Tucked away in a half-forgotten corner of the graveyard of Stroud’s parish church, there is an unmarked stone slab. When I last visited it in 2006, it still had its plaque which read:
the REMAINS of
Joseph Francis Delmont
of His Majesty's 82nd Regt
born November 25, 1785,
DIED August 18, 1807
Today, the plaque is in the possession of the curate, possibly wishing to discourage visitors from disturbing the peace of the long dead Napoleonic lieutenant. But why should he have visitors some two centuries after his death? Well, firstly one might ask what a lieutenant was doing dying in Stroud when there was the War of the Fourth Coalition to fight? Well, the fact was that in 1807 whilst the idea of giving the French a damned good thrashing met with popular support, paying for it did not, and so efforts were being made to prepare for war without actually engaging in it. Part of these efforts was the recruitment of men, and it was in this enterprise that Lieutenant Delmont was employed.
Delmont was a recruiting officer for the 82nd Regiment of Foot (Prince of Wales Volunteers). Also in Stroud at the time was a Lieutenant Benjamin Heazle, an Irishman from Cork, recruiting for the 3rd Regiment, known as the Old Buffs, and a Lieutenant Sargeaunt of the local 61st Regiment. By all accounts the men were well built, handsome, and friendly towards one another.
After dinner on Friday, 14 August 1807, Lieutenants Delmont and Heazle took a walk in the countryside. Accounts differ as to what was discussed, but it is generally thought that Delmont made an unwise comment about a girl that Heazle had taken a shine to. The comment may have been made in jest but Heazle bridled and demanded an apology. Delmont refused, claiming that it was not seemly for a King’s Officer to apologise. According to the social conventions of the time, there was only one recourse, a duel.
A quick word about duelling: It may seem very strange to modern eyes that what was by all accounts a relatively petty quarrel should so quickly turn violent. The reasoning was as follows: A gentleman cannot allow his honour to be slighted and expect to be trusted in polite company. A gentleman must value his honour more highly than his life. Therefore, if a gentleman’s honour is besmirched, he must put his life on the line to defend it.
The men sent for Lieutenant Sargeaunt and insisted that he arrange matters. Some accounts claim he was asked to stand as second, but this would be somewhat irregular; parties to a duel cannot have one second between two. In any case, Sargeaunt was sent to procure pistols. This, it turned out, was not a simple task. Stroud, a sleepy backwater, has never been a particularly martial place and its townsfolk were unable to produce the pair of finely balanced duelling pistols demanded by romance. He managed to find one reasonably serviceable gun in the possession of a local confectioner, but otherwise was only able to borrow an old horse pistol that he initially rejected as too large and only returned to as a last resort.
The three men convened on the fields of the perhaps aptly named Folly Lane (which is incidentally the very first road I lived on). Delmont and Heazle wore civilian clothes, but in deference to the occasion Sargeaunt had donned his regimentals. The weapons were allocated, Delmont taking the large horse pistol and the combatants stood back to back. At Sargeaunt’s direction they were to take six paces, turn, and fire. However, Heazle was very slightly faster than Delmont. Whether by chance or malice, he turned and fired before Delmont had completed his sixth pace. His shot was true and passed through Delmont’s side and he fell to the floor, grievously wounded.
Heazle ran from the scene. Passers-by described him as being in a state of panic. He apparently encountered a surgeon by the name of Sweeting and enjoined him to attend to Delmont. Sweeting had earlier refused to attend the duel, for fear of being implicated in it, but now he dashed to the field to offer what help he could. Heazle, fearing he would now be pursued as a murderer fled up the canal path to Cirencester and London, never returning to Stroud and leaving poor Delmont bleeding in the field.
Sargeaunt had procured a handbarrow, and between them, he and Sweeting carted Delmont back to his lodgings in King’s Street. This done, Sargeaunt decided to make his escape too and, discarding his uniform, he fled on horseback to London, arriving there by the Sunday. He took it upon himself to inform Delmont’s parents of his fate, which was unbeknownst to him a particularly tragic one for Delmont’s elder brother had also died in a duel in Malta some years before. Delmont’s father immediately set off for Stroud, and Sargeaunt fled to America.
Delmont lingered on in the care of Sweeting and a nurse, Elizabeth Merrie. His wounds were severe, but he might have survived for longer, even recovered, were it not for a further misfortune. Elizabeth mistakenly directed Delmont to drink a solution that was supposed to be applied directly to wounds. The effect of it was to produce further internal haemorrhaging, hastening his death. Delmont’s father arrived too late to see his son alive.
A grand jury found that Delmont’s death was the result of wilful murder by Heazle and Sargeaunt and a £20 bounty was placed on their heads. It was never claimed. Heazle had run away to the Caribbean, where he died soon after of fever and Sargeaunt returned from America only once and in secret. The jury’s verdict was in fact somewhat unusual for the time; duelling was often tolerated by the authorities and combatants would normally be held for the crime of manslaughter, not murder. However, the jury may have been disinclined to mercy given the dishonourable nature of Heazle’s early shot, and the fact that Delmont’s weapon, the horse pistol, which was later found to be rusty and hard to shoot, was inferior.
The duel between Delmont and Heazle is sometimes regarded as the last fatal pistol duel to take place on English soil. In fact, this is a somewhat dubious claim; there are records of duels taking place somewhat later. Nevertheless, it is certainly to be regarded as one of the more tragic examples of this strange and barbaric practice.
King, D Stroud – the venue for England’s last pistol duel 21/11/09 Stroud News and Journal
For Up My Street (A Quest for Local Knowledge)