Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, was considered a notorious character, “a desperate ‘bruiser’ and duelist.” He was also a scrapper and was known to fight with his friends, which is exactly what happened when he and his “bosom friend,” Captain Best, ended up in a duel in 1804. Both men were considered fashionable young men about town and both were officers in the Royal Navy. They were also wagering enthusiasts, who were said to be “very courageous…first rate pistol-shots…[and] less than thirty years old.”
Their difficulties centered around an abandoned 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 by “[setting] Lord Camelford at him.” 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.” Best replied that he had done no such thing but Camelford insisted and called Best “a scoundrel, a liar, and a ruffian.” 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.” Instead of a retraction, however, Camelford repeated the words only louder and then “hissed out ‘coward’ in addition.”
Best realized he had no choice but to duel, and so it was set for the following morning. They met early on March 7 at the Gloucester Coffee House on Oxford Street and there Best “renewed his endeavours to induce the retraction of the offensive expressions.” He called upon Camelford appealing to his emotions and reminding him they were friends. Best stated, “upon my honour you have been imposed upon by a strumpet.” Despite Best being considered the best shot in England and because Camelford thought his reputation might be damaged if he conceded, Camelford replied, “Best, this is child’s play; the thing must go on.”
The “thing” took place at the Horse and Groom in Kensington. A mere 30 paces separated the two duelists, “which, upon being measured, proved to be just twenty-nine yards.” Camelford fired first. He missed.
Best fired. Camelford fell. 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.” 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.”
Camelford was then conveyed to Brighton where he suffered for several days until he died on March 10th, after making his will. In his will, he made a formal declaration stating that “having lost his life in a contest of his own seeking, he forbade any of his friends or relations to take proceedings against his antagonist.” Camelford also wanted his body conveyed to a spot near the Lake of St. Lampierre, in the Swiss canton of Berne in Switzerland. Supposedly, he 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.”
- Bailey’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, Vol. 56, 1891
- “Further Particulars of the Fatal Instance of Duelling,” in Hull Packet, 20 March 1804
- Steinmetz, Andrew, The Romance of Duelling [sic] in All Times and Countries, Vol. 2, 1868
- “The Duel Between Lord Camelford and Mr. Best,” in Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 16 August 1804
- The English Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 24, 1900