SPENCER PERCEVAL

200px-Spencer_Perceval_memorialLived from 1791-1812 and is best remembered as the only British prime minister to be assassinated. By all accounts he was a thoroughly decent, honourable and competent man, but he was cut off in his prime.

A professional lawyer, he made his mark by holding down the senior posts of Solicitor General and Attorney General. An admirer of William Pitt The Younger, he was politically conservative and an active Anglican, opposing Catholic emancipation. When the Duke of Portland put together a coalition of Tories in 1807, Perceval served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons.

With the Duke of Portland old and unwell, Perceval was effectively the Chief Minister and even lived at 10 Downing Street. In 1809, he formally succeeded the Duke of Portland as Prime Minister. It was a difficult time due to the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the final descent of George III into mental illness. His government also suffered from the absence of most of the senior statesmen of the period – he had to serve as his own Chancellor after obtaining 6 refusals of office.

After 2 years his government had survived much longer than predicted in a severe economic depression. Indeed, it began to seem that the situation of his government was set to improve.

On the a sunny Monday afternoon of 12th May 1812 at about a quarter past five the 49-year-old Spencer Perceval entered the lobby of the House of Commons on on his way to attend an inquiry into the recent Luddite riots. A man who had been sitting quietly by the fireplace stood up, walked towards the prime minister, took a pistol out of his overcoat and fired it at Perceval, hitting him in the chest.

The prime minister staggered and fell, crying out ‘I am murdered!’

There were naturally moments of complete astonishment as the man who had fired the shot walked back to the fireplace and sat down again.

He made no attempt to get away, as an MP called William Smith (future grandfather of Florence Nightingale) and several others carried the stricken Perceval to the Speaker’s apartments, where they sat him on a table, holding him up. He said nothing more and uttered only a few sounds that Smith described as ‘convulsive sobs’. By the time a doctor arrived Perceval was dead. The pistol ball had struck him in the ribs.

In the lobby meanwhile the murderer was seized and his pistol was taken from him. It turned out that it had been hidden in a specially made pocket in his overcoat. He seemed to be having difficulty breathing and sweat was pouring down his face. A journalist on the scene now remembered seeing him frequently in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons asking the identities of members who were speaking, including Cabinet ministers. The man said his name was John Bellingham and he was discovered to have another pistol on him, which was primed and loaded.

After some anxiety about whether Bellingham had accomplices with him who might try to rescue him, on the directions of the Speaker he was taken to the Serjeant at Arms’ quarters to be questioned. He remained surprisingly cool and collected and admitted the killing, but said: ‘I have been denied the redress of my grievances by government; I have been ill-treated. They all know who I am and what I am … I am a most unfortunate man and feel here … sufficient justification for what I have done.’

News of what had happened spread swiftly beyond the Palace of Westminster and there were fears that the murder might set off outbreaks of violence among the lower orders, many of whom were angry about the serious condition of the economy and the war with France.

By about eight o’clock, when a coach arrived to take Bellingham to Newgate Prison, a mob had gathered outside and some of them tried to rescue him, forced back by Life Guards. It was not until about midnight that a coach escorted by troops took him to Newgate, where he was shut in a cell & locked in lrons.

John Bellingham was a businessman in his forties, who in 1804 had been falsely imprisoned for debt in Russia. The British embassy would not help him and when he was released in 1809 he returned to England seeking compensation from the British government, which kept turning him down.

He was tried at the Old Bailey, his lawyer’s plea of insanity was not accepted and he was found guilty. He was hanged at Newgate on May 18th, two days after his victim’s funeral.

Spencer Perceval left a devoted wife and 12 children. He was buried on May 16th and the Commons voted him a monument in Westminster Abbey and a substantial grant to his wife and family.

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