Hyde Park was established by Henry VIII in 1536 and opened to the public in 1637 where it quickly became popular. Major improvements to the park happened in the early eighteenth century under the direction of Queen Caroline. It was also during the eighteenth century that several noteworthy things happened at the park, among which were several robberies pulled off by highwaymen, duels, and suicides, along with several positive events, such as a walking match, muster of the cavalry, a review of the military by George III, and of course, the addition of the recreational lake called the Serpentine that changed the look of Hyde Park forever.
One publicized robbery involved a highwayman who robbed two different sets of people on the same day in 1733. Witnesses reported he was mounted on a bay gelding and wore a black piece of crape over his face. He first robbed a coach against the Mount taking from the gentleman and lady therein “two Gold Watches, a Diamond Ring, and about 12 or 13l. in Money.” Immediately afterwards he robbed another coach but this time he struck near Hyde Park gate. The Ipswich Journal reported:
“[N]otwithstanding he was in sight of the Gate keeper and several other Persons, robb’d the Gentleman and three Ladies with him in the Coach of Money, Rings, &c., to a considerable Value, and rode bare fac’d, with a Pistol cock’d in his Hand, thro’ Hyde Park Gate and the Turnpike, along Piccadilly down St. James’s street, and there finding himself closely pursued, he gallop’d in a precipitate Manner to Charing Cross, where he quitted his Horse and got into a Hackney Coach, and order’d the Man to drive up the Haymarket, by which Means he made his Escape, altho’ several Hundreds of People were following him.”
Another highwayman was apparently quite gentlemanly when he accosted his victims in Hyde Park in December 1749. According to the Pue’s Occurrence:
“On Thursday night between 6 and 7, Mr. Gascoyne, was robbed in Hyde Park by a single highwayman, mounted on a black horse, with a bald face, in a white surtout coat, who after robbing him of his money, asked pardon, shook hands, and rode off.”
Although Hyde Park robberies by highwaymen got a lot of press, robberies were not the only threatening thing that happened in the park. There were several well publicized duels with one of the most infamous resulting in both duelers dying. It happened in 1712 and became known as the “Hamilton-Mohun Duel” because it involved James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton and Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun.
It was ostensibly fought over a disputed inheritance but had strong political overtones because Mohun was a prominent Whig and Hamilton had close links to the Tory government. Of the two, Mohun was known to be a frequent and violent duelist, having been involved in several fatal encounters and in fact his father had been killed in a duel a few years earlier.
The Hamilton-Mohun duel began after Hamilton was appointed British Ambassador to Paris and was expected to negotiate a peace agreement that would end the War of the Spanish Succession. Mohun’s political patron the Duke of Marlborough had recently been dismissed from his command and was strongly opposed to the peace plan. That may have been what motivated Mohun to issue his challenge to Hamilton.
In any event Hamilton accepted the challenge. Everything was set for the two men to duel with swords. They then selected their seconds (Colonel John Hamilton for the Duke and George Macartney for Mohun.) Everyone met at Hyde Park early in the morning of 15 November 1712 and when given the signal the two duelers went after each other with intense ferocity. An exchange between the two resulted in Mohun being run through the chest and dying on the spot. After Hamilton delivered the fatal blow to Mohun he noticed a cut to his arm and dropped his sword. Supposedly, it was then that Macartney stepped forward and delivered a fatal blow to Hamilton, who died soon afterwards.
Both seconds were charged as accessories to murder. Colonel Hamilton gave himself up and was found guilty of manslaughter whereas Macartney fled but returned to face punishment after George I came to the throne in 1714. The duel was also decried by the public to be brutal and savage, and it reinvigorated the age old campaign to clamp down on dueling. However, despite the outcry the sport continued for some time and soon instead of swords, people were dueling with pistols.
One gun duel that garnered headlines happened in Hyde Park in 1792. Two law students, a Mr. Frizell and a Mr. Clarke were busy drinking with one another at the Cecil Street Coffee House. They continued doing so until one in the morning at which time Frizell refused to drink any further. Clarke became upset and although Frizell tried to apologize Clarke refused to accept his apology. He then insisted that the two should meet to settle their difference in a pistol duel at Hyde Park.
