Gilles vs Pugh and the lost letter.
Abstract: In June 1842 the wife of Lewis W. Gilles, a banker in Launceston, wrote to Mrs Pugh, inviting her and her husband, Mr William Russ Pugh, to an entertainment and ball. The Pughs neither responded to the invitation, nor attended the ball. Mrs Gilles mentioned the discourtesy of their non-attendance to a friend, who the following morning brought the complaint to the attention of Dr Pugh. Pugh immediately wrote a brief note explaining that neither he nor his wife had received the invitation. Further correspondence between Gilles and Pugh ensued, becoming more and more bitter until Pugh publicly insulted Gilles. The Launceston Club, of which both men were members, ultimately became a casualty of the dispute and was dissolved. A Supreme Court defamation and libel case followed with Gilles as plaintiff and Pugh as defendant. Gilles won the case but received only token damages.

And the missing letter? Too late, Mrs Pugh's maid found it tucked between the pages of a periodical on the dresser.

Key Words: William Russ Pugh, character, defamation, libel
Article Type: Report
Subject: Anesthesiologists (Evaluation)
Libel and slander (Cases)
Author: Paull, J.D.
Pub Date: 07/01/2009
Publication: Name: Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Publisher: Australian Society of Anaesthetists Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Australian Society of Anaesthetists ISSN: 0310-057X
Issue: Date: July, 2009 Source Volume: 37 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 980 Legal issues & crime Advertising Code: 94 Legal/Government Regulation Computer Subject: Company legal issue
Persons: Named Person: Pugh, William Russ; Gilles, Lewis William
Accession Number: 204614246
Full Text: William Russ Pugh is relatively well known in Launceston, Tasmania. A statue of him stands in Princes Square, opposite his former home. An operating theatre in Launceston General Hospital is named in his honour. He is recognised as being the first doctor in Australia to administer a volatile anaesthetic for a surgical procedure in June 1847, in Launceston. He appears to have had a volatile character. Stubbornness was one of his attributes but also one of his faults.

Lewis William Gilles is less well known, at least to anaesthetists. Gilles played a significant role in the commercial life of Van Diemen's Land before and during Pugh's time. Born in 1796, Gilles came to Van Diemen's Land sometime before 1823, the year in which he was married in Hobart (1). He was Secretary and Treasurer of the Ross Market in 1826, Treasurer of the Launceston Infant School established in 1836, manager of the Union Bank and director of Lewis Gilles & Co, a banking and agency house in Launceston in 1840 (2-4).

However, in 1842 Gilles was under major financial stress, having recently lost 4000 [pounds sterling] in banking activities. James Scott, in his diary of 2 February 1842, mentions that, "Mr Gilles the banker has lost 4000 [pounds sterling] within the last 2 years by Insolvents--& he is not the only sufferer,--only examine the papers & see the long list of failures" (5).



Gilles' banking and investment activities were to lead him into even deeper financial distress and by 1844, he and his company, now in association with the Archer brothers, were insolvent. James Scott wrote, "In the papers you will see L. W. Gilles as insolvent his private debts are near 27,000 [pounds sterling]--& that of the bank of Archers Gilles and Coy are about 44,000 [pounds sterling]--they have got 12 months to pay it up--& it is supposed they will be hard up to meet this" (6).

These problems may in part explain Gilles' actions in June 1842, when he and Pugh were at loggerheads over a lost letter. Even at that time, Gilles' need of ready cash may have been so great as to make him a desperate man.

In June 1842 Gilles' wife wrote to Mrs Pugh, inviting her and Dr Pugh to an evening entertainment and ball. To Mrs Gilles' surprise, Pugh and his wife neither responded to the invitation nor attended the ball. Mrs Gilles mentioned this discourtesy to a friend, Mr Connolly, and said that she found this very strange. The following morning Connolly brought the complaint to the attention of Dr Pugh (7).

Pugh immediately wrote a brief note to Gilles.

"SIR.--Having learned that Mrs. Pugh is supposed to have been guilty of a breach of civility in not replying to a note addressed to her by Mrs. Gilles, I beg to state that Mrs. Pugh is in ignorance of having thus been addressed by Mrs. Gilles, and that no member of my establishment is aware of the delivery of such a note.--I am, your's &c.


Friday Morning.

P.S. Mrs. Pugh's confinement to her bed is an apology for my addressing you.

W. R. P.

To L. W. Gilles, Esq."

Pugh has made a major mistake which would return to confront him. He failed to ask Mrs Pugh's maid if she knew anything of the letter before asserting that "no member of my establishment is aware of the delivery of such a note".

Gilles responded immediately but the tone of his letter suggests that he was ready to take offence and was determined to score a point.

"SIR.--I have to acknowledge a note from you, dated this morning, intimating that no invitation from Mrs. Gilles, addressed to Mrs. Pugh, had been received by any member of your establishment. I read the invitation myself: it was enclosed in an envelope, together with one for Miss Kearton [Mrs Pugh's sister]; I sent it with the others by the same messenger to the post-office, to the best of my belief, and the reason it did not reach its destination I shall endeavour to elicit. Your assertion that the note did not reach your residence, however unfortunate, is sufficient; and both Mrs. Gilles and I would have extremely regretted the circumstances but that the tone of your note has deprived us of even this gratification--I am, your's obediently,


Friday afternoon--to W. Russ Pugh Esq."

