Derbyshire village marks duelling death which shocked England

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Derbyshire village marks duelling death which shocked England

By Greig Watson
BBC News
Saturday 22nd May 2021

Engraving from contemporary account
The story was so popular a number of one-off accounts were printed around the country

The 200th anniversary of a duel which sparked national headlines - and may have led to a church monument disappearing - is being marked.


A dispute between William Brittlebank and local doctor William Cuddie, over Brittlebank's sister, led to the latter being shot in Winster, Derbyshire.

Claims that Mr Cuddie had been forced into duel, and that Brittlebank managed to escape, prompted a scandal.

Actors will play out the events, where they happened, this weekend.

Bank house
The garden where the duel took place still exists and will host part of the performance

According to reports of the time, the Brittlebanks - wealthy local landowners - had become outraged that a mere country doctor was courting a lady of the family.

After a confrontation while the couple were out walking, three Brittlebank brothers, William, Andrew and Francis, along with friend John Spencer, went to the doctor's house.

Geoff Lester, who has helped to organise the re-enactment, said: "Accounts vary but it is agreed that William Cuddie did not want to fight.

"But also he refused to apologise for seeing the sister, called Mary we think, so a gun was pressed into his hand and he was fatally wounded."

Alexander Hamilton's duel
One of the most high-profile duels was between Alexander Hamilton and US Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804

Duelling had long been illegal but for many years had never been prosecuted.

However by 1821 public opinion had begun to turn and the Brittlebank brothers and Spencer were charged with murder.

But justice was far from blind, as Mr Lester revealed.

"William Brittlebank jumped bail and was never seen again," he said. "The others stood trial but were acquitted.

"As landowners, many people were beholden to the family and many people resented them - while Cuddie was highly thought of.

"It felt to many like there was one law for the rich."

Newspaper report
Opinion in the press was divided but London-based The Sun called it a 'diabolical transaction'

The story made newspapers across England and mass-market handbills turned the details into lurid rhyme.

"Foul deeds like these on Heaven for vengeance call, when harmless man is shot with poison'd ball," said one.

A plaque to Mr Cuddie's memory - referring to him as a "sacrifice to the rash intemperance, And misguided feelings of youth" - was erected in the local church.

But in 1840 the church was heavily remodelled and during the work - funded by the head of the Brittlebank clan, William senior - the plaque vanished.

In the form of a 'mummers' play' - a traditional open air performance - the story will be retold around the village on Saturday.

Mr Lester said: "What we are doing is a sort of street theatre - outdoors, so [it] fits in with government guidelines.

"The duel was an important event in Winster and put us in the national spotlight."