1792: A Serious Social Menace

Petticoat Duellists - Carlton House Magazine (1792)

One afternoon in 1792, Lady Almeria Braddock and a certain Mrs. Elphinstone were having tea when the following exchange occurred:

Mrs Elphinstone: “You have been a very beautiful woman.”

Lady Almeria: “Have been? What do you mean by ‘have been’?”

Mrs Elphinstone: “You have a very good autumn face, even now . . . The lilies and roses are somewhat faded. Forty years ago I am told a young fellow could hardly gaze on you with impunity.”

Lady Almeria: “Forty years ago! Is the woman mad? I had not existed thirty years ago!”

Mrs Elphinstone: “Then Arthur Collins, the author of the British Peerage has published a false, scandalous and seditious libel against your ladyship. He says you were born the first of April 1732.”

Lady Almeria: “Collins is a most infamous liar; his book is loaded with errors; not a syllable of his whole six volumes is to be relied on.”

Mrs Elphinstone: “Pardon me. He asserts that you were born in April 1732 and consequently are in your sixty first year.”

Lady Almeria: “I am but turned of thirty.”

Mrs Elphinstone: “That’s false, my lady!”

Lady Almeria: “This is not to be borne; you have given me the lie direct . . . I must be under the necessity of calling you out . . . ”

Mrs Elphinstone: “Name your weapons. Swords or pistols?”

Lady Almeria: “Both!”

The two met at Hyde Park and drew pistols. Mrs Elphinstone shot a hole through Lady Almeria’s hat, knocking it to the ground. When swords were drawn, Lady Almeria  wounded the arm of her opponent, who then agreed to compose a letter of apology. (source)

Such personal correspondence and diaries as survive suggest that social relations from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries tended to be cool, even unfriendly. The extraordinary amount of casual interpersonal physical and verbal violence, as recorded in legal and other records, shows clearly that at all levels men and women were extremely short-tempered. The most trivial disagreements tended to lead rapidly to blows, and most people carried a potential weapon, if only a knife to cut their meat. As a result, the law courts were clogged with cases of assault and battery. The correspondence of the day was filled with accounts of brutal assault at the dinner-table or in taverns, often leading to death. Among the upper classes, duelling, which spread to England in the late sixteenth century, was kept more or less in check by the joint pressure of the Puritans and the King before 1640, but became a serious social menace after the Restoration. Friends and acquaintances felt honour bound to challenge and kill each other for the slightest affront, however unintentional or spoken in the careless heat of passion or drink. Casual violence from strangers was also a daily threat. Brutal and unprovoked assaults by gangs of idle youths from respectable families, such as the Mohawks, were a frequent occurrence in eighteenth-century London streets; and the first thing young John Knyveton was advised to do when he came to the fashionable western suburb of London in 1750 was to buy himself a cudgel or a small sword and to carry it for self-defence, especially after dark.

—Lawrence Stone: The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977)

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