Spencer Perceval was one of the younger sons of John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont who first sought a career in the law and then politics. He first entered Parliament in 1796 and having served as both Solicitor-General and Attorney-General he became the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1807 following which he became Prime Minister in October 1809 and remained in office held until the 11th May 1812 when he was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons, earning for himself the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated whilst in office.
Perceval was unpopular in certain quarters, in part due to the allegedly 'repressive' Frame Breaking Act of 1812 and some of the more radical elements in British society certainly viewed his death as an occassion for celebration. A Colonel Fletcher of Bolton was to record that he witnessed a man running down the street of his home town, leaping in the air, waving his hat round his head, and shouting "Perceval is shot, hurrah! Perceval is shot, hurrah!", whilst Samuel Taylor Coleridge said he knew of a public house where it became the custom to drink a toast to the assassin for many years afterwards.
However the man who did the deed, one John Bellingham had his own particular reasons for shooting dead the serving Prime Minister which had nothing whatsoever to do with politics.
The unfortunate Mr Bellingham
John Bellingham was a merchant who had been active in the Russian trade and acted as agent for a number of British companies. Somehow as a result of his business activities Bellingham incurred the displeasure of the Russian authorities which led to him being held in custody between the years 1804 and 1809. The exact circumstances which precipitated his downfall are confused, but it appears that he was suspected of making a false allegation of insurance fraud regarding the loss of the Soleure in the White Sea which apparently led to his initial arrest, but the true cause of his difficulties appears to be have been a dispute with the firm of Dorbecker & Co, in which both parties claimed the other was in their debt. This dispute went to arbitration and Bellingham lost, being held liable for the amount of two thousand roubles which he then refused to pay, and then compounded the problem by trying to flee the country in a presumed attempt to avoid liability.
Although it appears that the British Ambassador Lord Granville Leveson-Gower had done what he could to help out (including at one time allowing him to hide from the Russian police at his house at St Petersburg) Bellingham came to the conclusion that his rights as a British subject had been violated and that the British government were therefore liable to compensate him for the losses he had suffered due to the negligence of the ambassador in failing to secure his release. Therefore after the Russians decided to set him free in 1809, he returned to London and took up lodgings at No. 9 New Millman Street, whilst his wife and child remained in Liverpool, and began conducting a campaign to persuade the government to pay him what he believed he was owed.
He contacted his Member of Parliament Isaac Gascoyne, petitioned the Treasury more than once, and even wrote to the Prince Regent to press his claim. According to the subsequent testimony of a friend named Ann Billett, Bellingham believed that during his time in Russia "he had realized more than an hundred thousand pounds", and whilst he admitted that "he had not got the money, but it was the same as if he had; for that he had gained his cause in Russia, and our government must make it good to him". He received some expressions of sympathy but no money and certainly not the £100,000 he appeared to believe was his due; which being roughly £4.5 million in today's money, was indeed a considerable sum. Matters came to a head on the 23rd March 1812 when Bellingham wrote to the Bow Street Magistrates requesting them to once more put the matter before the government and threatened that if the government failed to act then "I shall then feel justified in executing justice myself". The Bow Street Magistrates duly reported the matter to the government, who decided to take no action, since by that time they were well acquainted with Bellingham and regarded him as a harmless eccentric.
At 5.00pm on Monday the 11th May 1812 John Bellingham entered the lobby leading to the House of Commons and took a seat near an open fire. Some fifteen minutes later Spencer Perceval appeared. Bellingham walked up to the Prime Minister, drew a pistol from a concealed pocket in his coat and fired a single shot at the range of only a few feet. Perceval fell to the ground crying "I am murdered! I am murdered!" He was carried to the nearby office of the speaker's secretary where it appears that after a "few convulsive sobs" he died a few minutes later. A doctor was called for, and at around 5.30pm a William Lynn of Great George Street in Westminster arrived and examined the Prime Minister. According to his later testimony "I examined his pulse, he had no pulsation, and appeared quite dead".