Their friends, a Mr. Montgomery and a Mr. Evans, tried to resolve the situation but it was no use and so they, serving as seconds, went with Frizell and Clarke to Hyde Park that morning. The duel went off as planned and almost immediately a ball from Clarke’s pistol penetrated Frizell’s collarbone. He fell wounded to the ground while Montgomery ran to get a coach to take the wounded Frizell to a surgeon. Unfortunately, by the time Montgomery returned, he found Frizell had expired.
In the meantime, news broke that a duel had happened in Hyde Park. Those involved in the incident were then apprehended by a party of soldiers in the immediate area. However, their commanding officer decided not to hold the duelers in custody and freed them. It was reported that Clarke and Evens quickly hightailed it out of town and as they were natives of Ireland, it was supposed that was where they were headed.
The same day Frizell died a coroner’s jury was empaneled. Witnesses were examined and a James Newman testified to seeing Frizell dead in Hyde Park, hearing the report of pistols, and seeing two people kneeling over the dead body. A corporal also testified to witnessing the same thing. Thus, ultimately, the jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder” against Clarke and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
A group of Bow Street Runners were sent to find him and about the same time, Clarke was seen passing through Chatham. It therefore did not take long before the Bow Street Runners were close on his trail. They ultimately captured him and returned with him a day later. He was brought before Sir S. Wright of the Public Office at Bow Street but after Montgomery testified that Clarke had behaved properly during the duel, Wright let him go and “discharged” the matter ending any further legal action against Clarke.
It was not always Englishmen dueling in Hyde Park. There was also a duel that happened between two Americans in August of 1796. According to the Caledonian Mercury it happened between William Carpenter and John Pride. It started when America became the topic of their conversation at the Virginia Coffee House. Carpenter gave his opinion that Mr. Giles, a member of Congress, was not so able a man as many people supposed and he did not consider him “honest.” Pride, a citizen of the state of Virginia, objected to this statement and a challenge ensued.
The men met at Hyde Park at half past five on Sunday, 21 August. The seconds tried to end the affair before it started but neither Pride nor Carpenter would agree. The distance was then measured, and the duelers fired at the same time. Twenty-one-year-old Carpenter was hit in the side and breathed his last breathe at twelve o’clock at Richardson’s Hotel in Covent Garden. Measures were then taken to apprehend the 25-year-old Pride and his second, but from all reports nothing came of it.
It was just not dueling that proved to be deadly in Hyde Park. Several suicides also happened there in the 1700s with one starting out as mystery. The same year that Marie Antoinette finished her Hameau, servants heard someone rattling the front door chain of General Carpenter’s house at about five o’clock in the morning in March of 1788. An alarm was sent to the General but when reaching his room, it was found he was not there, and so a diligent search was made for him.
Elsewhere and earlier that same morning a laborer had noticed a hat floating on a pond in Hyde Park. He retrieved it with some difficulty and went to an inn where he offered it for sale. Coincidentally, the site where the hat was for sale was the same place that one of Carpenter’s servant went in search of the General. While there he noticed the General’s hat and then learned how the man had come too possess it.
The discovery resulted in the park’s pond being dragged for the General’s body, which was discovered about 6pm. It was found in a popular watering place near the east end of the pond. The Reading Mercury reported:
“It had been observed by the servants who had lately attended him in his airings in Hyde Park that he always ordered the coachman to stop at the watering-place where the body was discovered. … The General’s affliction for the loss of his favourite son, an event which lately happened, was so very extreme as equally to affect and debilitate his system and his intellects.
Another suicide happened in the park in 1789. It was reported by Saunder’s’ News-Letter:
“A young gentleman lately shot himself in Hyde Park, the son of a German General, who had sent him to England for his education. He was at school at Walthamstow for some considerable time past, and was scarcely eighteen years of age. The cause of his death is not known to a certainty; but it is conjected from several circumstances, it was what he considered as too sparing an allowance of money, that drove him to the desperate act which terminated his life. The place which he chose for the last scene of his life was just near the powder magazine in Hyde Park. A gentleman was near enough to see him put the pistol into his mouth, but still too far to be able to snatch it from him in time to prevent the execution of his dreadful purpose.”
