Sunday, 7 August 2016

How a Man may Owe his Life to Small Change and Spiced Gingerbread Nuts: Peter Burrowes (1753-1841) Kensal Green Cemetery

Peter Burrowe's portrait on his grave in Kensal Green

Even his tombstone gets his age at death wrong - widely reported
as being 90 when he died, he was in fact a mere 88

DEATH OF PETER BURROWES, ESQ. We have to announce the death of this venerable and distinguished patriot, which took place on Monday last, in Henrietta-street, Cavendish-square, London. Mr. Burrowes had lived much beyond the ordinary period of a long life, having reached his ninetieth year; and we, who had the pride and gratification of knowing him well, can say that not only did his faculties survive to the last, but that his feelings, towards his country and his friends, remained as warm as in the days of his vigorous manhood. It was but natural that such a man should be beloved—for the whole tenor of his life, in public and in private, was calculated to engage affection and admiration.  
Dublin Monitor - Saturday 13 November 1841

Peter Burrowes, the Irish patriot and lawyer, was born in Portarlington in 1754 and studied at Trinity College. He campaigned on behalf of Catholic emancipation and against the Union, was a fried of Wolf Tone and was the defence barrister for Robert Emmet who was executed in 1803 for high treason after leading an abortive rebellion against the British crown. He became a Londoner late in life, only moving to Cavendish Square in his 80’s for health reasons, mainly to consult an oculist. In his youth he was exceptionally vigorous; a story is told of his walking from Dublin to Portarlington, a distance of 40 miles, in one day and then of his dancing all night at a ball. He had a reputation for being absent minded, though this story, printed 6 years after his death in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette (30 December 1847), implies that he was quite capable of taking advantage of this reputation when it suited him:

With a profound intellect, he was simplicity itself. He walked the earth neither seeing nor hearing anything around him. As he rolled his portly figure through the streets, his hands in his breeches pockets, and his eyes glaring on his oldest friend as if he had never seen him, it was plain to all men that Peter was in the moon. This absence was invincible, and sometimes produced the most ludicrous effects. One day, being counsel for a defendant in a case of crim. con.,(=criminal conversation – adultery) and intending to cast ridicule or something worse on his opponent, he thus broke forth with his most unmusical voice and gasping enunciation: But, gentlemen, did you observe the glowing description our young friend gave of the lady? With what gusto he dwelt upon each charm! May Heaven forgive me, but strange thoughts forced themselves uppermost! The couplet of the poet flashed on me as he proceeded “He best can paint a star, Who first has dipped his pencil in... ." He came to a dead stop—a roar from the bar broke upon the silence, when Peter, looking as if just awake, brayed out to his junior, “In the name of Providence, what are they all laughing at?" The old stop- the vacant stare—the earnest interrogatory —produced an effect which sets description at defiance.

That doesn't look like 10 paces to me; more like point blank.

In his early career he took part in a famous duel and had his life saved by the small change received from buying spiced nuts. The duel took place in 1794. Burrowes was one of a number of barristers acting for insolvent tenants of the Earl of Kilkenny who was, according to his own barrister Sir Jonah Barrington, ‘dreadfully tormented’ by the crowd of litigants and lawyers. The hot tempered Earl was driven to fury by his continual defeat in court, generally on technical grounds, and decided to seek an alternative means of redress “namely to fight it out muzzle to muzzle with the attorney and all the counsel on the other side.” The Earl challenged his chief persecutor, an attorney called Mr Ball, to a duel. Much to his chagrin though the Earl came off worst, failing to hit the attorney whilst taking two musket balls himself, the first, as related by the loyal Sir Jonah, “in his Lordship's right arm which probably saved the solicitor as his Lordship was a most accurate marksman”, and the second in the side. The Earl’s son, Somerset Butler, took over his incapacitated father’s plan and promptly issued a challenge to Peter Burrowes, the next most senior lawyer acting for his father’s tenants. Sir Jonah continues the story:

The invitation not being refused the combat took place one cold frosty morning near Kilkenny. Somerset knew his business well but Peter had had no practice whatever in that line of litigation. Few persons feel too warm on such occasions and Peter formed no exception to the general rule. An old woman who sold spiced gingerbread nuts in the street he passed through accosted him, extolling her nuts to the very skies as being well spiced and fit to expel the wind and to warm any gentleman's stomach as well as a dram Peter bought a pennyworth on the advice of his second Dick Waddy, an attorney, and duly receiving the change of a sixpenny piece put the coppers and nuts into his waistcoat pocket and marched off to the scene of action.  

