Major Byng

Major William Byng is the best-known Guernsey dueller; there is a stone in Cambridge Park commemorating his death in 1795. Guernseymen were forbidden to duel in Guernsey and would usually travel to Jersey to fight it out, so the majority of duels that have taken place here in the island of which we know any details occurred between locals and a member of the garrison; in this case a quarrel arose between two serving soldiers.

Byng was a member of the 92nd Regiment of Foot. Later, in 1798, this would be reconstituted as the Gordon Highlanders, but at the time it was one of the 'ephemeral' regiments, lasting in this state just two years, 1793-5. The regiment's surgeon, James Taylor, claimed not to recognise the band's rendition of the National Anthem after Mess and did not stand up; Major Byng challenged him and was shot through the skull the next day. There were apparently no seconds. Byng was seen to threaten the surgeon the previous day while inspecting the sick together, despite their having been good friends previously. Byng was buried in the Cimitière des Frères.

On February 2, the 92nd were called upon for the sad duty of providing a Mourning Party for the funeral of [...] Major Byng [...]. The Order further commanded that crepe should be worn by all ranks for a period of six weeks. [From B C de Guérin's The Gordons on Guernsey.]

Edith Carey relates the stories of these and other duels, some told to F C Lukis by the seasoned dueller Anthony Priaulx, in her Scrapbook held at the Library. Lukis tells how he, a boy at the time, saw the body being carried back by Byng's despondent soldiers down Smith Street, the men having waited in vain for their Major to inspect them for most of the morning, and how he was taken to Cambridge Park to see where the duel had taken place, and had witnessed Byng's brains still on the ground in the Avenue. The ancient elm, little more than a sapling at the time, on which a memorial had been carved to Byng was felled in 1971, and replaced by the memorial stone.¹ The archivist at Wrotham Park has kindly supplied us with a copy of General Small's report of the duel.

The most (in)famous duel that took place in Guernsey was that between Robert Porret Le Marchant, future Bailiff, and Thomas Saumarez; it was orchestrated by Le Marchant's father, the despotic Bailiff William Le Marchant, and was brilliantly described and analysed by Cecil de Saumarez in the 1965 Report and Transactions of the Société Guernesiaise.

William Byng was born in October 1770. He was the second son of George Byng (1735-1789) of the sumptuous Wrotham Park in Barnet, Hertfordshire, at that time part of Middlesex. His father was MP for that county, as was William's elder brother George (1764-1847), who served as member of Parliament for Middlesex for 56 years. William's grandfather, Robert Byng (1703-1740), was Paymaster of the Navy and Governor of Barbados; his mother was Lady Anne Wentworth (d. 1806), daughter and co-heir with her brother of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. His uncle Robert was smothered in the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756. His brother Robert died in 1829 but his youngest brother John Byng (1772-1860) was a high achiever and was created first Baron Strafford and then Viscount Enfield and Earl of Strafford in 1847.

¹ In Edith Carey's Scrapbook I in the Library is preserved a letter to Miss Carey from P Gallienne, the Honorary Secretary of the Park Committee, dated 8 May 1931. In this letter he proposes that 'a guard be fixed over the initials cut into one of the trees in the Avenue when a duel was fought there.'  A 'gentleman has offered to pay the expense of a guard, as he thinks it should be protected, and it would then be necessary to have the story of the duel placed inside the guard. Although the initals and date have not been tampered with very seriously, it  might be wise to have some protection, as it is of great interest to visitors.' He asks for her version of the duel, and remarks that as far as he is aware, the duel took place at a spot 'some four feet away from this tree in the centre of the path; both combatants prior to the duel cut their names into this tree (which was planted a few years previously ...'.