21 September 1809: Two cabinet members duel at dawn

The politicians resort to pistols after a plot comes to light


It was six in the morning, and much of London was still asleep. But on Putney Heath, a small group of men were huddled nervously around a pair of pistols. The two duellists took their places and levelled their weapons. And then – gunshots! It was a familiar scene, although an increasingly uncommon one. Duelling was in decline by 1809, even for gentlemen. But this was not any duel. On one side stood Viscount Castlereagh, secretary of war. And on the other stood George Canning, foreign secretary – his own cabinet colleague.

The odd thing about the Castlereagh-Canning duel was that the two men were supposed to be on the same side. Both were deeply opposed to the French Revolution and its consequences; both were keen admirers of William Pitt the Younger; both had spent years working for Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars.

But they were temperamentally very different: Castlereagh was reserved, chilly and serious; Canning witty, passionate and charismatic. They had fallen out over troop deployments to Europe, and Canning plotted to have Castlereagh removed so he could take over at the Foreign Office. But Castlereagh found out and demanded satisfaction.

The odds heavily favoured Castlereagh. An excellent shot, he had once fought a duel over a girl in Ireland. Canning, however, had never fired a pistol in his life. Before leaving for Putney, he wrote his will and a final letter to his wife.

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The duel, however, was a bit of a shambles. Canning’s second was so nervous that he was unable to load his pistol, so Castlereagh’s second had to do it for him. When the two men fired, both missed. At this point the seconds tried to arrange a rapprochement, but Canning still refused to apologise. So they had another go. This time Canning’s bullet was deflected by one of Castlereagh’s buttons, while the latter’s shot smacked into Canning’s thigh. Fortunately he was not badly hurt and lived to tell the tale. And although the affair caused an enormous public furore, that was the end of that.

21 September 1832

Writer Sir Walter Scott died. His health had been ruined by overwork as he struggled to pay off the debts incurred when a printing firm in which he was involved went bankrupt.

21 September 1840

By using silver iodide, gallic acid and silver nitrate, the photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot develops the so-called ‘calotype’ process, enabling him to make positive prints from calotype negatives. The process proves very popular with other budding British photographers, boosting the development of commercial photography.


21 September 1931

Faced with massive gold outflows, Ramsay MacDonald's coalition government abandoned the Gold Standard. The value of sterling fell from $4.86 to $3.49.

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