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March 26, 2015

Moments in time # 9 – Named in shame

Our city has a history. Sure, it’s not especially long or hugely interesting history – but it has its moments. These are them.

  • Words and pictures: Owen Lindsay

When it came to naming the streets of our fair city, the Street Naming Committee of Adelaide (which convened in 1837) had a somewhat spotty history.

But no street seems more undeservedly titled than that which was named for Sir John Jeffcott.

Our story begins with one of the most important historical figures in the modern history of the town of Exeter (in Devon, England). This historical juggernaut’s name was Dr Peter Hennis, a young Irishman doctor who had become a local hero during the cholera epidemic of 1832 through his selfless and tireless treatment of the poor. A contemporary publication (The Gentleman’s Magazine) described Hennis as “beloved for his charity and amiable manners”, with another periodical (The Lady’s Magazine) stating that he was “universally beloved for his goodness of disposition and active benevolence”. Dr Hennis was just weeks away from marrying his sweetheart, a local minister’s daughter, and for the purposes of this story you might as well imagine that he was also just one day away from retirement.


There were evil deeds a-brewing in Exeter. Dr Hennis had run afoul of the terrible John Jeffcott: Jeffcott (then the Chief Justice of Sierra Leone) had been engaged to a woman who lived in Exeter – but, before they married, this fortunate woman had decided to break off the relationship. For whatever reason Jeffcott got it into his skull that Dr Hennis had been the cause of the breakup, and claimed that Dr Hennis “had aspersed [his] character” (more accurately, we speculate, he had aspersed the size of his character).

Although the saintly Dr Hennis attempted to calm Jeffcott, the latter would not have it. As a high-flying judge and newly-minted knight of Great Britain, he knew that the most rational legal remedy in the case of “someone possibly starting an unsubstantiated rumour” was to murder them in cold blood.

And so it was: in May 1833, Jeffcott and Dr Hennis lined up back-to-back on Haldon Racecourse, pistols drawn, for a good old fashioned, highly illegal duel. (Whether Jeffcott believed that killing a man would charm his estranged lover back into his arms is unclear. It is possible that, like the monstrous lizard Tyrannosaurus Rex before him, he simply enjoyed the primal thrill of murder.)

The two men solemnly marched out to 14 paces. The instructions for the duel had been clearly stated and agreed upon: the two men would stand until they heard “prepare”, and then “fire!”, at which time they would spin around and attempt to mutually bust a cap.

Well: Upon hearing “prepare”, Jeffcott spun around and shot Dr Hennis in the back. Later, long after Hennis’ death, Jeffcott would claim that he had simply “misunderstood” the simple instructions; a claim that seems somewhat suspect considering that immediately after killing the poor doctor, Jeffcott avoided arrest by hopping aboard a barge bound for Africa.

Dr Hennis died in agony over eight long days, and confided to his friends while dying that, during the duel, he had never intended to fire his gun at all. Over 200,000 Exonians lined the streets to pay their respects as his coffin passed by – roughly the same amount of people who, 130 years later, would turn out to see JFK’s funeral procession.

Jeffcott eventually returned to England – but only on the condition that he would be acquitted of murder. And so it was. After the trial, Jeffcott scuttled his way to the fledgling colony of South Australia in order to (among other things) escape his creditors and marry his cousin. He drowned only a few years later in rough seas off the south coast, leading us to conclude that the ocean itself was also a loyal supporter of Dr Hennis.

So why and how did the murdering John Jeffcott have a street named for him? Well, the answer is simple: because he sat on the Street Naming Committee. And not only did Jeffcott snag a prime street for himself, he also managed to name O’Connell and Kermode Streets after a couple of his dropkick mates back in Britain. If his past record is anything to go by, he most likely did all of this while waving around a pistol.

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