Of the Lapford men who went to war, few had a more colourful past than Hugh Campbell Browning. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge and was once heir to his father’s wealthy estate at Clapham Park, Bedfordshire. But, age 24, his prospects were changed forever when he, and a wealthy friend, toured Europe with a young flower seller whom they met in Monte Carlo. The events that unfolded led to a false marriage, a pistol duel, the death of Hugh’s friend and a famous court case which awarded the flower seller the dead man’s fortune .
It was the summer of 1895. In the foyer of the Hȏtel Métropole in Monte Carlo, a 19-year old girl by the name of Louise Plummer had a small stall selling flowers to hotel guests – the elite of International Society. It was not an unfamiliar environment– her father ran a hotel on Elephant Island in the Thames, popular with royalty and high Victorian Society. She had taken the job in the hope that the Mediterranean air would help her poor health.
Staying in the hotel was Charles Coningham., a young man who had inherited immense wealth but whose life was on a downward spiral. After being expelled from Sandhurst and Cambridge for bad behaviour, he had adopted a life of travel, gambling, drinking and drug taking. His mental condition had become unstable – he could not be left in a room alone without becoming panic-stricken and at times resorted to destroying hotel rooms, sometimes with his pistol. Yet, when sober, he was said to be “gentle and fascinating”.
Within days of first setting eyes on Louise, Charles asked her to marry him. At first she refused but after he threatened to kill himself she agreed to travel with him to Nice to marry in secret. On arriving they found that marriage required public notice and Charles decided instead to present Louise with a wedding ring and introduce her wherever they went as his wife .
They were joined during the summer by Charles’ Cambridge friend, Hugh Browning. For several weeks they enjoyed a wild time across the Mediterranean. Enamoured by his friends, Charles (who often exhibited an intense fear of death) changed his will to include Hugh with Louise as the main beneficiary. However things soured when Charles believed that his companions had become lovers. He reportedly vented his anger by throwing a chair into the orchestra pit at a theatre. His solution was to challenge Hugh to a pistol duel. Remarkably Hugh accepted and the men met after writing goodbye-notes. They duly took their paces and turned to fire. Hugh’s gun misfired. Charles aimed and narrowly missed. He quickly refired missing again and on the third attempt was forcibly stopped by the attending doctor. That evening Hugh and Charles dined together, reunited as friends, and laughed off their ordeal. But within days Charles died from the excesses of his lifestyle –after a heavy drinking bout in Naples he appears to have become scared and was found on the floor positioned “like a dog”, his head under his bed.
Charles’ will was contested by his family members and in 1897 a high profile court case was held. The jury agreed that Charles had changed his will in a sane state and of his own free will. Louise inherited a large fortune from the man she never actually married. Hugh was also a beneficiary. But, during the case, the wild events of the summer of 1895 become widely publicised much to the embarrassment of Hugh’s family. His father, the respected Master of the Oakley Hunt, resigned his position and when he died in 1905 Hugh found that the estate had been left to his brothers.
Hugh arrived in Lapford in about 1915 shortly after the death in the WWI trenches of his brother who, like his father had a distinguished military career. Hugh’s career as a brewer and wine merchant was less illustrious but at Lapford he devoted his time to the Cheriton Otter Hunt and became a well-respected Hunt Master. When Hugh was called for wartime service in 1918 he was devastated that the hound pack had to be broken up .
Hugh’s military career was short. He returned from WWI service after a few months due to ill health. He was recorded as living at Levale, Lapford—the recorder probably mishearing “Yeo Vale”. At the end of the war Hugh successfully reunited the hunt. He died just three years later.
To this day nobody knows if Hugh accepted the pistol dual with his friend as he too had, in fact, fallen for flower seller of Monte Carlo.