Pistols at Dawn – Duelling in Cornwall

For hundreds of years damaged reputations were avenged and arguments were settled with a duel. Whether with sword or pistol challenging your enemy to a one on one contest was thought by many to be an honourable way to assuage your hurt feelings and answer a perceived slight.

After coming across a couple of almost comical accounts of duels fought in Cornwall I decided to dig a bit deeper and discovered the scandalous story of Lord Mohun of Boconnoc, near Lostwithiel, a rakish character involved in several duels during his short life. It is a fascinating sometimes shocking story!


The Etiquette of the duel

Governed by rigid formalities, a code of honour and many small traditions the practice of duelling thrived in England for around three hundred years.

The concept of the duel is said to have first arrived in the UK towards the end of the 16th century with the influx of Italian fashions and literature. The values of gentlemanly honour, courtly behaviour, bravery and valour appealed to, and blended well, with the British psyche.

Quantifying the number of duels that took place in the UK is difficult because so many were held in secret but it is estimated that around 1000 were held between 1785 and 1845. Four British Prime Ministers are known to have fought duels.

A pair of duelling pistols

Although it was relatively rare in Cornwall it seems that duelling amongst military officers tended to be more commonplace and so perhaps Falmouth’s naval connections led to it having more than its fair share of these kind of clashes.

Pistols at Dawn – Gyllyngvase Beach

In Falmouth in 1805 two naval lieutenants were arrested after fighting a duel. Apparently, Captain G and Lieutenant R (their names were kept out of the paper) exchanged shots after a dispute concerning a winning lottery ticket. The altercation was reported in The Times on the 9th January 1805. Little more is known about the circumstances or outcome of the event.


By the time another duel was fought in Falmouth, this time on Gyllyngvase beach in June 1845 these kinds of fights had been actually outlawed for many years but this didn’t seem to stop the practice.

It is unclear what the exact cause of the argument between these two young men was but some reports blame a young lady, while others say that it was due to some “offensive remarks” made between the two “unfortunate idlers”.

The Royal Cornwall Gazette reports that these insults led to a “horse-whipping” in the street and that the two mens’ friends persuaded them that the “stain on their honours” could only be resolved with a duel.

So it was arranged that they would meet on the beach.

“Early on Monday morning last two young sprigs of fashion belonging to Falmouth, accompanied by seconds and hair-trigger pistols had a hostile meeting on Gallenvase [sic] Beach, near the town. They fired twice and it was fortunate the weapons were not ball laden for in the second round the challenged received the shattered fragments of his adversary’s cartridge on the fine points of his whiskers. This precision healed the wounded honour and the morning foes became noon-day friends. The cause is reported to be a young lady.”

West Briton, 13th June 1845

One of the duellists is identified later as a ‘Mr Beauchant’, said to be a youth of respectability and promise; and having checked the census records for 1841 there is only one household in Falmouth with the unusual surname of Beauchant. Georgianna Beauchant, a woman of independent means, is living on Penwerris Row with her nine children, five girls and four boys. Their father was Theophilus Samuel Beauchant, at one time mayor of Falmouth and a Royal Marine. We can therefore safely assume that our duellists was one of their sons – Stephen aged 27 in 1845, George (24), Theophilus (17) or Allen (14), mostly likely one of the elder brothers.

Though the duel was written about in quite a jovial manner in the papers this was by no means a trivial incident.

Indeed, after the first light-hearted reports appeared, implying that the duel had been childish and that the guns weren’t even loaded with shot, it seems that at least one of the young men involved took offence.

On the 20th June a columnist in the Royal Cornwall Gazette wrote a long piece criticising the duellists, calling them vain, cowardly ruffians and saying that the practice of duelling was “wicked and foolish”. He then revealed that he had been personally threatened by someone because of his disparaging reporting of the original incident.

“The Falmouth duel was purely ridiculous. Little boys in the street are making a jest of it . . . The whole thing was such a complete burlesque that no one can be made to believe that there were balls in the pistols, and when some of the parties talk big and threatened to challenge or horsewhip anyone who should doubt the fact the public only laugh the louder.”

