When Honour was Worth a Gentleman’s Life: The Last Duel in NSW

When Honour was Worth a Gentleman’s Life: The Last Duel in NSW

On the 27th of September 1851, in Sydney’s Centennial Park, Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell and the future first Premier of NSW Sir Stuart Alexander Donaldson stood on their marks, pistols in their grips and shot three times towards each other. Both duellists missed and thankfully, the only injury sustained was to Donaldson’s hat. This marked the last recorded duel in Australia.

But what even is a duel?

Rooted in honour culture and highlighting the importance of a gentleman’s social standing, duels were used as a way of restoring one’s reputation after receiving insulting remarks or criticism from another individual. A gentleman’s honour was so important to their reputation, it was quite literally, worth their life.

Duelling involved two gentlemen, usually public figures, their “seconds” chosen by the participants to ensure a fair duel and to choose weapons which were equally fatal.

Surveyor-General Mitchell challenged Donaldson to a duel after his plans of the construction of a new town on the land of Tenterfield Station were criticised by Donaldson as an unnecessary expansion of the Surveyor-General’s Department.

Get to know the two duellers

Major Sir Stuart Alexander Donaldson (pictured) arrived in Australia in 1834 and by 1856, after becoming heavily involved in political parties, was elected as the first premier of NSW. Donaldson achieved great success throughout his career as a member of both the NSW Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly over different periods of time, he also received a knighthood in 1860.

Born in Scotland, Sir Thomas Mitchell arrived in Australia in 1827 to become Surveyor-General of New South Wales where he was in charge of the placement of the state’s many infrastructural projects. By 1836, during his third major survey, he had crossed the Murray River into Victoria and led one of the most significant expeditions in Australian history. Mitchell’s record of the early development of Sydney and its surrounds, forms part of a rare book in the parliamentary library’s collection titled ‘Progress in roads and Public Works in New South Wales to 1855′ (pictured).  Mitchell was also an elected member of the first Legislative Council of NSW.


The duelling pistols used by Sir Thomas Mitchell in Sydney in 1851 are in the National Museum of Australia’s collection (pictured).

Copyright National Museum of Australia / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The duel between Mitchell and Donaldson marked the end of the practice in New South Wales and resolving disagreements has come a long way since 1851.