The Duke of Wellington: From Waterloo to Waterman

‘The New Randan’ is a cartoon by William Heath (d.1840) which has the helpful inscription ‘Published 21 July 1830 by T McLean, 26 Haymarket. Election Caricatures executed for Gentlemen in 3 Hours’. Heath may have once served as a Captain in a cavalry regiment and was a popular satirist in the 1820s and 1830s. Picture: Yale University Library.

9 October 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch says publish and be damned.

An election fought in the aftermath of widespread civil unrest (the Swing Riots), where the fairness of the electoral process was a major issue (Rotten Boroughs) and where the controversial incumbent did not have the support of all of his party may seem topical, but it also describes Britain at the start of the General Election of 29 July – 1 September 1830. The above cartoon shows Sir Edward Knatchbull, leader of the ‘Ultra’ faction of the Tory Party at ‘stroke’, the Marquess of Landsdowne, leader of the opposition Whig Party, at ‘two’, and the Duke of Wellington, Prime Minister and the official Tory Party leader, at ‘bow’. Wellington’s speech bubble is saying ‘Bound apprentice to a waterman I larnt a bit to row’. Landsdowne says ‘Come look ahead’. I have no idea what these words relate to though Landsdowne’s phrase is the sort of nebulous thing that politicians say. When the election results were counted, ‘bow’ remained at ‘stroke’ as Wellington commanded 250 seats, Landsdowne 196 and Knatchbull 60.

A ‘Randan’ is a treble that has bow and stroke rowing and ‘2’ sculling. This example was pictured in 2011 in use by some ‘Swan Uppers’.

If the Duke had ever rowed in reality, it probably would have been when he was at school at Eton between 1781 and 1784. However, it is unlikely that the then Arthur Wellesley was a ‘wet bob’ as, during his time, rowing as a leisure activity by the boys using watermen’s boats was in its infancy – if it took place at all. The earliest reference to Etonians rowing is from The Times of 27 July 1791, but the piece suggests that boating for pleasure at the school was already well-established by that date. Further, Arthur was a lonely schoolboy who hated the place, making it even less likely that he would engage in such a sociable activity.

Another one of Heath’s cartoons of the Duke, this 1827 caricature making the joke that Wellington was both ‘the head’ and (because of the ‘Wellington Boot’) ‘the foot’ of the army. In 1828, he resigned as the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief and became Prime Minister. Picture © British Museum.

Wellington’s two terms of premiership spanning January 1828 to November 1830 were not happy ones and he lost support from all factions of his party, notably over his relaxation of the protectionist Corn Laws and his abolition of many of the penal laws against Roman Catholics. His enemies even accused him of seeking a military dictatorship via the newly formed Metropolitan Police. Wellington’s end came with riots in London sparked by his declaration that Britain’s clearly corrupt and unfair ‘rotten boroughs’ had ‘the full and entire confidence of the country’ (fortunately, no contemporary leader is so deluded). William Heath likened the Duke and his home secretary, Robert Peel, to an unwanted ‘pair of left off Vellingtons to be sold wery cheap’.

More Wellington Boot humour from Heath (1830). Picture © British Museum.

William Heath’s strangest cartoon featuring the Duke of Wellington chronicled an equally strange episode in the great man’s life; his dual, while still Prime Minister, at what is now Battersea Park in South West London in 1829.

Heath’s ‘The Field of Battersea’ depicts Wellington as a lobster, a disparaging nickname for a British Army soldier, wearing a rosary and a monk’s habit. The Duke fires at his opponent (the Earl of Winchilsea) who makes himself as narrow as possible, standing on tiptoe and firing into the air. Wellington, whose bullet has just missed him: ‘I used to be a good shot but have been out of practice for some years.’ Winchilsea: ‘I’ll make myself up small – Gad if he should hit me – I might be tainted with some of his Popery, wont give him more than one chance’.

Winchilsea was an anti-Catholic ‘Ultra Tory’ who, when Wellington’s government allowed Roman Catholics to sit in Parliament, wrote in a newspaper that this was part of the Prime Minister’s ‘insidious designs for the infringement of our liberties, and the introduction of Popery into every department of the State’.

When Winchilsea refused to withdraw the accusation, Wellington challenged him to a duel. Historian and novelist, Shannon Selin, takes up the story:

(On) the command to fire, Winchilsea kept his pistol arm down at his side. Wellington fired at Winchilsea, who remained “steady and fearless…without making the slightest movement or betraying any emotion.” The shot missed him. Winchilsea then lifted his pistol above his head and fired into the air.

After a long discussion in the middle of the field, Winchilsea wrote the Duke an acceptable apology. He may or may not have meant it, but he may have decided that killing a national hero who was also the Prime Minister may not have been wise.

Selin ponders whether Wellington intended to hit Winchilsea – or did he deliberately miss? She quotes Wellington’s cabinet colleague, Lord Ellenborough:

The Duke said he considered all the morning whether he should fire at (Winchilsea) or no. He thought if he killed him he should be tried, and confined until he was tried, which he did not like, so he determined to fire at his legs…

The Duke and the Earl demonstrate one way of settling political differences.

Shannon Selin also notes that perhaps Wellington could not have hit Winchilsea, even if he had wanted to. It seems that Britain’s greatest soldier was a terrible shot. She quotes Lady Francis Shelley who was on a shooting party with the Duke in 1819:

If truth be told, the hero of Waterloo was a very wild shot. After wounding a retriever early in the day, and, later on, peppering the keeper’s gaiters, he inadvertently sprinkled the bare arms of an old woman who chanced to be washing clothes at her cottage window! I was attracted by her screams, and the fearful ejaculations caused by pain and fear. I took in the situation at a glance, and went to the cottage door.

‘I’m wounded, Milady!’ she cried.

‘My good woman!’ said I, ‘this ought to be the proudest moment of your life. You have had the distinction of being shot by the great Duke of Wellington!’

It seems that Napoleon got off lightly.

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