Gilles established that the postman had delivered the letter and that the postage of two pence was paid by the Pugh's maid servant and didn't hesitate to let Pugh know. More than a touch of sarcasm is evident in this letter.

"Brisbane Street, June 14, 1842.

SIR--I have now ascertained, that ... the note in question was delivered by William Brown, Post-office messenger, at your house, to the servant woman (a member, I presume, of your establishment) who carried it into a room and returned with the postage, 2d.-Your's obediently,


To W. R. Pugh Esq."

On this occasion Mrs. Pugh responded to Gilles and clearly attempted to mollify him and defuse the situation.


"As Mr. Pugh is absent from home, and probably may not be returned for some hours, Mrs. Pugh, in order to prevent any unnecessary suspense to Mr. Gilles, begs to state that all postage in her house is paid in a similar manner to the one Mr. Gilles describes, as she leaves money at all times with her servants to defray all such small charges.

Mrs. Pugh begs to repeat that she had never heard of or received the letter Mrs. Gilles did her the honor to send until long after Mrs. Gilles' party had taken place; but to save Mr. Gilles all further trouble, Mrs. Pugh informs him that she has since seen the note drop from among some periodicals which one of her servants was in the act of handing to her, and which she had desired should be fetched from the drawing-room into her own sleeping apartment. Mr. Pugh would have informed the post-office of this circumstance, had not Mr. Browne's (the Post Master's) certificate exculpated that establishment from all blame. Had either Mr. or Mrs. Gilles named to Mr. Pugh, on the day they last met the politeness intended, Mr. Pugh would have caused a diligent search to have been made. To L. W. Gilles, Esq."

Gilles responds to Mrs Pugh with an unsigned letter. The letter contains a veiled rebuke to Mrs Pugh for having the temerity to open a letter addressed to her husband. The tone of this letter from Gilles to Mrs Pugh was later described by Pugh's counsel as "sneering".

"Mr. Gilles has the honor to acknowledge the receipt of Mrs. Pugh's note, and to state that he was in no degree of suspense whatever, but would have waited for Mr. Pugh's arriving, both to open and to reply to Mr. G's. note of this morning's date. Mr. G. is however happy to discover there has been no mistake in the delivery of Mrs. Gilles' invitation. To Mrs. Pugh, St. John street."

On the grapevine, Pugh has now heard that Gilles has lodged a complaint about him with the Secretary of the Launceston Club, of which they are both members. The club met regularly in the now demolished Club Hotel in Brisbane Street, Launceston.

Rule 17 of the club's constitution stated, "Any member wilfully infringing the rules and regulations of the club, or whose conduct, in or out of the club, after his election, shall, in the opinion of the committee, be derogatory to his station in society shall be subject to expulsion".

Pugh is clearly incensed that he should be treated in this way and fires off a letter to Gilles demanding to know if this rumour is true.

"SIR.--I am informed that you have charged me before the committee of the Launceston Club with conduct unbecoming a gentleman, and derogatory to my station in society. I request to know if such be the case.--I am, sir, your obedient servant,


To L. W. Gilles, Esq."

Pugh did not receive a reply from Gilles but enquiry at the Launceston Club confirmed his fears. The club secretary had received a letter from Gilles. The letter was short and to the point but it was clear that Gilles was intent on turning a minor incident into a major storm.

"Launceston, July 5, 1842.

I charge Mr. W. R. Pugh, as a member of this club, with conduct unbecoming a gentleman, and derogatory to his station in society; he, the said W. R. Pugh, having made an assertion which was contrary to the fact, and when found to be unfounded, that he, (Mr. Pugh) had neither the candour to admit his error, or the spirit to justify his behaviour.


To The Secretary of the Launceston Club."

When Pugh heard of this he was clearly upset. Later that evening he woke a friend, Mr Sinclair, who was on the club committee, and at midnight asked Sinclair to attend Gilles at home and demand satisfaction. In other words, Pugh challenged Gilles to a duel. Sinclair delivered the message and Gilles, having consulted several military gentlemen of his acquaintance, was eventually persuaded to reject Pugh's challenge.

It appears that Gilles was more than anxious to meet Pugh in a duel. The Launceston Examiner commented, with a touch of irony, that "Captains Stuart and Gardiner would have told the court, if they had been called as witnesses, what they have testified elsewhere: that the plaintiff looked on powder and shot with as much complacency as on sovereigns and dollars; that no war horse dashed forward with more vehemence to the conflict, than he, armed for the fight; that the plaintiff required no spur, but when told to stop, stopped and to retreat, retreated; and having heard the laws of honour expounded by gentlemen who could judge of honour by a glance, returned to the desk of the financier, and exchanged the pistol for the pen, without one murmur or one peevish regret" (8).