Another tragic suicide happened a few years later. According to the Hereford Journal in 1793:
“A dreadful circumstance occurred … in Hyde Park. A young man, very well dressed and of comely appearance, after walking for some time, near the carriage way, drew a pistol from his pocket, and discharged the contents into his head. The muzzle had been placed against the back part, just over the neck, and three balls penetrated from thence upwards. As he fell, some persons ran towards him, and a lady stopped her carriage, in which he was taken alive, but speechless to St. George’s Hospital.”
Despite efforts to the save the young men, it was reported that he died around five o’clock that same afternoon. It was stated that he was about thirty, employed in some sort of “commercial concern,” and resided in the Pall-Mall. Still, no one seemed to know exactly why he had decided to end his life.
Although many sad events happened at Hyde Park sometimes there were uplifting events too. For instance, the celebrated pedestrian, Foster Powell, conducted one of his famous walks from the park. The Hampshire Chronicle reported in 1790:
“Yesterday morning, at seven o’clock, … Powel [sic], and a Mr. West of Windsor, set off from Hyde Park Corner to decide a walking match of 40 miles for forty guineas, which was won by the latter, who came in within six hours. Powel gave up when he reached the 28th mile-stone, when West was four miles a-head. The winner, however, came in in a most miserable condition, from his very extraordinary exertions.”
There was also the case in 1797 of the Westminster Provisional Cavalry being mustered for the first time in Hyde Park. The Hampshire Chronicle reported on the event stating:
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s man was called, mounted on the best horse in the field, and being a likely fellow, he was stiled by the officers ‘Prime minister of the troop.’ The spectators were highly entertained with the antics of the rough riders, many of whom were ran away with by their horses.”
A review of the “gallant” and “patriotic” volunteer corps of the cavalry and infantry was also conducted by King George III at Hyde Park in 1799. The Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal gave the following particulars related to the review:
“The infantry composing each side of the square, was assembled in a separate column. The columns were close but not crowded. They were marched to their positions by their respective commands, each entering near the left of its ground, and prolong the line, till it arrived at its right point. the cavalry was assembled behind the walnut tree in a line, their right near the Oxford road gate of the Park, and facing to the west, whence they proceeded to take their final position.
Precisely at nine the King … entered the Park. On his Majesty’s arrival a salute was fired, and the evolutions commenced according to the orders issued by the Duke of York. The troops then passed his Majesty in a line … after which the whole number waved their military caps in the air and gave three cheers. A salute of 21 guns was then fired to conclude the review.”
Despite everything that occurred at Hyde Park throughout the 18th century perhaps the greatest thing that happened was the addition of the Serpentine in 1730. This recreational lake was created at the behest of Queen Caroline and at the time of its construction, artificial lakes were typically long and straight. The Serpentine set a new standard as it was one of the earliest artificial lakes designed to appear natural.
The Serpentine also provided much pleasure to park visitors throughout the 1700s and it continued to do so into the 1800s. For instance, it was a focal point for the 1814 celebrations which marked a century of Hanoverian rule and again became the focal point when the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held. There was also the 100-yard swimming competition that began in 1864. Since its inception it has been hosted at 9am every Christmas morning. Moreover, it was noted in 1908 that the Serpentine “is still the finest sheet of water in any of the London parks.”
-  Ipswich Journal, September 29, 1733, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Pue’s Occurrences, December 5, 1749, p. 2.
-  Reading Mercury, “Accurate Particulars Relative to the Death of General Carpenter,” March 17, 1788, p. 1.
-  Saunders’s News-Letter, “Foreign Intelligence,” October 8, 1789, p. 1.
-  Hereford Journal, April 17, 1793, p. 4.
-  Hampshire Chronicle, “London. Tuesday, Nov. 23,” November 29, 1790, p. 1.
-  Hampshire Chronicle, April 29, 1797, p. 3.
-  Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, “Review of the Armed Association in Defence of Their Country,” June 7, 1799, p. 3.
-  A. Tweedie, Hyde Park: Its History and Romance (London: Eveleigh Nash Fawside House, 1908), p. 151.