Newfoundland Dog Duel in 1803

One spring evening at half-past six what would be called the Newfoundland dog duel occurred. It involved two men, Colonel Robert Montgomery and Captain James Macnamara, and happened at Primrose Hill, a hill once part of the great chase appropriated by Henry VIII that was later situated on the northern side of London’s Regent’s Park. The quarrel began over the behavior of the two men’s Newfoundland dogs. It ended with only one man surviving, because as one nineteenth century writer put it, they “lowered themselves by an unseemly squabble in public, … by fighting a duel on account of a quarrel for the sake of two vile dogs!”[1]

Newfoundland Dog Duel

Newfoundland dog. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Robert Montgomery was a scion of the old and honorable family of Montgomery. His father was Sir George Montgomery, Baronet of Macbie Hill, and his wife Anne. He was 28 years old, a gallant and distinguished officer in the 9th Regiment of Foot. During the Dutch Expedition, after a drummer was killed, Montgomery proved himself a true war hero.”[He] took up the drum, beating it to rally his men, he himself standing alone … did rally them, and at their head rendered essential service.”[2] He was also described as a remarkably handsome and fashionable man who was friendly with the Duke of York and the Prince of Wales.

His opponent, James Macnamara, was about thirty-six years old, “a strong, bold active man. He had fought two or three duels before.”[3] He had fought two or three duels, and, like Montgomery, Macnamara was also considered a hero and was an officer of distinction in the Royal Navy. He had behaved gallantly and with daring in several actions as the Commander of the Cerberus frigate. In addition, two months before the duel, Macnamara returned from the West Indies having served honorably there.

The first dispute occurred as the men were riding in Rotten Row in Hyde Park on 6 April 1803 between four and five in the afternoon. A witness to the event, William Sloane, noted that he, his brother Stephen, and Montgomery were riding together. Montgomery owned a young Newfoundland dog, named Wolf, who was following him. A larger, stronger dog of the same species was following Macnamara that for clarity’s sake I shall call Ceasar. The dogs upon seeing each other began to snarl and fight.

At the time, Macnamara was on horseback and accompanied by several men. When Ceasar seemed to be getting the better of Wolf, Montgomery separated the dogs and asked, “Whose dog is this?”[4] Macnamara answered that Ceasar was his dog, and, Montgomery said, “If you do not call your dog off I shall knock him down.”[5] Macnamara replied, “Have you the arrogance to say you will knock my dog down?”[6] Montgomery told him, “I certainly shall, if he falls on my dog [Wolf].”[7]

Similar harsh conversation passed between the two men for a time. Then to calm things down, as a group, all of the men went to Piccadilly where Macnamara and Montgomery exchanged names.  Montgomery then said, “It is not my intention to quarrel with you, but if your dog falls on mine, I shall knock him down.”[8]

From there the men separated and it seemed as if the dispute was at an end, but, unfortunately, Montgomery and Macnamara later ended up near St. James’s Church where a second dispute occurred. At the time, Macnamara’s friend traveled from between the two men hoping to resolve the difference. However, during this interchange, Wolf and Ceasar began to fight again.

“Fighting Dog”s by George Morland, circa 1800. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Montgomery told Macnamara again that “if he did not take his Wolf off “he would knock him down.” [9] Macnamara then rode up to Montgomery and said, “If you knock my dog you must knock me down afterwards.”[10] Montgomery then ask Macnamara, why he didn’t get off his horse and stop the fight. Macnamara thought Montgomery’s tone and questions were rude and replied, “Sir, if you are not satisfied with what I have done, you must satisfy yourself in such other manner as you think proper.”[11]

The dispute then became more heated and apparently Macnamara also used the word “arrogant” several times and shook a stick at Montgomery, who then replied giving Macnamara an ultimatum:

“This public place is not proper for the adjustment of a dispute … you know where to find me.”[12]

The Newfoundland dog duel was set. A witness to it noted that the seconds — Montgomery’s friend, Sir William Keir, of the Dragoons, and Captain Barry for Macnamara — conversed together and then prepared the pistols. The guns were successfully discharged to assure they were in good working condition and then Montgomery and Macnamara took their positions.

The Newfoundland dog duel was not long lasting because the men were separated by no more than about six yards. (The Royal Code of Honor would state in the 1820s that “parties should never be allowed to fight at less than ten yards distance … as dueling pistols, will inflict a mortal wound at more than forty yards.”[13]) Montgomery leveled his pistol. He fired. Macnamara fired. Then both men fired at the same. Colonel Montgomery fell; Captain Macnamara did not.

Newfoundland dog. Courtesy of British Museum.

Montgomery was severely wounded on the right side of his chest. Reportedly Montgomery’s bullet was almost effective as Macnamara’s. His bullet entered Macnamara “on his right side, carrying a piece of his coat and waistcoat with it, taking a piece of his leather breeches, and the hip-button away with it on the other side.”[14]

The surgeon went to the wounded men and both were gathered up and carried to the homestead at Chalk Farm, which subsequently gave its name to the area. As Montgomery was being carried, he “he attempted to speak and spit, but the blood choaked him. His mouth foamed much, and in about five minutes … he expired with a gentle sigh.”[15] As for Macnamara, he recovered from his wounds and was charged by the Crown with manslaughter.

Jury deliberations over the Newfoundland dog duel were held on 22 April 1803. Many highly respectable officers, including John Jervis (the Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet) and the immortal Horatio Nelson, testified on Macnamara’s behalf. The Morning Post reported:

“Mr. Hobson, the Coroner, summed up the evidence with much candour and ability, observing Col. Montgomery had, in the first instance, given an implied challenge, by saying to Capt. M. that if he was offended, he knew where to find him. From the shortness of time between the offense and duel, passion could not have cooled on either side. He did not think any verdict but manslaughter could be given.”[16]

Horatio Nelson as Vice Admiral by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1799. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the jury considered the case, they thought Macnamara sufficiently punished for his part in the Newfoundland dog duel, and, so, after deliberating fifteen minutes, pronounced him “Not Guilty.” Macnamara then went on to serve with other prominent naval officers besides Nelson and Jervis. He also later commanded several ships battling Napoleon Bonaparte‘s French fleet during the Napoleonic Wars and performed heroically. Because of his distinguished service, he was promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1814 but did not receive a seagoing command. In 1818, he married a widowed woman and died at the age of fifty-seven in Clifton, Bristol, on 15 January 1826.

As for Montgomery, it was said, he “died universally regretted, and among others, the Prince of Wales shed tears on being apprised of the melancholy end of his friend.”[17] Montgomery was buried in a vault at St. James Church. If he had survived, his baronetcy may not have become extinct as he would have succeeded his older brother, who died in 1831 without any children.


  • [1] Steinmetz, Andrew, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 2, 1868, p. 185.
  • [2] Cobbs, James, The Monthly Mirror, 1803, p. 283.
  • [3] Steinmetz, Andrew, p. 186.
  • [4] Burke, Peter, Celebrated Trials Connected with the Upper Classes of Society, 1851, p. 239.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 240.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] University Magazine: A Literary and Philosophic Review, 1870, p. 227.
  • [12] The Sporting Magazine, 1803, p. 24.
  • [13] Hamilton, Joseph, The Only Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829, p. 16-17.
  • [14]  The Annual Register, 1805, p. 381.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “Colonel Montgomery,” in Morning Post, 9 Apr 1803, p. 3.
  • [17] Steinmetz, Andrew, p. 187.

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