A KILKENNY GENTLEMAN?
Edward J. law
When Joseph Crowther1 was horsewhipped, for trying to elope with a young lady, he could hardly have forseen that it would lead, some six years later, to his untimely death. It was the kind of incident which would be carried in the mind for ever, whatever efforts were made to erase it from his memory; no doubt it lurked there always, to surface periodically as an embarrassing remembrance, but not with threatening foreboding.
In 1829 Crowther was a Lieutenant in the British army, residing in France at the coastal resort of Boulogne-sur-mer, no doubt enjoying the pleasant way of life which seems to have been the lot of army officers when not actually fighting. To help fill his days he applied to join the local pigeon club2. This innocent step put in motion events which were to lead to his death soon after. Pigeon shooting was a fashionable pastime, played for large stakes. A report3 of 1835 speaks of a great match in Paris when "almost all the English Fashionable were present" and the first match between Lord Barry and Major Welch was for £800. 50 pigeons were let out for each: the Major killed 27 and his lordship 26.
Boulogne was at the time a very fashionable resort, popular with many British and particularly army officers living there. Among the latter was Captain Helsham, George Paul Helsham, who had lived there since 1824 or 1825. A native of county Kilkenny, George Helsham was born soon after the turn of the century, probably in the city of Kilkenny. His father, Paul Helsham, was Rector of Thomastown from 1796 to 1801, and subsequently Rector of Kilfane and Vicar of Tullaherin4. Whilst he officiated at these churches personally he apparently resided in the city. George's mother, Rebecca Blunt, came of a city family, prosperous tradesmen, whilst on the paternal side he was descended from wealthy landowners.
George Helsham was educated in Kilkenny by Mr Graves and in 18l6, at the age of 14, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, gaining a B.A. in 1820 and an M.A. four years later. It does not sound as if he had been intended for the army, perhaps he purchased a commission and intended to live on half pay, supplemented by private means, with no intention of getting within shooting range of any battlefield.
When Lieutenant Crowther applied to join the pigeon club at Boulogne, Captain Helsham objected5, on the grounds that Crowther had not conducted himself as a gentleman should: specifically, that having been horsewhipped, or knocked down, he had not sought satisfaction. Whilst this may sound rather a quaint notion at the present time, Georgian society placed great value on standards of conduct. It was stated that Crowther's standing would be permanently compromised unless Helsham withdrew the allegation and apologised. Helsham was prepared to do both if he could be satisfied that Crowther had in fact sought satisfaction, but Crowther's word alone would not suffice; could he produce the 'friend' who had acted for him. Such affairs were always handled by a 'friend', who would become a 'second' if the matter progressed to a duel. And indeed all the negotiations here discussed were between 'friends' of Helsham and Crowther.
Unfortunately, and this takes a little crediting, Crowther did not know the address of the man who he said knocked him down. He had at the time sought satisfaction by placing newspaper advertisements. Helsham suggested that he or Crowther write to three gentlemen who were at Cheltenham at the time and if any of them confirmed that Crowther's conduct of the matter had been satisfactory then he would apologise to Crowther. Crowther declined having anything put in writing on the matter.
The importance of the 'rules of chivalry' come out time and again. When Crowther insisted that Helsham apologise or meet him in a duel it was stated that the Lieutenant was an unworthy person to be put on equality with Helsham. Again, when Helsham was pressed to either apologise or meet Crowther in the field he replied "An apology, Sir, an apology is nonsense", but offered instead to fight Crowther's 'friend'. The latter replied "I am very much obliged to you, but would rather not". Presumably he was obliged that Helsham considered him a gentleman!
Helsham was under great pressure to 'meet' Crowther; he was allegedly told that if he did not agree he would be forced to it "by the usual means", apparently being horsewhipped himself or having his refusal publicly announced. He allegedly responded "I caution you, Sir, that if I am compelled to fight, I will make it a matter of business" i.e. that it would not be a mere matter of form with shots aimed high or wide.
