The First (and last) Duel on the Swan
On 16 August 1832 increasing animosity between Scottish-born, Fremantle solicitor William Nairne Clark (28) and merchant and former navy major, George French Johnson, led to the disagreement boiling over on a Fremantle street, when Clark insulted Johnson, saying “You are a scoundrel and a blackguard, and that if it was not from motives of prudence, I would give you a sound drubbing.”
Johnson then challenged Clark to a duel. With each duelling man requiring a trusted man to act as his ‘second’ - selecting the location, providing the pistols, ensuring a doctor was on hand and acting as lawful witness - Clark chose career soldier and (as he claimed, but the claim is unproven) former governor of Sierra Leone, William Temple Graham, Esq, publisher of the newspaper Western Australian and Colonial News. Johnson’s second was Canning River labourer, Thomas Newte Yule.
In the early hours of the next morning they met at Graham’s home, Richmond House, from which East Fremantle’s Richmond ward takes its name. At the Fremantle end of the traffic bridge, it stood on the site of which the Richmond Hotel was later built. At sunrise, on the river bank behind the house:
“Clark and Johnson were handed pistols, and they faced each other at a short distance. At an arranged call they each turned sideways and fired simultaneously. Johnson missed, but Clark's aim was true, and his adversary fell. The wound Johnson received proved fatal, for he died about 24 hours later.
“A few hours after the duel Clark, Graham and Yule appeared before Mr George Leake, JP. Each of them refused to say anything about the affair beyond that Clark expressed regret that Johnson was injured. Mr Leake visited Johnson and asked him if he had any complaint to make against anyone. ‘Decidedly none,’ answered the dying man.”
The West Australian, 20 July 1935
Johnson was buried in old Fremantle Cemetery, on which Fremantle Primary School now stands. He had no relatives and none of his friends bothered to place a headstone.
Four days later, following a full inquiry into Johnson’s death, Graham, Yule, and a deeply-shaken Clark were all committed for trial on a charge of murder. Lieutenant Governor Stirling later reduced this to murder in the second degree for the duel seconds, Graham and Yule.
On 1 October the trial went to the Court of Quarter Sessions in Fremantle, where Hon William Mackie, a bench of magistrates and a grand jury found a true bill for manslaughter against all three. This case was then sent to a lesser jury for hearing the next day. The jury, comprised of John Randal Philips, William Smith, William Dixon, John Bateman, John Prendergast Littleton, James Wood, Daniel Scott, Henry Edward Hall, James Furkis, John Davies, Henry Chidlow and
George Douglas, was assembled.
After deliberation, Clark, Graham and Yule were all acquitted of the charge and allowed to leave the Court.
“...that was an affair between gentlemen and was hardly regarded as a grave crime, although duelling was illegal even then. It was the only duel fought in the Colony, a previous difference which, had arisen between two French officers from a French man-o'-war, and which bad been fought to fatal finish with swords on Rottnest Island having taken place before the Colony was founded.”
The West Australian, 5 January 1933
In 1836 Clark founded the Swan River Guardian newspaper “to expose all abuses, curb the insolence of office, and advocate, in a legitimate manner, the rights of the people…” which was published weekly from 6 October that year, to 1838, when Clark’s life began to unravel.
There is later reference to the 1832 duel having been originally fought over Eliza Lockyer, who then married Clark. It doesn’t sound like a blissful union, with Eliza’s mother Keziah describing Clark as “my interesting son-in-law ... whose strange peculiarities are too well known to need further comment.”
Eliza left Clark on 14 August 1838 and moved in with her mother, who was then in an intimate living arrangement with Clark’s old friend and duel second, William Temple Graham.
Graham then slept with his Eliza, his lover’s daughter, and made it his mission to rid himself of Keziah.
As one can imagine, Keziah did not take it lying down.
Using has legal skills, Graham manufactured charges, resulting in Keziah being banished from WA, never again to be allowed to visit these shores.
As for Clark, in 1848 he moved to Hobart, Tasmania, where he died on 15 February 1854.
Seventy years after the duel took place, a specific offence of challenging another person to fight a duel was enacted in the Criminal Code 1902 (WA). Despite this offence still existing today in the Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913 (WA), there are approximately nine breaches of it a year, here in WA.