The duels of Batman’s Hill

The duels of Batman’s Hill
Ashley Smith

This sketch, drawn sometime after 1863 (according to the annotation), displays the western boundary of Melbourne during the 1830s. Perched on the hill, is a house that once was the home of John Batman, the city’s founder.

While it no longer exists, Batman’s Hill has played many roles in Melbourne’s history. After Batman died, the building was used as a government office and a hospital. The hill was also the site for a gunpowder magazine, the city’s first ever racecourse, and a temporary home for the Melbourne Cricket Club (this story deserves its own article some day).

The hill was eventually levelled in the 1860s to make way for extensions to the Spencer Street Railway Station.

However, it was also the site of some of the most daring of all colonial customs, where gentlemen put their honour (and lives) on the line: a pistol duel at 20 paces.

Up until the 19th century, if there was a tiff between two hot-blooded gentlemen over a woman, debts, or even a simple insult, they would protect their honour (or the woman’s) by using their swords or pistols. The confrontations would be mediated by their assistants, also known as seconds, and books published about the arcane and complicated duelling etiquette and rules. By the 1830s the practice was becoming archaic, and had become illegal in England, but that didn’t stop the newly arrived settlers of Port Phillip from having their fun.

One of the first recorded duels in Melbourne (if not the first) was at Batman’s Hill on May 30, 1839. The two duellists were people influential in Melbourne’s formation. The challenger was Dr Barry Cotter, Melbourne’s first surgeon, as well as a pastoralist and racehorse owner. The Tasmanian (March 10, 1837) claims that Cotter owned one of the two horses that partook in Victoria’s first horse race on February 8, 1837 (which he lost). Some sources, including a Mr P. Barber (The Argus, November 3, 1945), claim the race took place at Batman’s Hill, over a year before the first Melbourne Racing Club meetings were held there.

Cotter’s duelling opponent was the young (being thought to be just 18 or 19) George Arden, the editor and co-proprietor of the Port Phillip Gazette, one of the city’s first newspapers. While the raison d’être for their duel is lost to history, we do know that when the two raised their pistols at 16 paces, Cotter fired first with a shaky hand. While his bullet pierced the beaver hat of his assistant (a Mr Meek), it otherwise harmed no one, and Arden in return purposefully but honourably eloped, fired his bullet away from his foe.

That duel would be overshadowed by the extraordinary circumstances that happened a few months later on the night of January 1, 1840. The recently formed social club, the Melbourne Club, was throwing a party for the new year, when tensions flared between two of its members. One was Peter Snodgrass, a squatter and son of a lieutenant-colonel; the other was William Ryrie, a fellow squatter, would-be-magistrate, and owner of a small vineyard in Yering (cited as the first commercial vineyard in Victoria). Snodgrass took offence at Ryrie for reasons also lost to history and challenged him to a duel the next morning at Batman’s Hill.

However, it didn’t take long for the club to realise they had overlooked an important detail: they had no pistols!

Their solution was to borrow some from Joseph Hawdon, best known as an overlander, cattle grazier and mail carrier. However, as Hawdon home was at Heidelberg, eight miles away, Ryrie’s second, T. F. Hilton, volunteered to collect them. After a hectic race through the dead of night through bushland, Hilton was able to wake Hawdon, collect the weapons, and return to the clubrooms by 1am. However, a second issue soon arose: they had no gunpowder! The shop that usually sold gunpowder had blown up in a freak explosion (likely J. Blanch’s Emporium, as mentioned in Docklands News, August 2020). Buying gunpowder from anywhere else in the middle of the night was likely going to attract the attention of the authorities. They had little option but to visit military commandant Captain Smith at Bourke St West.

When Snodgrass’s second, Lt Vignolles, refused to see his superior out of fear of his status being endangered, Hilton again volunteered. While the journey wasn’t as long, it was just as dramatic. As Hilton convinced Smith to give up the goods, Smith’s wife caught them in the act and badgered the poor second. Hilton’s coat was so roughed up in the confrontation that when he escaped, he was left (in Garryowen’s words) “with a divided skirt but rent up to the shoulder blades” (The Age, January 17, 1885). After that trip, the group then fetched a surgeon, D. J. Thomas, to assist them in case someone was wounded. 

When morning broke, Snodgrass and Ryrie faced each other for the duel, their nerves likely jittery at the thought of facing their possible demise. Snodgrass’s trigger finger got impatient, and as he lifted his pistol, fired prematurely - into his own foot!

Ryrie had no choice but to elope and divert his shot away from his fallen foe as the surgeon checked up on Snodgrass. While Snodgrass’s toe would be fine, the group were now drunk and deflated from the duel’s anti-climactic end. Out of boredom one suggested using the surgeon for a target practice, but Thomas shrewdly bargained to use his bell-topper hat instead and pinned it to a tree, where the men let out their frustrations for the rest of the morning.

Both duellists would live for several more years after the duel, with Snodgrass going on to claim a seat in Victoria’s first Legislative Assembly and its first Legislative Council. However, his inclination to duel didn’t die as in 1841 he faced a young lawyer in another encounter near Sandridge (Port Melbourne). Peter again fired prematurely (though without the indignity of hurting himself), leading to another honourable draw.

And as for Peter’s opponent? He was none other than Redmond Barry, the first Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and later a judge on the Supreme Court of Victoria who oversaw the Eureka Stockade trials. While he was lucky to avoid a fatal bullet, the chilling circumstances of his eventual demise still echo in folklore. One day he sentenced a particular outlaw to hang, and as he proclaimed, “May God have mercy upon your soul”, the condemned rebutted with, “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go.”

The outlaw, Ned Kelly, was hanged on November 11, 1880. Twelve days later, Barry indeed joined him into the next life, dying from complications of lung failure •

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