The Duel of Lord Camelford and Captain Best

The duel of Lord Camelford and Captain Best involved Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, who was considered a notorious character. People described him as “a desperate ‘bruiser’ and duelist.”[1] He was also a scrapper and known to fight with his friends. That is exactly what happened when he and his “bosom friend,” Captain Best, ended up dueling in 1804.

Duel of Lord Camelford - Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Both Lord Camelford and Captain Best were considered fashionable young men about town and both were officers in the Royal Navy. They were also wagering enthusiasts, and both were said to be good shots:

“Captain Best was a first-rate shot; indeed, it was said of him by sporting men in general, that he ranked as No. 1, in the kingdom. … The late Lord Camelford was also highly distinguished as a first rate shot – and he could perform wonders with a pistol, such as snuffing a candle at a tolerably good distance: and who never failed to hit a mark set out for him. Indeed, there was scarcely a jot between them for choice.”[2]

Their difficulties centered around a woman named Eliza Symons. She had formerly lived under Camelford’s protection. However, after meeting Best at the opera and being attracted to him, she made overtures to him. He rejected her, and she became angry and abusive. She also decided to get revenge and said she would “set Lord Camelford on him.”[3] To accomplish this she lied. She told Camelford Best had spoken disparagingly of him.

It did not take long for Camelford to find Best at a coffee-house on Conduit Street. He accosted him saying, “I find, Sir, that you have spoken of me in the most unwarrantable terms.”[4] Best replied that he had done no such thing but Camelford insisted and called Best “a scoundrel, a liar, and a ruffian!“[5] Best informed Camelford with “the strongest assurances that the information which he received was false, and stated that as his lordship had acted under a false impression, he would be satisfied by the retraction of the words which had been used.”[6] Instead of a retraction, however, Camelford repeated the words only louder and then “hissed out ‘coward’ in addition.”[7]

Best realized he had no choice and the duel of Lord Camelford and Captain Best was set for the following morning. They met early on March 7 at the Gloucester Coffee House on Oxford Street and there Best tried to diffuse the situation by trying to get Camelford to retract what he had said. He appealed to Camelford and reminded him that they were dear friends. Moreover, he stated, “upon my honour you have been imposed upon by a strumpet.”[8]

The duel of Lord Camelford and Best could have been stopped if Camelford would retract what he said, and Best did try to get him to do it. But Camelford thought his reputation might be damaged if he conceded and so, he replied, “Best, this is child’s play; the thing must go on.”[9]

The “thing” took place in a meadow at the Horse and Groom in Kensington near Holland House. A mere 30 paces separated the two duelists, “which, upon being measured, proved to be just twenty-nine yards.”[10] Camelford fired first and missed. Best then fired. Camelford fell.

Holland House in 1896. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Best’s ball penetrated Camelford’s “right breast, between the fourth and fifth ribs, breaking the latter, and making its way through the right lobe of the lungs into the sixth dorsal vertebrae, where it lodged, having completely divided the spinal marrow.”[11] Best rushed to his fallen friend, seized his hand, and Camelford exclaimed, “Best, I am a dead man,—you have killed me, but I freely forgive you.”[12]

Camelford was then conveyed by his second and gardener to the nearby Little Holland House where surgeon Simon Nickolson examined him. Camelford then suffered for several days until he died on March 10th.

“Lord Camelford expired about half past eight o’clock on Saturday evening. His recovery had been pronounced to be impossible by the surgeons, at two o’clock on that day; after which time, such of his Lordship’s friends as wished to see him, were permitted to do so. He remained sensible till within a few minutes of his dissolution, though he had been speechless for some time before he died.”[13]

As to Best the Hull Packet reported:

“Mr. B. and the seconds left town in a post-chaise, from the house where the quarrel had originated. The Magistrates of Marlborough-street gained intelligence of their first stage, and instantly dispatched officers in pursuit of them.”[14]

Best would never be charged because the jury had no direct or admissible proof that Best or any of his seconds were involved. Apparently, prior to the duel of Lord Camelford and Captain Best, Camelford made out his will that in part stated:

“There are many other matters which at another time I might be induced to mention, but I will say nothing more at present than that in the present contest, I am fully and entirely the aggressor, as well in in the spirit as in the letter of the word. Should I therefore lose my life in a contest of my own seeking, I most solemnly forbid any of my friends or relations, let them be of whatsoever description they may, from instituting an vexations proceedings against my antagonist; and should, notwithstanding the above declaration on my part, the laws of the land be put in force against me, I desire that this part of my will may be made known to the king, in order that his royal heart may be moved to extend his mercy towards him.”[15]

Duel of Lord Camelford - Lord Camelford

Lord Camelford. Author’s collection.

Lord Holland, owner of the Holland House, erected an antique Roman altar on the spot where Camelford fell, inscribed with the legend “HOC DIS MAN, VOTO DISCORDIAM DEPRECAMUR.”[16] Camelford wanted his body conveyed to a spot near the Lake of St. Lampierre, in the Swiss canton of Bern in Switzerland, the same spot where Madame Tussaud claimed to have been born, although she was actually born in Strasbourg. Supposedly, Camelford was buried under a tree (although St. Anne’s Church in Soho also claims he is buried there), and, as he requested, it was in  “a spot not near the haunts of men, but where the surrounding scenery may smile upon my remains.”[17]

References:

  • [1] The Portrait Collector’s Manual, 1884, p. 15.
  • [2] Egan, Pierce, Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, and Mirror of Life, 1832, p. 228.
  • [3] Steinmetz, Andrew, The Romance of Duelling [sic] in All Times and Countries, Vol. 2, 189.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] The United Service Magazine, 1838, p. 438.
  • [7] Bailey’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, Vol. 56, 1891, p. 369.
  • [8] The United Service Magazine, p. 438.
  • [9] “The Duel Between Lord Camelford and Mr. Best,” in Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 16 August 1804, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters, 1805, p. 160.
  • [12] “The Duel Between Lord Camelford and Mr. Best,” p. 4.
  • [13] “Further Particulars of the Fatal Instance of Duelling,” in Hull Packet, 20 March 1804, p. 4. – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000061/18040320/009/0004
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] “The Duel Between Lord Camelford and Mr. Best,” p. 4.
  • [16] Timbs, John, Curiosities of London, 1855. p. 433.
  • [17] The Monthly Magazine, Volume 17, 1804, p. 390.

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