It seems that Helsham ultimately had no option but to agree to a duel with Crowther which was fixed, rather appropriately, for 1 April 1829 at 11.00am at Napoleon's Column, in Boulogne. The duel took place that morning, with 20 or 30 people on the field: twenty minutes later Crowther was dead, shot through the neck.
Whilst dueling was a commonplace throughout the Georgian era, parties fighting on the slightest of perceived insults, it was against the law and in the case of one party being killed the other participant might find himself on trial. So it was that Captain Helsham stood in the dock at the Old Bailey, London, on 8 October, 1830, some eighteen months after the duel, "a very good looking man ... perfectly composed".
The trial had been instituted by the friends of Lieutenant Crowther, not because of the duel per se but because of the alleged ungentlemanly conduct (what else!) of Helsham. The principal allegation was that Helsham delayed his firing and took deliberate aim, which was apparently 'not playing the game'; for good measure he was accused of listening to the seconds when they were making arrangements for the conduct of the duel and watching the loading of the pistols. When they remonstrated with him on the latter point he responded that he "did not care a ---- for the usage, he would see the pistols loaded himself". It was also a matter of concern that his second who measured the twelve paces which were to separate the two, took "springing" steps, making the distance as great as possible. It is not clear how this favoured Helsham!
On the other hand it appears that a rumour was set on foot that Crowther might have fired before the formulated words "now, Gentlemen" had been uttered by the second. Two of Crowther's friends refuted this, and it was not taken up by Helsham's witnesses, but mud sticks. The main point at dispute was what had occured after the words "now, Gentlemen" had issued. Both parties stood with their pistol arm by their side, on the word Crowther raised his arm in a hurried action, fired and lowered his arm. Helsham, however, was stated to have waited until Crowther fired, gradually raised his arm, leaned his head to the right and sighted along his pistol before firing. The prosecution brought witnesses in support of this and the delay in firing: the defence had witnesses to say there was very little delay, one said the shots were like those fired from a double-barrelled gun.
Character witnesses appeared for Helsham, including William Henry Hunt, a magistrate for county Kilkenny for twenty years, who had known the defendant for a similar period. The newspaper report of the trial makes no mention that Hunt, of Jerpoint House, was married to Helshams sister, Francis Augusta6. The character witnesses knew Helsham to be "highly honourable, mild, inoffensive, good tempered and generous to a fault - a peacable and humane man". Helsham himself spoke of the respectability of his connections in Ireland, and the pain which his unfortunate situation brought upon his aged mother. His father had died in 1822, and his widowed mother resided in John Street.
When the jury found the prisoner "not guilty" the young woman who exclaimed "Thank God" was no doubt his wife, daughter of Colonel James Conway, whom he had married subsequent to the duel, who less than two months later was to give George a son and heir, being delivered at her father's house in Hampshire.
By 1837 Captain Helsham was back in Kilkenny with residences at Mallardstown and in John Street, next to his mother7. Mansfield states8 that he married Anne Burton, née Dimbleton, and had two sons and two daughters, but does not mention his first marriage. By 1841 he was an Alderman and a Freeman of the city, but was he, one wonders, by his own high standards, a gentleman?
Whatever the truth about the duel we may imagine that Helsham remembered to the day of his death in 1865 that April Fools' Day when he shot Lieutenant Crowther in cold blood.
|1||Crowthers Christian name is not certain. Contemporary newspaper reports name him variously as James, John or Joseph. I have settled for the latter which was the more widely used. He was said, in one report, to have had a brother Rev. James Crowther.|
|2||Moderator 11 Apr. 1829.|
|3||Moderator 3 Jan. 1835.|
|4||J Leslie, Ossory Clergy and Parishes, Enniskillen 1933.|
|5||Moderator 11 Apr. 1829.|
|6||B M Mansfield, The Helshams of Kilkenny in Old Kilkenny Review 1982 Vol 2, No. 4.|
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Page revised 22 June 2001