As to John Bellingham, he made no attempt to escape, and having shot Perceval simply returned to his seat and sat down again. He was approached by Henry Burgess, a solicitor who also happened to be in the lobby at the time, who took possession of the pistol in Bellingham's hand. When asked him if he had another weapon in his possession. Bellingham replied that he did and confirmed that it was loaded, at which point Isaac Gascoyne appeared who was quite well acquainted with Bellingham, immediately recognised him, and rushed to assist Burgess in disarming him of his second pistol. Also present at the time was Vincent George Dowling star reporter of The Observer, who helped apprehend the assassin and earned himself a real scoop. Bellingham was then marched off to the prison room of the House and at 1.00am on the following morning he was taken under military escort to Newgate Prison.
The trial of John Bellingham
The very next day a coroner's court assembled at the Rose and Crown public house which rapidly came to the inevitable conclusion that Spencer Perceval had been willfully murdered. The government made a number of urgent inquires to establish whether or not Bellingham was part of some revolutionary plot, but soon came to the conclusion that they were dealing with a 'lone gunman' and so allowed the machinery of justice to proceed.
On Thursday 14th May a Bill of Indictment was made out against Bellingham and laid before a grand jury, charging him with the wilful murder of the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval and a trial date was set for the Old Bailey. This being the age of speedy justice, the trial began the very next day, the 15th May with the Lord Chief Justice James Mansfield presiding, the courtroom being very naturally packed with spectators, including the presence of "a great number of ladies, all led by the most intense curiosity to behold the assassin".
Bellingham appeared "dressed in a light brown surtout coat and striped yellow waistcoat" with "his hair plainly dressed, and without powder" and "quite undismayed" at the prospect of being on trial for his life. His defence counsel, Mr Alley immediately made an application to have the trial postponed in order to give him time to procure further evidence supporting his client's insanity, but Justice James Mansfield was unsympathetic and insisted that the defendant now plead. Bellingham initially refused to plead claiming that "All the documents on which alone I could rest my defence have been taken from me and are now in possession of the Crown", but was informed by Justice Mansfield that he first had to plead, at which point Bellingham plumped for a plea of 'not guilty'.
The prosecution, led by the Attorney-General Vicary Gibbs, called a series of witnesses to testify to the events of the 11th May, followed by the evidence of a tailor named James Taylor, who had been paid by Bellingham to add the additional concealed pocket to his coat, as well as another witness who testified to having seen Bellingham several times in the galleries at the House of Commons. (The latter two witnesses providing of course evidence of premeditation.)
The curious thing about the defence was that Bellingham and his counsel advanced quite different arguments in support of his plea of not guilty.
Speaking in his own defence Bellingham claimed that he was perfectly sane as far as he was aware, and argued that a "refusal of justice was the sole cause of this fatal catastrophe". He claimed that he had no personal grievance against Perceval as such, and would sooner have shot the Lord Gower had the opportunity presented itself. He further argued that since the government had refused to accede to his claims for compensation, he had no choice other than to act as he did, and that his sole purpose in shooting the Prime Minister was to bring the matter to the public attention, believing that this would lead to a recognition of the justice of his claim. He therefore believed that he was perfectly justified in killing Perceval, asserting "what is my crime to the crime of government itself?" adding that "I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers". He appears to have had every confidence that he would be acquitted. For his part Mr Alley called a number of witnesses to testify to their belief in his client's "derangement" in support of his contention that his client was not guilty by reason of his insanity.
In his summing up of the case Justice Mansfield dismissed the insanity plea, noting that "it ought to be proved by the most distinct and unquestionable evidence, that the criminal was incapable of judging between right or wrong" and that the defence had failed to so, concluding that Bellingham "was in every respect a full and competent judge of all his actions". He also dismissed Bellingham's own defence of 'justifiable homicide' noting that "Such dreadful reasoning could not be too strongly reprobated. If a man fancied he was right, and in consequence conceived that fancy was not gratified, he had a right to obtain justice by any means which his physical strength gave him, there is no knowing where so pernicious a doctrine might end."