We especially were marked for vengeance . . . and one of the heroes with his second, and another friend, armed with cudgels and horsewhips, attempted to waylay us. Having learnt their intentions, we were prepared with a constable . . . ”

The duellist threatening the journalist actually ran off when he realised that they had been rumbled and bravely left his friend to take the blame. The poor young man was brought before Falmouth magistrates for what the paper calls “this silly business” but let off with a warning.

Doctor Bunny & the Red Currant Jam

Doctor John Bunny was a druggist in Falmouth for more than 40 years until his death in January 1814. He seems to have run his business from a premises near Market Strand but lived with his wife, Susanna, in a house on Melvill Road known as ‘Bunny Hall’.

Dr. Bunny was known to be an eccentric but it seems that he was a character held in great affection in the town during his lifetime and until long after his death. Indeed, the duel on Gyllyngvase beach (above) reminded some local people of an altercation that Bunny had found himself a part of many years before.

Apparently he was in the habit of enjoying a glass of something fortifying at the Commins’ Hotel in Falmouth where he was often the butt of jokes and tricks at the hands of the other regulars. On this particular evening a heated argument was deliberately orchestrated and the doctor, who was said to be rather sensitive, soon felt that his pride had been badly hurt. The poor old man was egged on until in frustration he agreed to fight a duel with the other man, right then and there, across the table.

“Everything had previously been got ready, and the pistols were charged, the doctor’s with powder and his opponents, in addition, with red currant jelly. The word was given and the doctor received his antagonist’s fire full in the face! He instantly clapped his hand on the part and seeing it covered as he thought with blood, he fell forward on the table and exclaimed “I’m a dead man!””

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 13th June 1845

Poor Doctor Bunny!

The Last Lord Mohun

There is no getting around it, Charles Mohun, the 4th and last Baron Mohun, sounds a rather unpleasant chap. Arrogant and entitled, boorish and quite frankly a bit of a rogue, there were few of his contemporaries that had a kind word to say about him.

Charles Mohun, the 4th Baron Mohun

The Mohuns were one of Cornwall’s old wealthy families. Thought to have come over with William the Conqueror the family settled in Cornwall in the early 15th century, buying the Boconnoc estate in 1579. They also owned huge areas of land across Cornwall and Devon and Sir Reginald Mohun was the Sheriff of Cornwall in 1553, while his son was given a Baronet in 1612 by King James I.

Charles was the son of Charles Mohun, 3rd Baron Mohun, and his wife Lady Phillipa Annesley, daughter of the Earl of Anglesey. Unfortunately however Charles’ father died when he was still very young in violent circumstances.

Boconnoc House & church

His father actually fatally injured in a duel, he was acting as a second for his friend Lord Cavendish in a fight with an Irish man called Lord Power. Some accounts say that the contest between Cavendish and Power had already concluded when Mohun decided to throw an insult at Power. This resulted in a second fight in which he was seriously wounded. It is said Mohun lingered in agony for a few months before eventually dying in October 1677.

And it seems that these circumstances really set the tone for the rest of Charles’ life.

On his father’s death Charles inherited a vast estate which was already buckling under the pressure of massive debts. Despite this it is said that his childhood was one of privilege and indulgence where he, alongside his elder sister Elizabeth, was raised by a “cruel, careless and quarrelsome mother”. A start in life which goes someway to justify the angry young man he was to become.

“He belonged to the licentious era of the Restoration and grew up all the more unchecked because about the time of his birth his father was mortally wounded in a duel of the old-fashioned sort . . . Charles Mohun seems to have had no formal education . . . and may have come to depend too much on cards and dice to support his style of living.

V. G. Kiernan, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004

Charles Mohun was involved in at least five duels that we know about.

Boconnoc House

The first when he was just 16 years old. After a night of gambling and drinking in December 1692 he got into a dispute over money with a young Scottish aristocrat called Lord Kennedy. A duel was fought but the pair only sustained light injuries and the argument was settled. However, just a few days later in London Mohun was part of a truly shocking episode in which he tried to help his friend Captain Richard Hill abduct an actress called Anne Bracegirdle.

