Duel at Chalk Farm Tavern: A Regency Tragedy

William Hazlitt
William Hazlitt, Self Portrait

I’ve been writing a lot of history lately, and am actually under contract to Pen & Sword to produce two books on the 19th century over the next two years. This is a guest post I’ve just done for Geri Walton’s Blog Unique Histories from the 18th and 19th Centuries, concerning a Regency magazine war that got way out of hand…

On the night of Friday, February 16, 1821, two men faced each other across the field of honour, a wooded knoll beyond the Chalk Farm Tavern near Primrose Hill, to the north of a great chase that had yet to become Regent’s Park. This had been the scene of many duels; there were no neighbouring houses, just open fields hidden from the nearest road by a screen of trees. One of the men had left half a bottle of wine at the inn, telling the landlord he would be back to finish it later. It was a bright moonlit night, if a little misty on the low ground, and after the pistols were knocked and primed one duellist had called to the other: ‘You must not stand there; I see your head above the horizon; you give me an advantage.’ The seconds consulted and the men calmly changed their positions, once more facing off. Yet these were not soldiers or aristocrats, but men of letters, both well-known in the world of Regency journalism.

The men raised their pistols, and almost simultaneously they fired.

The man who had left the wine was John Scott, the editor of The London Magazine, a Whiggish, Radical and Romantic publication conceived as a reply to the hugely popular and High Tory Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. At thirty-six, Aberdeen-born Scott was an established London newspaper man, having edited The Statesmen, The Censor, Drakard’s Stamford News, Drakard’s Paper, and The Champion. He had taken on the editorship of Robert Baldwin’s relaunch of The London Magazine the year before. Scott also wrote much of the copy, while notable contributors included Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. (1)

Scott was an idealist, and he never missed a chance to attack the ‘Pittite’ or Tory Party, who had held power almost exclusively in the newly designated United Kingdom since 1783. He campaigned for electoral reform, the abolition of slavery, Catholic emancipation, education for the poor, and an end to flogging in the British Army. He was not a man to back down in an argument, and when the rival journalist, Richard Newcomb Jr (using the common Georgian practice of writing under a pseudonym) denounced him as ‘a traitor, a Jacobin and a blackguard,’ Scott let it be known that should Newcomb care to make these accusations in person, he would meet the charge with a challenge.

But it was not Newcomb that Scott faced that fateful evening, but the lawyer and literary dilettante Jonathan Henry Christie, the London agent of the Scottish journalist John Gibson Lockhart. The son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, J.G. Lockhart was one of the driving forces behind Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, part of a shadowy triumvirate with John Wilson (better known in print as ‘Christopher North’) and James Hogg (‘The Ettrick Shepherd’), a young and inexperienced team that had quickly begun making waves. Their inaugural issue alone contained a violent attack on Coleridge, and a biblical parody of Whig rival The Edinburgh Review entitled ‘Translation from an Ancient Chaldee Manuscript’ that resulted in an out-of-court settlement for slander.

The opening issue of Blackwood’s also carried the first of many virulent articles on the so-called ‘Cockney School of Poetry,’ written by Lockhart, egged on by Wilson. This satirical ‘christening’ of the second generation of Romantics in opposition to ‘The Lake School’ was particularly directed at Leigh Hunt, the editor of the Radical weekly paper The Examiner, although in follow-up articles it was quickly applied to anyone suspected of Whiggish principles, most notably William Hazlitt and John Keats. In dismissing Hunt and his circle – to which John Scott belonged – as ‘Cockneys,’ Lockhart’s class agenda was clear: Hunt was described as a ‘man of little education and low birth and habits’ who was ‘perpetually labouring to be genteel,’ while ‘All the great poets of our country have been men of some rank in society’ (‘Z’: 1817, ‘Cockney School I,’ 38 – 39).

Hazlitt at this point dodged the bullet, but once he leapt to Hunt’s defence in print he was dismissed as a ‘pamphleteer’ and a ‘driveller’ (‘Z’: 1818, ‘Letter from Z,’ 415). Hunt demanded that ‘Z’ reveal his identity, and a meeting was brokered with Christie by mutual friend John Hamilton Reynolds. This appeared to defuse the issue, until ‘On the Cockney School of Poetry No. 2’ appeared, again focusing on Hunt and tearing into his poem The Story of Rimini (1816), which was described as ‘vile, profligate, obscene, indecent, and detestable’ (‘Z’: 1818, ‘Letter from Z,’ 416).

Once more, Hunt used the pages of the Examiner to invite ‘Z’ to send his address to his printer ‘in order that justice may be executed on the proper person’ (qtd. in O’Leary: 1983, 139). Hunt put it about that this was to challenge ‘Z’ to a duel, although publisher William Blackwood and Lockhart interpreted it as a threat of an action for libel, a contingency that the anonymity of Regency journalists was intended to avoid, and why Lockhart wrote as not only ‘Z’ but as ‘William Wastle,’ ‘Dr Peter Morris,’ and ‘Baron von Lauerwinkel.’ The nebulous editors therefore decided to drop some chaff, and went after Keats instead, attacking the ‘imperturbable, drivelling idiocy’ of the recently published Endymion, the poet’s lack of a classical education, and his political affiliations (‘Z’: 1818, ‘Cockney School IV,’ 519, 524). Byron would later write of this review in Don Juan:

Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate;

’T is strange the mind, that very fiery particle,

Should let itself be snuffed out by an article (Byron: 1837, Canto XI, 446 – 448).

