Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Hennis, Peter

Dr Peter Hennis, 1802 – 1833, hero of Exeter cholera outbreak, 1832

His plaque is on the wall of St Sidwell’s Church, Sidwell Street, Exeter, EX4 6NN. It reads:

Doctor Peter Hennis  Behind this wall is the restored grave of Peter Hennis, a much admired and revered physician and the hero of the Exeter cholera outbreak of 1832. He died following a duel on the Haldon racecourse in 1833. This plaque was created by Exeter Civic Society

Sue Ayres, an Exeter Red Coat Guide, who has researched Dr Peter Hennis, writes:

Irish-born PETER HENNIS came to Exeter in 1830. In 1833, aged 31, he was shot and fatally wounded in a duel. He was the last man to be killed in a duel in Devon. Following his death, the city was outraged. Two hundred and fifty dignitaries attended his funeral service at the Cathedral and 20,000 citizens lined the route to St Sidwell’s Church where he was interred, such was the depth of feeling toward him. It was one of the largest gatherings ever seen in the city.

On arriving in Exeter, Dr Hennis had taken lodgings above Upham’s bookshop on the High Street and on 2 November 1830 secured the position of physician to The Exeter Dispensary situated in Friernhay Street. Founded in 1818, the dispensary provided care for the poor and children considered unfit to be admitted to The Devon and Exeter Hospital, and Dr Hennis devoted much of his time to their care.

During the cholera outbreak in 1832, he was appointed medical officer to the poorest South District of the city where his reputation for kindness and hard work grew.

In May 1833, Dr Hennis fell foul of Sir John Jeffcott, an Admiralty Court judge, who frequently visited Exeter. He falsely accused Dr Hennis of maligning him and a duel with pistols was organised. On 10 May at 4.30 p.m., both men and their seconds arrived at Haldon Racecourse. It was agreed the opponents would face each other 14 paces apart and two words of command would be used: ‘Prepare’ and ‘Fire’. Sir John, however, fired prematurely, fatally wounding Dr Hennis who did not return fire. Having received forgiveness from Dr Hennis, Sir John travelled to Plymouth and the next morning left the country for Sierra Leone, where he had recently been appointed Chief Justice.

Peter Hennis died eight days later suffering a slow, lingering, painful death. He was due to marry the daughter of the Reverend William Clack, Rector of Moretonhampstead, the following month. A warrant for Sir John’s arrest was issued but he was not brought to trial until 1834, and although he was acquitted of murder, his career and reputation were greatly damaged. He was drowned in 1837 when the boat he was sailing in capsized on the Murray River, New South Wales, Australia. Attitudes towards duelling were changing and the last recorded in England was in 1845.

The plaque to Dr Hennis was erected by Exeter Civic Society in 2006. It was refurbished and replaced in position in November 2016.