Blue plaque to remember Exeter hero
Dr. Peter Hennis, who is buried in the graveyard of St. Sidwell’s Church, is commemorated in a blue plaque erected by Exeter Civic Society on the graveyard wall. He is described as ‘a much admired and revered physician and hero of the cholera outbreak of 1832.’
Peter Hennis was born in Youghal, County Cork, Ireland and studied at Trinity College Dublin, London, Paris and Edinburgh before arriving in Exeter in 1830.
He gained a reputation for his kindness and hard work tending the city’s poorest people during the cholera outbreak two years later.
He died in 1833, at the age of 31, following a duel at Haldon Racecourse, outside Exeter – thought to be the last person in Devon to die as a result of duelling. His funeral was attended by more than 200 dignitaries, and 20,000 local people lined the way from his lodgings above Upham’s bookshop at 245 High Street to his last resting place at St. Sidwell’s.
Cholera in Exeter
An outbreak of cholera killed over 50,000 people in this country in the early 1830s. In the hot dry Summer of 1832 cholera reached Plymouth and six days later, on 19 July 1832, the first two cases occurred in Exeter, one in St. Thomas the other in North Street.
Peter Hennis and his medical colleagues were quick to offer their services. Dr. Hennis took on the role of medical officer for the South District of the Exeter, the poorest and most crowded area within the city walls.
The doctors did what they could with the ‘remedies’ available: peppermint, cinnamon, soda, mustard, turpentine, opium and brandy.
After the outbreak subsided in the Autumn, ten doctors, including Peter Hennis, each received official thanks for their unstinting efforts to save life and ease the suffering of the cholera victims.
The fatal duel on Haldon Racecourse
Sadly, in May 1833, Peter Hennis fell foul of a fellow Irishman, 37 years old Sir John William Jeffcott, an Admiralty Court judge, who frequently visited Exeter.
John Jeffcott had fallen in love with one of the grand-daughters of Flora Macdonald, the famous Scottish rebel and friend of Bonny Prince Charlie. The girl’s family lived in Exeter at Summerland Place.
His courtship floundered and Jeffcott thought Dr. Hennis had blackened his name with the family. An argument ensued and a duel became inevitable.
At 4.30 p.m. on Friday 10 May the two men and their seconds arrived at Haldon Racecourse. It was agreed that two words would be spoken: ‘Prepare’ and ‘Fire’. On the word ‘Prepare’, Jeffcott raised his arm and fired.
Peter Hennis was shot in the side. He had not fired his pistol.
Jeffcott ran to Dr Hennis and asked to be forgiven. Hennis grasped Jeffcott’s hand, then fell to the ground. He died in great pain eight days later on Saturday 18 May.
Burial at St. Sidwell’s
Peter Hennis was buried on Thursday 23 May. His coffin was carried Irish-style by 16 close friends taking turns as the procession wended its way through the city towards St. Sidwell’s Church.
The shops along the route were closed, women watched from upstairs windows and the bells of city churches tolled. St Sidwell’s and St. David’s rang muffled peals as the cortege moved towards St. Sidwell’s Church.
In the packed church, the funeral service was read by the curate, the Rev. Mr. Trip, who spoke of the deceased’s ‘moral worth and manly courage’
Peter Hennis was buried in the vault at the entrance to St. Sidwell’s Churchyard, where thousands of people, rich and poor, had gathered to witness the interment.
Acquitted of murder
Jeffcott fled the country but eventually stood trial at Exeter Assizes in March 1834. He was acquitted of murder.
He took up a posting in Australia but was drowned with three others on 12 December 1837 when the overloaded whaleboat in which he was a passenger overturned in rough seas. His body was never found.
His principal claim to notoriety, perhaps, is that of being one of the few British judges ever to be charged with murder.