Preliminaries being soon arranged, the pistols given, ten steps measured, the flints hammered and the feather springs set, Somerset a fine dashing young fellow full of spirit, activity and animation gave elderly Peter who was no posture master but little time to take his fighting position:- in fact he had scarcely raised his pistol to a wabbling level, before Somerset's ball came crack dash against Peter's body! The halfpence rattled in his pocket: Peter dropped flat; Somerset fled; Dick Waddy roared “murder” and called out to Surgeon Pack. Peter's clothes were ripped up and Pack, secundum artem, examined the wound, a black hole designated the spot where the lead had penetrated Peter's abdomen. The doctor shook his head and pronounced but one short word “mortal!” - it was, however, more expressive than a long speech. Peter groaned and tried to recollect some prayer if possible or a scrap of his catechism; his friend Waddy began to think about the coroner; his brother barristers sighed heavily, and Peter was supposed to be fast departing this world (but, as they all endeavoured to persuade him, for a better); when Surgeon Pack, after another exclamation taking leave of Peter and leaning his hand on the grass to assist him in rising, felt something hard took it up and looked at it curiously; the spectators closed in the circle, to see Peter die; the patient turned his expiring eyes towards Surgeon Pack, as much as to ask is there no hope, when lo! the doctor held up to the astonished assembly the identical bullet, which having rattled amongst he heads and harps, and gingerbread nuts, in Peter's waistcoat pocket, had flattened its own body on the surface of a preserving copper, and left His Majesty's bust distinctly imprinted and accurately designated in black and blue shading on his subject's carcase. Peter's heart beat high, he stopped his prayers and finding that his Gracious Sovereign, and the gingerbread nuts, had saved his life, lost as little time as possible in rising from the sod on which he had lain extended; a bandage was applied round his body, and in a short time Peter was able (though of course he had no reason to be over willing) to begin the combat anew.

Peter in mid life success, a judge in the Insolvent Debtor's Court
Matters did not end there. The Earl of Kilkenny, having recovered from his two bullet wounds, took up the challenge against the next of the lawyers in the lists against him, this time getting the better of his adversary. The duels could have continued indefinitely but when the Earl told another of his sons. Captain Pierce Butler, to issue a challenge to the next lawyer, one Dicky Guinness, Dicky sensibly took the matter to court and to avoid incarceration the Kilkenny’s reluctantly had to desist from trying to kill the entire staff of the Dublin circuit. The duel wasn’t Peter’s last close call with a bullet. The Dundee Courier in May 1913 (news takes a long time to reach that far north), ran the story under the headline ‘Bullet As Lozenge’:

Peter Burrowes, the well-known member of the Irish Bar, was on one occasion counsel for the prosecution at an important trial for murder. Burrowes had a severe cold, and opened his speech with box of lozenges in one hand and in the other, the small pistol bullet by which the man had met his death. Between the pauses of his address he kept supplying himself with a lozenge. But at last, in the very middle of a highfalutin' period, stopped. His legal chest heaved, his eyes seemed starting from his head and in a voice tremulous with fright he exclaimed “Oh!!I!! Gentlemen, gentlemen! I've swallowed the bullet!” 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

A want of honour in her own conduct led to this fatal catastrophe; Harriet Shelley (1795-1816) St Mary's, Paddington Green

