A Duel in Hyde Park 1783

On the evening of the 3rd September 1783, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Thomas sat down and wrote his will.

London, Sept. 3, 1783

I am now called upon, and, by the rules of what is called honour, forced into a personal interview with Colonel Gordon. God only can know the event, and into his hands I commit my soul, conscious only of having done my duty. I therefore declare this to be my last will and testament and do hereby revoke all former will I have made at any time. In the first place I commit my soul to Almighty God, in hopes of his mercy and pardon. I leave 150l in bank notes to my dear brother, John Thomas Esq. I also bequeath unto him whatever sums may be due to me from the agent of the 1st Regiment of Guards, reserving a sufficient sum to pay my debts and bequeath to him all my books and household furniture and everything of which I am now possessed. I give and bequeath to Thomas Hobbs. My servant 50 which I request my brother will pay him. What debts may be now owing I request my brother will immediately discharge.

Fred Thomas

P.S. I commit this into the hands of my friend Captain Hill, of the first Regiment of Guards.

Why is this will significant? It’s not the most interesting or especially informative. Well, because the following day, Fred Thomas had an ‘interview’ with a Colonel Gordon, but not an interview for a job, or a chat or a disciplinary meeting. He was meeting a Colonel Cosmo Gordon for a duel and was clearly wanting to ‘put his house in order’ before the event. The postscript was added to his will after the event took place.

Fred’s opponent was Colonel Cosmo Gordon, the third son of William Gordon, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen (1679-1746) and his wife Anne, who was living in the parish of St. George, Hanover Square.

William, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen; British (Scottish) School
William, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen; British (Scottish) School; The National Trust for Scotland, Haddo House
Lady Anne Gordon, 3rd Wife of the 2nd Earl of Aberdeen, with Her Son, Alexander, Lord Rockville; British (Scottish) School
Lady Anne Gordon, 3rd Wife of the 2nd Earl of Aberdeen, with Her Son, Alexander, Lord Rockville; British (Scottish) School; The National Trust for Scotland, Haddo House

The two gentlemen in question had a long-standing military dispute and General Gordon accused Lieutenant Thomas of besmirching his good name and demanded satisfaction as you can see in this letter from Gordon to Thomas

Cosmo Gordon, Great Marlborough-street, 20th of June 1783, seven o’clock.


 Having had a full and honourable acquittal of the charge you brought against me, I desire you will give me personal satisfaction, and meet me with a friend and two brace of pistols and a sword, at the Ring, in Hyde Park.

 Your injured obedient servant,

Cosmo Gordon 

Addressed to Colonel Thomas.

View near the Ring in Hyde Park, looking towards Grosvenor Gate, during the Encampment 1780 by Paul Sandby.
View near the Ring in Hyde Park, looking towards Grosvenor Gate, during the Encampment 1780 by Paul Sandby. The Royal Collection Trust.

The duel went ahead on the morning of 4th September 1783:

At six in the morning, the pair met at the Ring in Hyde Park to fight the duel. It was agreed upon by their seconds, that, after receiving their pistols, they should advance (eight paces being the usual distance apart required), and fire when they pleased.

On arriving within about 8 yards of each other they presented and drew their triggers at virtually the same time, but only the Colonel’s pistol went off. Fred having adjusted his pistol, fired at the Colonel, who received a severe contusion on the thigh.

Their second pistols were fired without effect and their friends called to reload them. After which they advanced to almost the same distance and fired. Fred fell, having received a ball in his belly causing a wound one inch long but fourteen inches in depth. body. He received immediate assistance from the surgeon, who was in attendance.

Whilst the injury appeared severe it was not instantly fatal. From the said 4th to the 5th day of September, Frederick languished, but on the 5th day of September, the said Frederick Thomas died as a result of his injury. An inquest was held by Thomas Prickard on 6th September 1783.

Cosmo Gordon was charged with murder and appeared at the Old Bailey but was eventually found NOT GUILTY.

Frederick Thomas was buried a few days later, on the 10th of September 1783 and his name appears in the burial registers of St George’s Hanover Square, which covered St George’s Fields, Bayswater, at this date.


Stamford Mercury 25 September 1783

The Old Bailey Online, City of Westminster Coroners: Coroners’ Inquests into Suspicious Deaths

The History of Duelling by John Gideon Millingen

City of Westminster Archives provided confirmation of the entry in the burial register

Featured Image:

A Military Encampment in Hyde Park, 1785. Inscribed in pen with brown ink, verso, center: “Drawn on July [1785?] | by | James Malton”, Signed and dated, verso, in pen with brown ink, “1875 | by | James Malton” Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Centre for British Art

The Coroner’s Verdict is final

Life expectancy was much lower in the Georgian era mainly due to lack of medicine, poor diet, hygiene and sanitation but, looking back through the newspapers of the day, Health & Safety and personal injury/accident lawyers would have had a high old time with many accidents and deaths resulting from guns accidentally discharging and killing people, fires in the home, deaths as a result of falling off horses and accidental drownings due to due to excessive alcohol intake appears to have been a common cause, as does being run over by a waggon … the list goes on. The eighteenth-century was clearly a dangerous time to live in, as demonstrated by this example

Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer, December 14, 1754 – December 17, 1754

Reading, Dec 14. On Monday last an Inquisition was taken at Beaconsfield in Bucks, on the body of a woman, well known in that part of the county to be a common prostitute, who meeting with one William Clarke, at the Hare and Hounds at Red Hill in the said county, who was driving a cart, she got into the cart and calling at several places to drink gin, they were both intoxicated, and about half a mile from Beaconsfield the woman fell out of the cart when the man was asleep, and about two in the morning she was found dead on the road, several carriages having run over her head and body, but unknown to anyone who they belonged to. The jury brought in their verdict of accidental death.

