Here And There In The Library – ‘Pistols At Dawn: A Dueling Proprietor’

Here and There in the Library is a journey through the magical and eclectic collection housed within The Athenaeum. The below article was originally published in August 1984.

The collection of pamphlets in the Library has previous been remarked upon as containing much information on diverse topics.

Of particular interest to Proprietors is the pamphlet bound with others into Volume 68. This pamphlet gives a fairly full account of the trail for murder of William Sparkling and Samuel Colquitt. On 26th February 1804 Sparling had fought a duel with Edward Grayson, a shipbuilder, and as a result of injuries received, Grayson had died. Grayson was a Proprietor of The Athenaeum, as was his second, Dr John McCartney, and the story given in the pamphlet is supplemented by a group of letters and other manuscripts written by Grayson and McCartney and presumably deposited by McCartney at The Athenaeum.

The Story begins sometime in November 1802 with the receipt of Sparling of an anonymous letter advising him in the strongest terms to break off his engagement to Miss Ann Renshaw, daughter of the Rector of Liverpool, Rev. Samuel Renshaw, also a Proprietor of The Athenaeum.

Sparlings’ anonymous correspondent roundly stated that insanity was inherent in the Renshaw family, that Miss Renshaw “was the essence of everything vulgar” that she was marrying Sparling for his money (he had inherited a substantial fortune), and that a previous admirer “had enjoyed her favours to the full”. The letter succeeded in its purpose for in December 1802 Sparling broke off the engagement and departed for London and in the following April went to France.

Edward Grayson was Miss Renshaw’s Uncle and he reacted in the most outspoken way at the treatment his Niece had received. He repeatedly characterised Sparling as Infamous, in the Coffee Room of The Athenaeum he threatened chastisement, asserted that Sparling was avoiding him and referred to him as a “damned rascal”. In September 1803 owing to the outbreak of war with France Sparling returned to London. He stayed there some days and, while there, was visited by his friend Major Brooks, who later testified that Sparling had seemed “uneasy, agitated and depressed”, no doubt as a result of Brooks informing him that his reputation in Liverpool had suffered. While still in London he was also visited by Ralph Benson, a Liverpool man friendly with both Sparling and Grayson who reluctantly confirmed the reports which Sparling had received from Brooks.

On 19th September 1803, still at London, Sparling wrote the first of three letters to Grayson. This was brief and unequivocally denied Grayson’s assertions and stated that he would be arriving in Liverpool within a few days and would attend Grayson “at any place you may think proper to appoint”, in other words he would expect Grayson to meet him in a duel.

By now Grayson realised that Sparling was determined upon satisfaction. On 12th October 1803, he wrote to Dr McCartney of Duke Street, Liverpool, who had promised to act as his second.

After the duel had taken place McCartney wrote a memorandum of events as known to him, this document is with the manuscripts previously referred to. McCartney makes it clear that Sparling was pressing for immediate satisfaction, but Grayson was reluctant to commit himself. He was anxious to complete some involved negotiations with the Corporation in respect of some land he possessed, whose disposal would secure the future of his children should he not survive the duel.

The matter seems to have rested there until 23rd January 1804 when Grayson wrote to McCartney that the business with the Corporation was nearly concluded and he “was ready at an hours’ notice to meet the boasted challenge”. There is a note of weary resignation in this letter, Grayson refers to “getting off his hands a matter he did not seek” and complains of his eyes being very weak as he wrote by candlelight. On Friday 24th February Grayson wrote his final letter to McCartney. Rather sadly he pointed out that Sparling had known of his comments before leaving England in April 1803 and yet took no action. He concluded by desiring McCartney to inform Captain Colquitt that “I am agreeable to accept the challenge at any time and place you may appoint on Monday next” i.e 27th February.

On Saturday 25th February, Dr McCartney had three meetings with Captain Colquitt. These two were now desperately trying to avert a tragedy, indeed McCartney asserts that at all times he found Colquitt anxious to conciliate.

Sparling had returned to Liverpool on 23rd February and it was clear he would stand for no further delay. Indeed it is possible that he was being urged on by some other person, not Captain Colquitt, not to compromise. It is not impossible that this person was Major Brooks, who had originally repeated to Sparling words spoken to him by Grayson in a private conversation while Brooks and Grayson were travelling in the latters gig to a dinner in Wavertree in December 1802.

McCartney and Colquitt met at midday at the Doctor’s surgery “and attempted to explain the unfortunate business in a way which would prevent the necessity of an appeal to arms”.

At a further meeting at 5 o’clock at McCartney’s house, Colquitt delivered Sparling’s final word. If Grayson would not retract the injurious words used, he must meet him next morning, failing either of these Grayson’s name would be posted in The Athenaeum. McCartney conveyed this ultimatum to Grayson which the latter rejected telling the Doctor “that to retract now would render him infamous forever”. McCartney later that night visited Colquitt at the Royal Hotel to make arrangements for the duel. The site was “a place sequestered from the road near the river, about ¼ mile from the Ancient Chapel in Park Road and reached by a path across fields.

Even at this distance of time, it is possible to feel the increasing sense of tragedy as events developed. McCartney was, in his own words “mortified” when, in a large company on 23rd February, he heard Sparling state publicly his intention of fighting Grayson.

