Nostalgia: Chichester author tells story of fugitive after fatal duel

Henry Smith, by William Hobday c 1815
Henry Smith, by William Hobday c 1815

As Tim Rooth says, the duel was above all a tragedy, pointlessly claiming the life of a father after two men simply refused to apologise.

But two centuries later, there’s no doubting it’s also a remarkable tale from a world where they certainly did things differently.

The poster offering 100 guineas as a reward

The poster offering 100 guineas as a reward

Dr Rooth, who lives in Chichester, has researched it all to produce the book A Fatal Duel: Bristol 1809: A Fugitive’s Story, the tale of his great-great-grandfather Henry Smith’s flight from justice after he shot and fatally wounded a certain Richard Priest at dawn on March 1, 1809 as they faced each other across a Gloucestershire field.

“It should have been avoided, but you can get caught up in Henry’s troubles. He killed a man who was a husband and a father of two children, but I don’t think anyone was uniquely to blame.

“Henry had been called a liar, and he could not be called a liar in public without getting satisfaction or an apology. He was a lieutenant in the Bristol Royal Volunteers, and the colonel of the regiment was prepared to come along to his trial and say he would have been drummed out of his regiment if he had not had satisfaction.”

But the fact remained that duelling was illegal...

“Henry Smith was an attorney, and he got involved in an argument outside the Theatre Royal in Bristol. He arrived late and he was passing gently by, apologising as he went, and in some way he offended this man called Richard Priest. Whether he stepped on his wife’s toe or was a little bit arrogant in gestures, I don’t know, but there was argy-bargy and Priest accused him of being a liar. I think Henry might have tried to settle it then and there, but the wife said ‘Pray, sir, don’t strike my husband!’ He desisted, but they ended up in a field just yards outside Bristol two days later.

“It was daft. Nobody wanted to make the initial apology which would have sorted the whole thing out. Instead, shots were exchanged. Henry Smith hit Richard Priest in the thigh. We don’t know if he was deliberately trying to aim low so as not to kill him or whether it was just not a good shot, but thigh injuries could often prove fatal, and that was the case.

“Henry had had some medical training and applied a tourniquet. The surgeon came and took the tourniquet off. It was an ugly wound. They took Richard Priest home and Henry went back and had breakfast and went to his office and then recounted the story – which was a mistake. He should have 
kept mum!

“At this stage a message came across that Richard Priest was going to have his leg amputated, and then came a message saying he had in fact died. There was a coroner’s inquest that afternoon. No-one was saying who had done it, and Richard Priest had kept quiet, refusing to name him, but a friend of Henry’s went to the inquest and said it was Henry.

“An indictment was drawn up on a charge of wilful murder against Henry. Henry didn’t know what to do. His friends said ‘You have to get out of here!’”

Now a fugitive, Henry remained on the run for more than a year. During this time he kept a diary of his travels and misadventures which took him to London, back to Bristol, to Scotland and the Iberian Peninsula where he eventually joined Wellington’s army.

His sweetheart, Ann, travelling alone through the war zone of the Peninsula, attempted to find him and persuade him to return to England to accept whatever fate the law held in store 
for him.

Dr Rooth’s book, which he edited with his nephew Alexander Hallawell, draws heavily on Henry’s diary and also on the defence 
brief produced for his subsequent trial.

The book, published by Redcliffe Press of Bristol, is available from Amazon.