After a brief discussion the jury withdrew to further discuss the matter, returning after about ten or fifteen minutes to announce their verdict of guilty. It was only left for Justice Mansfield to pronounce sentence. Beginning with the customary condemnation of the now convicted criminal - "Prisoner at the bar! you have been convicted by a most attentive and a most merciful jury, of one of the most malicious and atrocious crimes it is in the power of human nature to perpetrate - that of wilful and premeditated murder!" - before taking the trouble to "pass the dreadful sentence of the law", which was of course, "That you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead; your body to be dissected and anatomized."
The whole trial was over in a day and the only person who appeared to be surprised at the conclusion was Bellingham himself who, as previously mentioned, appeared to be quite confident that he would be acquitted. He later blamed his conviction on the failure of his attorney Mr Alley to produce the necessary witnesses that would have proved his claim. He nevertheless viewed his fate in a calm and collected manner, and wrote a short note to his wife expressing his dismay that it had been his "misfortune to be thwarted, misrepresented and ill-used in life" whilst looking forward to the "happy prospect of compensation in a speedy translation to life eternal".
The execution of John Bellingham
Having wasted no time in putting Bellingham on trial, the authorities similarly moved without delay to ensure the sentence was carried out. At 8.00 am on Monday 18th May 1812, scarcely a week after Perceval had been shot, John Bellingham appeared at the scaffold in front of Newgate Prison. On being asked whether he had anything to say, he appeared to want to go through the whole saga of his Russian misfortunes once more, before the attending clergyman a Dr Ford put a stop to it, and Bellingham contented himself with expressing his thanks to God "for having enabled him to meet his fate with so much fortitude and resignation." There were cries of "God bless you!" and "God save you!" from the assembled crowd, as Bellingham approached the scaffold, where the hangman William Brunskill duly pulled the lever on the seventh stroke of the hour.
An hour later Bellingham's body was cut down, and taken to the mortuary of St Bartholomew's Hospital in Bell's Yard where his remains were later "dissected and anatomized" in accordance with his sentence.
Some years later the story emerged that a John Williams of Scorrier House, near Redruth in Cornwall claimed to have experienced a prophetic dream which 'foretold' the events of the assassination. Although as it happens Williams claimed to have dreamt his dream on the night following the assassination, this was still regarded as something peculiar, since this before it was believed that the news of the event could have reached him.
According to one later account, "Mr. Williams dreamt that he was in the lobby of the House of Commons, and saw a small man enter, dressed in a blue coat, and white waistcoat. Immediately after, he saw a man dressed in a brown coat with yellow basket buttons draw a pistol from under his coat and discharge it at the former, who instantly fell, the blood issuing from a wound a little below the left breast."
His wife was unimpressed and told him it was only a dream, although Mr Williams remained sufficiently enthusiastic about the matter to recount his dream to anyone who would listen. On the following day he was dining with his son-in-law a Mr. Tucker of Tremanton Castle when Tucker claimed to recognise the Prime Minister from his father-in-law's description, shortly after which his son Michael Williams arrived having galloped all the way from Truro, bearing the latest news that had arrived with the evening's mail from London; being of course that a man called Bellingham had shot Mr. Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons. Apparently some six weeks later John Williams went to London on business and paid his first visit to the House of Commons, and having viewed the lobby where the crime took place, pronounced that it was exactly as it had appeared to him in his dream.
Unfortunately the first public record of this incident was in The Times of the 28th August 1828, which inspired John Abercrombie, to include it in his book Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers, and the Investigation of Truth which appeared in 1830, by which time of course, people's memories had been inevitably coloured by subsequent events.
Whilst Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated this is not to say that others haven't tried. Margaret Thatcher survived the Brighton Bomb of 12th October 1984, and her successor John Major was the main target of a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street on the 7th February 1991.
- The entry for the 11th May from the Chamber Book of Days
- John Bellingham from The Newgate Calendar
- John Bellingham from The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Ref: t18120513-5
- The St Neots assassin