The remainder of our post looks at some more unusual instances of death which were recorded by the Coroner as ‘accidental’.  There are certainly some verdicts which, if viewed today, could quite easily be regarded as murder or at least manslaughter, but the Coroner’s Verdict was recorded as accidental and his decision was final.

Coroners inquest Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library Banner

We begin with the Daily Advertiser, Friday, November 7, 1777

On Tuesday a pack of goods, weighing about three hundred and a half, fell from the Bengal India Warehouse, in New Street, Bishopsgate upon Mr. Netherhood, belonging to the above house, by which accident his back, thigh and both legs were broke and he died on the spot. On Wednesday the Coroner’s Inquest sat on the body of Mr. Netherhood, at the Magpye, a public house in the above street, and brought in their verdict – Accidental Death.

Lloyd’s Evening Post, November 21, 1798

Wednesday evening, a Coroner’s Inquest sat at the parish church of St. Laurence, Cateaton Street on the body of Norman, a private in the West Yorkshire Militia, who was unfortunately killed by a fall from the roof of the Manchester Coach the preceding day.

The 'King's Harms', British (English) School (a painting of the 'King’s Arms' inn in Manchester. As the sign on the façade shows, the artist misspelt the name of the establishment, hence the title of the picture). Compton Verney http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-kings-harms-54665
The ‘King’s Harms’, British (English) School c.1800 (a painting of the ‘King’s Arms’ inn in Manchester. As the sign on the façade shows, the artist misspelt the name of the establishment, hence the title of the picture).
Compton Verney

Whitehall Evening Post, September 1, 1798

On Friday morning last Mr. Benjamin Hale, a soap-boiler in Goswell Street, having been up all night at work, unfortunately lost his light, and, shocking to relate he fell into a pan of lees then boiling, by which he was so much scalded and mortification coming immediately on, that he died in the afternoon of the same day. The coroner’s Inquest was held on the body on Monday.

Bone House - Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Bone House – Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Star, Friday, September 7, 1798

On Tuesday an Inquisition was taken at Stone, Bucks, before Mr. Burnham, his majesty’s Coroner, on view of the body of Edwin Smith, a boy about eight years old, who, as he was climbing upon the spokes of the wheel of a harvest cart, with an intent to get up and ride in the same, in consequence of the horses suddenly moving forward, he fell to the ground, the wheel passed over his boy and killed him on the spot.

The Harvest Wagon by Francis Wheatley, 1774. Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-harvest-wagon-46836
The Harvest Wagon by Francis Wheatley, 1774.
Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, August 4, 1774 – August 6, 1774

On Wednesday night died, of a mortification in this thigh, Mr. Edward Paget, many years Master of the Queen’s Head Alehouse in Marsham Street, Westminster. His death was occasioned by being shot in the back part of his thigh, by standing too near one of the cannons going off on Millbank at the time of the boats passing by for the rowing match on Monday for Doggett’s Coat and Badge, which immediately mortified. The Coroner’s Inquest on Thursday morning brought in their verdict – Accidental Death.

The Race for Doggett's Coat and Badge by Thomas Rowlandson. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge by Thomas Rowlandson.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

True Briton, Thursday, October 4, 1798

On Thursday se’nnight, Joseph Beight, a well-cleaner of Damerham, undertook to clean a well in Mr. Coomb’s yard at Milford, near Salisbury, and when about to descend, a rope was procured, which Mr.  Coombs wished him to fasten round his body, that me might be pulled up in case of accident, which was rather to be apprehended, as the well was about 30 feet deep, narrow and very foul; he, however, unfortunately rejected this advice and was let down in the bucket, holding the rope in his hand only.

When about half way down, he called to the people above to let him go faster; but when they had turned three rounds more, he called ‘stop!’ and presently after, ‘pull up’, it was immediately discovered that he had let go the rope, and, overcome by the foul air, his body sunk by the side of the bucket, and obstructed its passage as it was drawing up. More assistance was then called, but from the exertion that was used, a link of the chain gave way and the man’s body sunk precipitately to the bottom of the well. Another man was let down, with the rope fastened round him, but he felt himself so strongly affected by the noxious effluvia, that he was obliged to be drawn up when he had reached half way.

Grappling irons were then resorted to and near an hour was spent in their efforts to draw the body up. No hope could be entertained of restoring animation and account of the time that had elapsed and the sad bruises the body had received. Mr. Whitmarsh held an Inquest on the body the next day, Verdict – Accidental Death. The unfortunate man was 54 years of age and has left a widow and eight children to lament the loss of an industrious husband an affectionate father.

Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser September 6, 1774 – September 8, 1774

On Saturday a chimney-sweeper went up a baker’s chimney, near the Maze Pond, Southwark, when the chimney was so hot that he had not the power to get down again, but was suffocated in a few minutes. The Coroner’s Inquest brought in their verdict – accidental death.