Anne was beautiful and talented, and Hill was obsessed with her. When she refused his marriage proposal rather than believe she just wasn’t interested he blamed her actor friend, a married man called William Mountfort who he saw as his rival, for influencing her. Hill decided there was only one way to solve this problem, kidnap Anne and kill anyone who got in his way. Foolishly Charles agreed to help his friend.

Actress, Anne Bracegirdle

The pair plotted in local taverns, where their loud conversations were overheard by other customers, and then when they were drunk enough they went to Miss Bracegirdle’s road to catch her walking home after her nightly performance. They then tried to force her into a waiting carriage, on a busy street in the middle of London. causing a massive scene. The whole debacle ended with Captain Hill running Mountfort through with his sword. Some unsympathetic commentators suggest that Charles Mohun either held on to or perhaps distracted the poor man so that Hill could make his move. As it was Hill ran off and Mohun was arrested.


When Mountfort died the next day Charles was charged with murder, but his title and privilege was to save him from any serious consequences. Instead of a trial in front of a jury he was tried by his peers in the House of Lords, and the King apparently took a special interest in the proceedings. The Peers voted 69 to 14 to acquit him and he escaped any kind of punishment for the man’s death.

The following comment recorded by Baring-Gould illustrated the peers attitude towards what they saw as the lower classes, namely actors.

“One great nobleman was so brutal and stupid as to say, ‘After all the fellow was but a player and players are rogues.'”

S. Baring-Gould, Cornish Characters and Strange Events, 1908

For Charles, of course, no lessons were learnt and on 7th October 1694 he challenged a Cornish M.P. Mr Francis Scobell from Grampound to a duel after the man publicly complained of Mohun’s violent treatment of a coachman. Lord Mohun was furious at this impertinent interference and the altercation ended with Scobell receiving a severe cut to the head.

Three years later in April 1697 he was engaged in another duel, this time with a Captain Bingham, in which he was wounded in the hand. Then a few months later in the September of the same year he fought with a Captain Hill of the Foot Guard in the Rummer Tavern in London, during this quarrel he is said to have killed the officer. When inquiries were made as to his conduct Mohun would apparently retort “I am a peer of the realm, touch me if you dare!”

But of course his unruly behaviour was bound to catch up with him in the end.

His final duel was fought at dawn in Hyde Park on 15th November 1712 against James Douglas, the 4th Duke of Hamiton. The two had been engaged in legal wranglings for several years over an inheritance that Mohun had received but which Hamilton thought he was entitled to. They also had strong political differences, Mohun was a Whig and Hamilton a Tory.

The Duke of Hamilton

The pair met at about 7am at a place in the park called the Nursery. Mohun’s second was his friend George MacCartney while the Duke chose his relation, John Hamilton. The fight is said to have been fierce, with the two men attacking each other like “enraged lions”. Both men received several serious wounds but in the end it was Mohun who fell to the ground first.

Image of the Mohun & Hamilton Duel

What happened next is the source of some contention. Some reports say that as Hamilton bent over his opponent Mohun drew a short sword and stabbed him in the heart, while others say that it was his second MacCartney who took advantage of the moment and unfairly struck the fatal blow.

Whatever the case both men died that day and with Charles the Mohun line died too. The Boconnoc estate was sold in 1717 to Thomas Pitt who paid for it with a massive diamond which you can read about HERE.

Final Thoughts – The Last Recorded Duel?

The last recorded duel in England was thought by many to have been fought in around 1852, that is until a rather startling revelation during an interview on BBC Radio Cornwall.

In fact, the last ‘duel’ to be fought on British soil took place in 1994. The two parties involved were Ben Salfield, who has lived in Cornwall since early childhood, and another undisclosed individual. In line with tradition they met at dawn dressed in 17th century clothes. The pair fought with cavalry swords in a field near Battle in East Sussex. Salfield said it was ‘a brutal but fair’ way to decide a matter of honour.

Fittingly the dispute was allegedly over an insult to a lady.

Further Reading

Cornwall’s Strongmen – feats of strength & record breakers

Lerryn: Tales from a Cornish River Bank

Cornwall & the World’s Purest Diamond

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