-party assembled in one of the club-rooms to bid hearty welcome to the newly-arrived year, and here gathered as choice a dozen of exuberant spirits as could well be found from that day to this. They sat round a table of “full and plenty” where no stint was imposed upon the animal enjoyment of eating and drinking; and after dinner there was no disposition to bring the convivialism to anything like a premature termination, so there they stayed without giving a thought to an early breakup….When the wine, or rather the brandy, was in the wit flew out. “A cup difference” arose between Mr Peter Snodgrass and Mr. William Ryrie, and heated words and offensive insinuations followed. Snodgrass was the son of a Lieutenant-Colonel of distinction, and may be supposed to have inherited a martial ardour, which , which he was never reluctant to suppress when any occasion arose to excite it, and accordingly, a circumstance not surprising to those who knew his temperament, he forthwith challenged Ryrie to mortal combat. The verbal cartel was accepted as willingly as it was offered…
The shooting match was fixed for daybreak the following morning, on the western slope of Batman’s Hill, now the site of the Spencer Street [Southern Cross] Railway Station, and there was not much time for effecting the preliminary arrangements.
But an unexpected and formidable difficulty interposed…Strange and unaccountable omission! The Club was not provided with such gentlemanly indispensables as duelling pistols; and worse too, it was impossible to procure any in town without exciting a curiosity which might spread the matter abroad, and conduce to its interruption by police or other interference.
What to do? Then someone remembered-
Mr Joseph Hawdon, of Heidelberg, was the possessor of a splendid case of hair-triggers, which could be got, if only their owner could be got at; but he was enjoying the pleasures of his peaceful home, and that was eight miles in the country. This was a gloomy and disheartening look-out…Fortunately, there was present a man worthy of, and equal to the occasion. H-lt-n, Ryrie’s second, had a good horse in the Club stable, and fresh from the “land of green heath and shaggy wood” was an expert plucky rider, as firm in the pigskin as on the solid ground, and jumping up, proclaimed his readiness to ride… to Heidelberg, storm the Hawdon domicile, and either return with the pistols, or never show his honest face amongst them. The offer was rapturously applauded…
And so off he rode-
Arriving at his destination, the dreaming Hawdon was broken in upon, the pistols obtained, and the eight miles back were thundered over again in a double-quick time never out-paced since. It was about 1 o’clock when the courier galloped up Collins Street, flourishing a pistol in each hand…
Lack of ammunition was the next problem, again solved by the enterprising second Mr H-lt-n, who sweet-talked the Military Commandant into handing over the needful. On the way back to the club, he called in on Mr D. J. Thomas the surgeon, who agreed to accompany them.
Every obstruction now removed, the party moved off to the convincing ground, a grassy common on the verge of the swamp northwardly adjoining Batman Hill. By this time it was clear daylight, as fine and fresh a summer morning as could be decided. The distance was measured, the pistols primed, and the men placed; but just as the fatal signal was about to be given, Snodgrass, who was always a victim to over-impatience, or ultra excitement on such occasions, so mismanaged his hair-trigger that it went off too soon; so, instead of slaying his antogonist, he wounded himself in the toe, and came to grief. Ryrie, as a matter of course, could not think of behaving so unhandsomely as to shoot a man down, and forthwith flared up in the air. Thomas was immediately at work with the wounded patient, who, though literally prostrated, was found to have sustained no serious injury…
And what became of the Hawdon Duelling Pistols? As Garryowen tell us, Hawdon had a contract with the New South Wales government to convey the mail overland to and from Yass. The pistols were placed in the hands of the first mailman, John Bourke, one of Hawdon’s employees, to be used as a means of defence against “possible bushrangers and probable Aboriginal assailants”. Garryowen did not know if the pistols were ever deployed, but as Bourke was a good marksman, he was sure that he wouldn’t ‘toe’ himself as the first duellist did.
Edmund Finn (Garryowen) The Chronicles of Early Melbourne
Penny Russell Savage or Civilized? Manners in Colonial Australia
Cecilia Morgan ‘In Search of the Phanton Misnamed Honour’: Duelling in Upper Canada Canadian Historical Review , Vol 76, No. 4 Dec 1995 pp 529-562
Crossposted (partially) at BanyuleHomestead because the aforesaid Joseph Hawdon later lived at Banyule Homestead in Heidelberg