On the 13th December 1816 the corpse of a heavily pregnant 21 year old woman was quietly buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Paddington Green. If there were any mourners they failed to tell the parish clerk that Harriett Smith, as she was listed in the burial register, was not the deceased’s real name. Her body had been pulled out of the Serpentine three days earlier and a hurried inquest convened at the Fox and Bull alehouse the morning after the grisly discovery.  The jury had heard from the dead woman’s landlady that she was of solitary habits, afflicted with melancholia and visibly in the family way. John Gell, the coroner, made a terse statement saying  ‘the said Harriet Smith had no marks of violence appearing on her body, but how or by what means she became dead, no evidence thereof does appear to the jurors.’ The jury came quickly to what was, under the circumstances (Harriett had clearly killed herself), the compassionate verdict of “found dead in the Serpentine River”.  The death was widely reported in the newspapers but perfunctorily, for the most part in a couple of sentences:  Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine River, and brought home to her residence, in Queen-street, Brompton, having been missing for six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger- (Cheltenham Chronicle, Thursday 19 December 1816). The Times added a few, coldly dismissive, details; A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad.  Harriett’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was not abroad (though he had been recently in Geneva), he was in Bath when the news reached him of his wife’s death. He rushed back to London to begin a bitter legal battle for custody of his children.

Harriett Smith in the burial register of St Mary's, Paddington Green

Harriett Smith was born Harriet Westbrook in August 1795, the daughter of a tavern or coffee shop keeper, who sent his daughter to be educated at a boarding school in Clapham. One of her school friends was Hellen Shelley who introduced her to her older brother, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poet swept the schoolgirl off her feet and in 1811, when he was 19 and she just 16, persuaded her to elope with him to Scotland where the couple married, to the consternation of both their families. The marriage did not last and seems, for the most part, not to have been happy.  The pair had their first child, Ianthe, in June 1813, by which time Shelley was spending as much time away from home as possible. The couple remarried in London in March 1814 dispel any doubts about the legality of their Scottish union. At the time of their remarriage the couple were more or less estranged but the ceremony brought about a temporary thaw in their relations, enough for Harriet to become pregnant again. Shelley’s description of the act of making love with Harriet made it clear the relationship was doomed; "I felt as if a dead and living body had been linked together in loathsome and horrible communion."   By July Shelley was gone for good, having eloped again, this time with Mary Godwin. There were no further reconciliations, temporary or otherwise.  Their second child, Charles, was born in November, and Harriet moved back to her parent’s house with her two young children where she stayed quietly for the best part of two years. In September 1816, leaving the children with their grandparents, she moved out to lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge where rumour had that she took a Guards Officer from the Chelsea Barracks, a Major Ryan, as her lover. She disappeared on or around the 9th November and was not seen again until the morning of 10th December when John Levesley, a Chelsea Pensioner, who was making his way to Kensington across Hyde Park,  spotted her body floating on the waters of the Serpentine.

Before she killed herself who wrote a final letter to her older sister Eliza and to Shelley. To her sister she said: When you read this letter. I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. Do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone, why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future? The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache.   She pleaded with Shelley to leave Ianthe with her sister and suggested he contented himself with Charles, their infant son: My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. Do not refuse my last request – I never could refuse you & if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy. oh! be careful of him & his life may prove one day a rich reward...... My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate   Harriet S–––

In the week before Christmas the weather turned colder and less than a fortnight after Harriet’s bedraggled body had been fished from the water of the Serpentine the river froze over. The London Courier and Evening Gazette of Monday 23 December 1816 described a very different scene in the Royal Park:

Yesterday the Canal in St. James’s Park, and the upper part the Serpentine in Hyde Park, was frozen sufficiently to afford a few boys an opportunity for skating. The margin of the ice was thronged with elegant female pedestrians, who dashed along in their winter fur pelisses and crimson morocco half boots, active as Scandinavian dames, or the buxom daughters of Russia. Their bloom of health was increased by the frosty air and the general appearance of the fair leaders of winter fashion enlivened the surrounding prospects of leafless branches, burdened with snow, and the dreary waste. Black velvet hats with steel buckles and feathers in front, were much worn. The pelisses in general were bordered with fur six inches deep, which appeared a good imitation of ermine. The boots were crimson, purple and Russia leather, laced in front with silk, and ornamented with fur of various sorts. Two or three of the boys on the canal broke the ice and fell in, but were taken out unhurt.