Gilles then received a letter from the Secretary of the Launceston Club which must have angered him. "The committee having taken into consideration the charge brought by Mr. L. W. Gilles against Mr. W. R. Pugh, and carefully examined the evidence produced, are unanimously of opinion that the charge has not been borne out."

At this point emotions of the parties involved, including many club members, were at boiling point. A number of club members who were offended by Gilles' actions resigned from the club because he had been allowed to remain a member. In their evidence at the trial, they stated that it was their intention to "cut" Gilles in the street because of his behaviour.

Because of his apparently impetuous and stubborn character, Pugh was not content to let the matter rest when the club committee dismissed Gilles' accusations. It must be remembered however, that only a few weeks later Pugh found himself charged with manslaughter, following the death of a patient on whom he had operated for obstructed hernia in November 1841 (9). He would have been aware at this time that Dr Haygarth, who made the complaint against him, had been seeking witnesses to support his accusation against Pugh. It is not hard to imagine that Pugh would have been under great stress and his better judgement may have deserted him at this time.

In any case, Pugh decided that he would post a notice in the club-house, which he did, stating that, "Mr. Gilles had accused him of tergiversation and of actions derogatory to the character of a gentleman, which he had failed to prove, and as he would neither give him an explanation nor a meeting, (in fact a duel) he was a liar and a coward".

Pugh posted a similar notice on the front door of the Launceston Club, to be seen by all who passed along Brisbane Street.

"Mr. Lewis William Gilles having instituted charges against me derogatory to my character, which he has failed to substantiate, and having refused to afford me satisfaction, I hereby proclaim him a COWARD and a LIAR.

W. R. PUGH, July 8, 1842."

At this point, so many members of the Launceston Club resigned that it was dissolved. It was not re-established until 40 years later, in 1880.

On Thursday, 6 October 1842, The Chief Justice, Sir John Pedder, presided over a hearing in the Supreme Court in Launceston, with a jury of 12 men, in which defamation and libel were alleged. Gilles was the plaintiff and Pugh the defendant. Gilles claimed the astonishing sum of 2000 [pounds sterling] as damages. It is not unreasonable to assume that Gilles saw this as an opportunity to claw back funds to ameliorate his imminent insolvency.

All of the dirty linen mentioned above was paraded before the court. Despite an eloquent and impassioned address and plea to the court by Pugh's friend and counsel, Mr Macdowell, Sir John Pedder was not impressed. In his address to the jury Sir John said, "as the publication was admitted, the only question for their consideration was the amount of damages due to the plaintiff; to impute a man that he was a coward and a liar was undoubtedly libellous, but he, the Chief Justice, could not help expressing his deep regret that trifles should have broken up a club which he thought likely to be useful to the community and promote harmony in society".

After a few minutes consultation, the jury "returned into court with a verdict for the plaintiff--damages, ONE FARTHING". A farthing was a quarter of one penny and the lowest denomination of currency at the time. It is clear that despite Pugh's acknowledged guilt, the jurymen's sympathies lay with Pugh. The award of a farthing, rather than the claimed 2000 [pounds sterling], was both a financial setback and a snub to Gilles, who was clearly not the most popular person in Launceston. It is possible of course, and perhaps even probable, that some of the jurors had undeclared debt, owed money to Gilles and were keen to seize the opportunity to put him in his place.

The Cornwall Chronicle reported that the Jury added a rider to its verdict (10). "We noticed a peculiarity in this case, namely, that the foreman in delivering the verdict, expressed the desire of the jury that each party should pay his own costs, thereby intimating a wish to set at rest the question at issue, as also an implication that although faults had existed, neither party could claim an exemption from blame." This indicates that the jury believed that Gilles had brought much of this on himself and rather than Pugh meeting Gilles' costs, as would normally happen, Gilles should bear his own costs.

The case created great interest and controversy in Launceston. Both the Cornwall Chronicle and the Launceston Examiner subsequently published editorial comment about the character and behaviour of the two gentlemen involved and the merits or otherwise of duelling as the means to settle a dispute.

1842 was not a good year for either Pugh or Gilles. Pugh had to face two more court cases (9) and Gilles financial ruin6.


(1.) Hobart Town Gazette, 20 December, 1823, p. 2, c. 1.

(2.) Colonial Times, Hobart, 18 August, 1826, p. 1, c. 1.

(3.) Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston, 19 March, 1836, p.1., c. 3.

(4.) Ferguson JA. Bibliography of Australia, Volume 3. 1839-1845. Sydney, London: Angus and Robertson 1951. p. 103 Item 2985.

(5.) Scott J. Diaries, Transcribed by John Archer, p. 72, 2 February 1842.

(6.) Scott J. Diaries, Transcribed by John Archer, p. 106, 27 January 1844.

(7.) Launceston Examiner, 8 October, 1842, p. 244-245.

(8.) Launceston Examiner, 12 October, 1842, p. 251, c. 3.

(9.) Paull JD. The perils of pointing the finger: a lesson for Dr Haygarth. Anaesth Intensive Care 2007; 35 (Supp 1):32-36.

(10.) Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston, 8 October, 1842, p. 2, c. 1.


Department of Anaesthetics, Launceston General Hospital, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia
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