Historical Snippets

A Grand Old Duel at York

The story of this duel is one that is veiled in mystery. The account survived, but the names of those involved did not. A writer used aliases in one newspaper article with the briefest of clues telling us who they were. A commission agent, a barrister, a publican, and a surveyor were sitting down for dinner at York in January 1887. What ensued was an argument.

…be seated Reader and now allow me to relate this stirring little drama with the characters to whom I have already introduced you.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1955); 29 January 1887; Page 2; Desperate Duel at York

The men, along with a few others, were in the course of lengthy discussions. One question arose, and the commission agent gave a long speech outlining his points on the matter. He was still talking on the subject when the barrister interrupted him with a sarcastic remark. The commission agent took offense. Abandoning their friendship, they proceeded to verbally abuse each other.

Despite being a barrister, the man had never actually worked in the profession. He was lucky enough to live on inherited wealth. The commission agent immediately drew attention to that fact. “You a lawyer…why you never had a case. You fool you.” The barrister responded, “You are a contemptible worm and someone ought to crush you – Go away – I cannot bear you near me – You vex me.”

For the publican and the surveyor, the incident was amusing. Rather than attempting to quell the dispute, they openly encouraged it. For days, the war of words continued. Then, on one particular day after lunch, the barrister was lying down on a couch. The commission agent approached, placed his foot on the couch and again drew attention to the fact that the barrister had no law practice. The barrister kicked his foot away, and the commission agent replaced it only for it to be kicked off again.

The commission agent lost his temper and went to see the publican, airing his grievances. The publican, knowing full well that the commission agent was not strong enough to win in a fight, jokingly advised him to challenge the barrister to a duel. The commission agent seized on the idea. Barely hesitating and in a fit of rage, he raced back to the barrister and challenged him to a fight with pistols.

At first the barrister looked on in shock. Then, he came around and declared, “What is death to a fool like me. I have nothing to live for, but if I die, to die by the hand of a worm – yes a contemptible worm like you, it quite maddens me.” The men glared at each other. The commission agent redoubled his insults. “You fool. You wretch to insult me – you worthless fellow, I shall have satisfaction.” The commission agent announced that the publican would be his second – the man who prepared the weapons and made sure the duelists followed the rules.

In walked the surveyor with a look of dismay at what he heard. A moment later, he too was asked to be the second for the barrister. He agreed and went away to find the publican to arrange a time and place. They decided to hold the duel at 5:30 am the following morning near the bend of the Avon River.

Despite issuing the challenge, the commission agent had never used a pistol, so the publican kindly gave him basic instructions on how to fire it. The barrister, on the other hand, had often used firearms; he did not need much instruction from the surveyor. 

Before the duel could even take place, someone tipped off the police. Angry and feeling as though he would not get an opportunity to restore his honour, the commission agent blamed the barrister. He later confronted him accompanied by the publican. The barrister steadfastly denied being the one who told them. But what were they to do about the duel? They could not carry on as planned, with the police likely to stop it. The publican, however, was prepared.

“Look here” said he, “the only way out of the difficulty is to fight it out this afternoon at five o’clock. It is now a few minutes after four o’clock and you will have ample time to settle your worldly affairs. I suppose you will each make your will? It’s safe – one of you will be sure to fall – probably both.

At those words, the commission agent fainted. It was then that many realised that he was the one who probably tipped off the police. Finally yielding to his fate, he wrote his Will as well as a long letter to his wife. The barrister, on the other hand, was a little more unconcerned; he smoked until it was time to leave.

At 5 pm, near the bend of the Avon River and surrounded by gum trees, the commission agent, the barrister, their seconds, and a few other friends prepared for the duel. The ground was marked, and the duelists shook hands. Standing back-to-back (the commission agent trembling with fear), they walked twenty paces in opposite directions. At the signal, they turned and fired!

Neither man fell. Their seconds went to them to check if they were bleeding, pulling off coats and making a thorough investigation. With no blood to be seen, they fired their pistols a second time. Again, no one fell. The publican and the surveyor decided to intervene. They persuaded the commission agent and the barrister to put aside their differences (and their pistols) and to reconcile.

With the duel officially over, everyone retired to the hotel for a drink. It was then that the commission agent and the barrister learned the truth. Their seconds had played a trick on them. Real bullets were not used in the pistols. The publican and the surveyor had exchanged them for ones made of putty. While the commission agent and the barrister were spared the possibility of injury (or, even worse, death), neither was spared the embarrassment of being made the victims of a hoax.


  • 1887 ‘DESPERATE DUEL AT YORK.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1955), 29 January, p. 2. (SPORTING SUPPLEMENT.), viewed 06 Feb 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article76474970
  • 1887 ‘General News.’, The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), 26 January, p. 3. , viewed 06 Feb 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66082919
  • Cruikshank, Isaac, 1756?-1811?, Artist. The Slang Duellist-S a Shot at a Hawke or the Wounded Pigeon!. [England: Pubd. by S.W. Fores, 50 Piccadilly, Jun. 20] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2006684739/>.

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