The ‘Cockneys’ were all at one time or another allies of John Scott, and he continued to work closely with Hazlitt on The London Magazine. Blackwood’s was also lampooning some of his closest friends, including humourist Peter George Patmore (the father of Coventry Patmore), and the Whig politician Sir James Mackintosh, who would rather have liked the Chair of Moral Philosophy that John Wilson had recently gained at Edinburgh University. They even went as far as to dismiss his star writer, ‘Elia’ (Charles Lamb), as a ‘Cockney scribbler.’ Scott and Hazlitt therefore went after Blackwood’s with a vengeance, criticising the attack on Keats and the ease with which Wilson had achieved his Professorship, darkly hinting at the worst kind of cronyism in the form of the considerable influence of Sir Walter Scott.

Lockhart responded as ‘William Wastle,’ sending up Scott’s popular travel writing in ‘The Mad Banker of Amsterdam’ and dismissing the dissenting Secession Church to which his family belonged as ‘Lilliputian.’ ‘Christopher North,’ meanwhile, teased about his circulation and sales, naming Scott in person and suggesting he ‘keep to his own side of the road’ (O’Leary: 1983, 141). Wilson had always been careful to keep his own name out of print, because to go public might leave one exposed to anything from a writ to a physical assault. To name Scott as the editor of The London Magazine was therefore not only a major breach of etiquette but genuinely dangerous.

Scott and Hazlitt replied in the November issue of The London Magazine in a twelve-page rant entitled ‘Blackwood’s Magazine: They do but jest – poison in jest – no offence i’ the world!’ which not only attacked ‘Peter Morris’ and ‘Christopher North’ but Walter Scott, who was charged with condoning and perpetuating Blackwood’s practice of ‘mystery as to the authorship’ (Anon: 1820, ‘Blackwood’s Magazine,’ II, 509). Sir Walter kept his own counsel in public, but privately wrote to Lockhart advising him to back off:

I care not how hard others lay on the Galwegian Stot, only I would not like to have you in that sort of scrape which, if he have a particle of the buffalo in him, might, I think, ensue. Revere yourself, my dear boy, and think you were born to do your country better service than in this species of warfare (qtd. in Lang: 1897, I, 243).

John Scott, however, kept up the pressure in his December issue, once more attacking what he called the barbarian ‘Mohock Magazine,’ appealing to his famous namesake to publicly disown his son-in-law’s excesses, and naming Lockhart as the ‘Emperor of the Mohocks,’ wrongly assuming that Wilson had left after becoming an academic. He concluded that ‘Dr Morris’ had acted ‘contrary to the usage of a gentleman’ (Anon: 1820, ‘The Mohock Magazine,’ II, 685). Scott’s blood was up to the point that he asked Patmore, ‘If Lockhart and I go out, will you accompany me?’ (O’Leary: 1983, 146). Christie, meanwhile, wrote to Lockhart that ‘I think you must do something more with him [Scott] than kill the zinc-eating spider’ (qtd. in Lang: 1897, I, 250).

Lockhart, however, had other concerns. His wife was expecting their first child and was gravely ill, his partner in crime John Wilson was focusing on his university career, and his illustrious father-in-law was far from happy at being drawn into a public spat. Edinburgh thus went quiet, leaving John Scott to wrongly assume that he had carried the day. Urged on by Hazlitt, and hoping to mortally wound his biggest commercial rival, he devoted much of the January issue of his magazine to harrying Blackwood’s. Again, he went after Lockhart, to whom he mistakenly ascribed several inflammatory articles in fact written by Wilson and Irish Tory William Maginn. Unwittingly, he had fallen into a trap set by the many disguises employed by Blackwood’s contributors. In Scott’s mind, and more damagingly in print, Lockhart therefore became the sole editor of Blackwood’s, and referring to a recent libel action against the magazine that named him, he again called him out:

We have been told that Mr John Gibson Lockart [sic], having been originally included in the action now pending, has given it under his hand, that he is not the Editor of the Magazine. The people of Edinburgh are not surprised at this denial: it is well known there that Doctor Morris, under the assumed name of Christopher North, is the Editor of the work, and the author of the most malignant articles! Would the Doctor have the baseness to make a similar denial? We believe he would; for all the professions of a merry careless temper, by which it has been attempted to characterize the publication he conducts, have evidently been intended to cover an organized plan of fraud, calumny, and cupidity. The cowardice which denies a perpetrated wrong, is the natural associate of such qualities. Doctor Morris would deny just as firmly as Mr Lockart [sic] (Anon: 1820, ‘The Mohocks,’ III, 77).

In the face of such direct provocation, Lockhart wrote to Christie:

Talk over the whole affair with Traill [James Traill, another Scottish lawyer based in London] and one or both of you go to this Mr Scott … you will dictate according to your own discretion, which I can trust better than my own, an apology to be inserted in the front pages of his next magazine, and whatever else I please. If there is any difficulty about this, it remains only that you fix a day for the man to meet me at York or any other place halfway between Edinburgh and London’ (qtd in O’Leary: 1983, 149).

From this moment on, the outcome was as inevitable as tragedy…

To read the full article with references please click here

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