The Doctor’s affections were engaged because he relates how coming to Liverpool in 1790 Grayson “as was his custom and pride” had welcomed him and shown him every civility and friendship “when such good offices could be of real use to a young man beginning the exercise of profession”. The impression which emerges of Grayson is of a warm hearted, generous, impulsive man, whereas Sparling, who never spoke at the trial, comes over from reported statements and letters as a cold relentless character.

Patrick Dignan, Grayson’s servant, testified that he called his master at 6.15am on the morning of 26th February. Grayson lived at 125 St James’s Street and together they made their way on foot to the Park Chapel, a distance of 1 ¼ miles. At the Chapel they met McCartney and Parke who had travelled by chaise. The time was then about 7am. Grayson and McCartney walked down the path to Knotts Holl. Dignan and Parke remained with the chaise. William Ashley a chaise driver, testified that on 26th February he had driven McCartney and Parke, a Surgeon of Liverpool, to the Chapel where they met Grayson and his servant, and about 15 minutes after Grayson and McCartney had gone towards Knotts Hole he heard pistol shots.

In his evidence McCartney stated that on reaching Knotts Hols, Sparling and Colquitt were waiting. Sparling then proposed 10 paces, but McCartney insisted on 12 and this was agreed. McCartney examined Grayson’s pistol and found it to be rusty. An element of farce developed as Grayson’ borrowed a pistol from Captain Colquitt, the mechanism of which was explained to him by Sparling. McCartney asked Colquitt if he would give the command to fire, which he did, each man firing one shot. Grayson was hit in the upper right thigh, Sparling approached Grayson asking him to shake hands which Grayson refused and immediately Sparling and Colquitt left the ground promising to send Parke to Graysons assistance.

Simon Bozzon, a chaise driver who had driven Sparling and Colquitt from the Royal Hotel to the Park Chapel shortly after 6am testified that he had heard the sound of two pistol shots i.e before Grayson had arrived, presumably practice shots. Parke, Ashley and Bozzon all agreed that 15 minutes after Grayson and McCartney had left the Park Chapel they heard shots and almost immediately saw Sparling and Colquitt hurrying up the path from the field. Colquitt urged Parke to hasten as Grayson was injured and then with Sparling drove off to Liverpool in their Chaise. Parke and another man hastened towards Knotts Hole where they met McCartney and Dignan, who had run ahead at the sound of shots, supporting Grayson who was bleeding profusely and in considerable pain. McCartney and Dignan managed to get Grayson into the chaise and took him home. He lingered in misery until 3am the following Sunday morning, when he died.

A coroner’s jury found that Sparling and Colquitt “did kill and murder Edward Grayson”.

Sparling and Colquitt then surrendered to the magistrates and faced their trial at Lancaster Assizes on the 4th April 1804.

The prosecution led by Sergeant Cockell, Attorney General for Lancaster, made a determined attempt to obtain a guilty verdict, Cockell stated that he found in the case “more coolness, deliberation and persevering malice” than he had ever known.

If Grayson died by the deliberate act of Sparling, then both he and Colquitt were guilty of murder. There was no dispute concerning the facts and the defence brough forward a most impressive list of witnesses to vouch for Sparling’s good character. Amongst others, Viscount Carleton, a Chief Justice of Ireland, Major General Cartwright and several clergymen including the Rev. Johnathan Brookes, all testified that Sparling was of a mild temper, amiable character and not at all quarrelsome. The Judge, Sir Alan Chamber, summed up in favour of the prisoners and after a retirement of 20 minutes, the Jury returned a “Not Guilty” verdict.

Most unfortunately, we do not hear Sparling’s version of the affair. The text of his defence was read for him by Counsel and subsequently not made available to the publisher of the Trial Pamphlet, W. Jones of 56 Castle Street. In a preface to the pamphlet Jones expresses implied dissent from the verdict, which must reflect the view of Grayson’s friends.

Every advantage that February morning lay with Sparling. He was nearly 20 years younger than Grayson who was 46. Sparling had served as an officer on the 10th Regiment of Dragoons and was therefore familiar with firearms. We know that Grayson had weak eyes, he had walked in some agitation the distance from his home to the Park Chapel and would hardly be in a composed stte.

Finally there is the chaise driver’s evidence that Sparling had arrived at Knotts Hole and had a practice shot. All these factors inclined the balance in favour of Sparling. Grayson was doomed from the moment of his outburst to Major Brooks in December 1802.

After the trial, surely at the instigation of Rev. Samuel Renshaw and Doctor McCartney, a table was placed to the memory of Edward Grayson in the Church of St James, Toxteth Park, a few yards from Grayson’s house and probably attended by him.

The text read: –

Sacred to the Memory of

Edward Grayson

Of Liverpool, Shipwright

An Honest Man, an Affectionate Relative and a Sincere Friend. Whose zeal in the defence of insulted Innocence caused him to fall a sacrifice to the Law of false Honour whereby the injured are unhappily compelled to expose themselves to Destruction at the call of the Aggressor.

Died March 4th 1804.

Sparling left Liverpool after the trial, sold his fine house at Everton and took no further part in Liverpool affairs. A portrait of William Sparling as a child and a picture of his house, St Domingo, will be found in Volume 116 of the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire in the Library.

The writer of the anonymous letter was never publicly identified.

As a strange sequel to the story, in the next year, December 1805, Major Brook perished in a duel he had provoked with Colonel John Bolton.