Anyone who has been out in Sydney for a few drinks will know just how volatile the crowd can be; a knocked drink, a few words exchanged and then biffo.
Well nineteenth century Sydney was much the same, except some of these disagreements ended up in hostile meetings with pistols!! Although not exactly common, duels were not unknown in Sydney in its early years. While this is amazing enough, what is more so is that it was most often between well known and highly respectable combatants.
The first duel recorded in Sydney was in August 1788 between the Surgeon John White and his assistant William Balmain (who had a suburb named after him). They had hardly got rid of their sea legs before they were arguing. The exact cause is not apparent but both were slightly wounded after their encounter.
Luckily they were doctors.
Balmain must have enjoyed the thrill as he was at it again in 1796 when he was a magistrate. This time he managed to get Captain John Macarthur offside after Balmain had attempted to charge some of Macarthur’s NSW Corp buddies who had smashed up the home of carpenter John Baughan. Balmain called Macarthur a base rascal and an atrocious liar and a villain. Them there are fightin’ words. Despite the call for a duel to restore honour, nothing further came of it.
The next reported duel was in October 1826 between the Attorney-General Saxe Bannister and the editor of The Australian, Dr Robert Wardell. Bannister had charged Wardell with criminal libel for articles published in his newspaper and called him the ‘scum of London’. As can be imagined, a newspaper editor can take a lot of abuse but to be called scum! I think not. Pistols were called for and, although the affair made all the colonial papers neither man was inured.
Like Balmain, Wardell couldn’t get enough and in the next year was in another duel, this time with Colonel Dumaresq, Private Secretary for and Brother-in-law of Governor Darling. I’m not convinced taking on the Governors brother in law with pistols is s good idea, but still they did. Again 3 shots each resulted in no injuries and Wardell agreed to writing an apology to Dumaresq for a supposed slander.
High profile shooters were all the rage and the last of the famous ones was between Sir Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor General and Mr Stuart Donaldson, MLA and later NSW first Premier. While campaigning for election, Donaldson claimed that the Surveyor General’s department was extravagantly overspending and wasteful.
Mitchell demanded an apology after writing to the Sydney Morning Herald and claiming Donaldson had laid false charges. Both men then began a letter writing feud in the Herald, which both the public and the editors loved. As the heat grew, neither man would back down, and so once again it was to be decided with pistols.
Mitchell and Donaldson with their respective seconds headed to the Water reserve, now Centennial Park, to settle matters. The ground was paced out and each took shots at each other. Three shots were exchanged, and while Donaldson’s last just missed, Mitchell put his through the middle of Donaldson’s top hat. Honour restored they retired.
Imagine if the Premier of NSW settled disputes with pistols in Centennial Park these days. And they say NSW politics is tough now!
Sadly not all ended happily, with at least one reported that ended in the death of one participant. A Mr Charles Penworthy, chef officer of the ship, Elizabeth, Captain Cook was killed in a duel on Garden Island in 1828. Although a tragic end, Penworthy knew how to die gallantly, giving his opponent another shot after he missed and smoking a cigar the entire time.
As they say, smoking kills.