I regularly walk along New Walk beside the River Ouse in York. It is hard to imagine this as the elegant walk that became popular during the Eighteenth Century (although it did have a reputation for some of the century as also being the location for washing being hung out to dry on the bushes and for nude bathing!) because of the muddy green swathes under the trees – that are frequented by a variety of birds and lots of squirrels – and the large car park that is St George’s Field which in the Middle Ages was the site, I understand, for archery practice on Sundays.
Contemporary image of members of Society promenading along New Walk, York
However, an incident occurred in 1797 which would not be out of place in a romantic novel – although the outcome was hardly a happy one.
Lt-Colonel Byran Bell and Surgeon George Crigan, both of the 46th Foot, met on Sunday 11 June 1797 to settle an argument of over a year’s standing. The two gentlemen were stationed on Martinque when Crigan alleged that he had visited Bell (then commanding officer) at his lodging to enquire if the birds’ eggs had hatched for there was a bird’s nest on the window ledge. Apparently Bell then said “You must either be drunk or mad! get out of the room!” – which in fairness does seem to be a reasonable response given the evidence presented.
To us today this remark seems a ludicrous reason for a fight but George Crigan saw this as a “serious thing for a young man to have his character blown upon”.
Despite the activity of Captains William Forster (also of the 46th) the duel went ahead and Crigan was killed “with a leaden ball”. Forster, Bell and his servant Owen Evans (who had attended Crigan during the lead up to the duel – this in itself being seen as an insult because of his lowly occupation of labourer) together with the attending surgeon, Bedford Ireland were charged with Crigan’s murder.
The trial took place at the Guildhall in York on 31 July 1797 before Baron Thompson (probably the judge who preceded at trials against members of the Luddite movement a few years later).
Whilst Forster and Evans were found not guilty Lt-Colonel Bell was adjudged guilty of manslaughter and fined the princely sum of Six Shilling and Eight Pence with one month in prison. Subsequently, he was court martialled and told that he should not expect later promotion. Bell resigned his commission in 1798 and died in 1810.
Several factors are clear from this (over and above the lenient sentence handed down – after all Bell was probably more proficient with fire arms than the regiment’s surgeon).
One was Crigan’s personality. Whilst the regiment was stationed in Poole, Dorset a few months prior to the duel, he approached a new Captain, James Kingston, and asked Kingston to stand his second when the time was right. The captain was horrified and asked Crigan to give up his long standing resentment but the surgeon would have none of it. Was it possible, therefore, that whilst the apparent reason for the argument appears ridiculous that this was in fact the final straw? Could it be that Bell and Crigan had been at loggerheads about other factors now unknown to us?
It is apparent from other military sources that a few months after his guilty was declared Bell was involved in another court martial, in Colchester, of a Lt-Colonel of the 46th Foot, Baldwin Leighton, who he alleged had acted in a manner unbecoming of an officer in His Majesty’s army, that he countermanded orders Bell had given Forster (who was the regiment’s Paymaster) and for ignoring seditious and disrespectful utterances made in his presence. In all there were eight charges against Leighton for his actions in the West Indies in the year 1795. Interestingly, Bell alleged that Leighton was guilty of neglect of duty by failing to prevent the duel with Crigan – indeed, he had actually encouraged the challenge.
The court martial on this occasion found the accused not guilty of misbehaviour and Leighton was honourably acquitted. As for Bell the court said that his motives should be investigated as his charges had been “groundless and vexatious – a conduct in its tendency, destructive of military discipline and subordination.”
The outcome of this court martial quite probably was the reason for Bell’s resignation.
Who was Bryan Bell? It appears that he was a Major (in the 46th) in the 1795. Going backwards in newspapers articles it appears likely that he was the Ensign Bryan Bell (of the 44th) who was promoted to Lieutenant in July 1776 (“MILITARY PROMOTIONS”, 1776, The weekly magazine, or, Edinburgh amusement, 1768-1779, vol. 33, pp. 128) and Captain-Lieutenant Bryan Bell who was made Captain in the 46th in 1779 (“Preferments”, 1779, The Scots magazine, 1739-1803, vol. 41, pp. 287-288) who was the Lt-Colonel of 1797. This could suggest that he was a career soldier of rather humble origins who gained promotion by experience (initially gained during the American War of Independence) rather than through the purchase of rank. It is likely that he was in his late 30s/early 40s at the time of 1797 trials.
In his defence Bell claimed that he was laid low at the time Surgeon Crigan stated he made the fateful visit. As the events took place in the West Indies it is quite likely that Bell could have been suffering from a malady that could have been attributed to conditions in the islands at that time. However, surely he could have produced evidence of this – unless the suggestion is that as regimental surgeon George Crigan did not record the commanding officer’s affliction. Could it be, therefore, that either Bell or Crigan were drunk when the visit was made?
Was Lt-Colonel Bell unfortunate or was his behaviour unacceptable even to the leaders of the Eighteenth Century military?
Perhaps one day these questions might be answered if not this duel goes down as one with the most ridiculous origins!