From our past - satisfying honour

Duelling was a fairly common way of settling some disputes among the gentry in Britain and its colonies. Hundreds of men were killed in such affairs up until 1850. Pistols at dawn challenges led to one death in WA and there were other incidents.

Constable Robert Maydwell of Fremantle became a target in January, 1833. His daughter Susannah married a builder and former WA constable named William Lewington, who later accused Maydwell of meddling in his domestic affairs and went after him with a loaded pistol one Saturday evening. The unarmed constable took refuge in the Plough Hotel but Lewington followed, yelled a challenge and fired anyway.

The ball missed by inches and Constable Maydwell promptly arrested the man. Lewington was charged with attempted murder and could only offer a feeble excuse -“I only meant to scare him”. Unbelievably, he was found not guilty and released.

Another incident in 1894 involved Sergeant Richard Pilmer of Kimberley police and Constables David Brice and James Price who were resting at Lillimoorloora police camp. They were trying to track down a gang of murderers but things got out of hand on New Year’s Eve. Brice and Price argued about bush skills to the point that challenges were exchanged and the two men decided on shots at dawn in the grand manner.

Sergeant Pilmer tended to highlight the humour of some events in his memoirs, but this matter was now serious. He had responsibility for preparing the firearms and carefully removed lead from the guns’ cartridges during the night, replacing them with soap wads. Next morning, the duellists stood back to back, took the required number of paces and turned to exchange fire. They were stunned by the lack of results, as were the spectators, but managed to patch things up and get on with their work.

As Sergeant Pilmer later wrote: “honour was satisfied”, but he did not report it, make a journal entry, or tell senior police. The folly of the business is surprising even now. More than one law had been broken and anything can go wrong when folk tinker with firearms. Furthermore, the proceedings could easily have ended in court appearances and ruined careers for all.

That being said, Brice and Price were left with the glory of having fought what was probably the last formal duel in the history of the British empire.

Sergeant Richard Pilmer