The Last English Duel
The designation ‘Last English Duel’ is chosen for a reason, as another duel between two Frenchmen was fought on English soil (Old Windsor) in 1852, with fatal consequences for the former naval captain Cournet. But the duel in Gosport on May 20 1845 was the last fought on English soil between two English protagonists, again with a fatal result for one of them.
Perhaps disappointingly for the last of its kind the matter was a rather commonplace and slightly sordid one. A well-to-do former army officer (though he had served but a short time in the Hussars), Captain Alexander Seton, though married paid rather too close attention to the wife of Royal Marine Lieutenant Hawkey. When the latter was absent on duty the dashing if it seems portly Seton called on Mrs Hawkey at her lodgings. Inevitably rumours reached her husband, who warned his wife off, but she still danced a quadrille with the wealthy Seton at Southsea ’s Assembly Rooms.
Unable to bear his implied dishonour Hawkey berated his rival, who protested innocence of the charges. Hawkey’s reaction was more Chaplin than Preux Chevalier – he kicked Seton. A duel was agreed, seconds appointed, both young, which given they could (and indeed did) face charges as a result of the settling of the matter of honour was criticised by brother officers.
Hawkey may have been less than a true gentleman in his approach, as his kick had already demonstrated. He purchased pistols and tested them, choosing and marking the better one for himself. And when Seton missed with his shot and Hawkey’s failed to fire, honour satisfied he might have been expected to bow and leave. Not he: another shot was demanded; again Seton missed, but this time Hawkey hit his opponent. Where he was aiming – from a mere 15 paces – suggests a less than gentlemanly intention too: Seton was hit at his right hip, the bullet travelling round the pelvis and emerging through the left groin. Our view of Hawkey is added to by his immediate remark: “I’m off to France,” a decision promptly carried out. If there is any narrative justice in the world he was twirling his moustache-tips as he said those words.
Seton bled profusely. Eventually the flow of blood was slowed, but not stopped, and a surgeon from London was summoned for his help. As the medical cliché has it, the operation was a success but the patient died. A coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of murder; but at their trial the survivors of the fight (Hawkey and the seconds) were found not guilty, either swayed by Seton’s unsubtle advances to Mrs Hawkey, or by the defence argument that the operation had killed him not the bullet (and given the nature of 19th century medicine this was a distinct possibility).
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