|Spencer Perceval by George Francis Joseph, 1816|
There have been many cases of political leaders falling victim to assassination attempts whilst in office. The USA has seen its fair share and so have many other countries across the world but in England, only one Prime Minister has been felled by an assassin's attack and that somewhat questionable honour belong to Spencer Perceval. As some of you know, before I opened the salon I spent many a long year in the employ of the House of Commons and the tale of Perceval is one that our visitors always liked to hear!
Perceval had assumed the office of Prime Minister on 4th October 1809, having previously served in a number of senior governmental positions. He survived a number of political challenges and won himself the backing of the Prince Regent, but away from the House of Commons, Perceval had made a most murderous enemy.
In 1803, John Bellingham, a merchant, was working in Russia when he was maliciously accused of being a debtor. Bellingham was held in Russia for six years on a variety of charges and only freed after he made a personal petition to the Tsar. He had spent the years since his return to England engaged in fruitless efforts to gain compensation from the British government for his incarceration, believing that his country had done little to help him win his freedom. Of course, these appeals for money were all denied and Bellingham's anger quietly, furiously, festered.
|John Bellingham from The Newgate Calendar, 1812|
At 5.15pm on 11th May 1812, the Prime Minister entered the Commons lobby and was confronted by Bellingham, who calmly raised a pistol and shot Perceval in the chest. The unfortunate politician collapsed to the ground whilst his assassin calmly took a seat and watched the ensuing panic. Perceval was carried from the lobby into a private room and within minutes, he had succumbed to his injuries.
Meanwhile, Bellingham, was apprehended and hurried from the scene of his crime amid fears that more trouble might be to come. In fact he was alone and was neither part of nor the leader of a revolutionary mob and within days he was on trial for his life. Bellingham was calm, considered and utterly convinced of the righteousness of his actions. His demeanour at the trial was perfectly pleasant and following a long and detailed description of his many grievances against the government the jury retired. Within a quarter of an hour, they decided that Bellingham was not only guilty, but of sound mind too and he was sentenced to hang.
Bellingham went to the gallows on 18th May before a crowd of onlookers who did not celebrate his execution. Viewed as a man who had fallen foul of an unjust government, the public was somewhat sympathetic to his plight and a public subscription was raised for his widow and children that raised a large sum of money for their support.
|The Assassination of Spencer Perceval, 1812|
Just two days before Bellingham was hanged, Perceval's funeral took place at St Luke's Church, Charlton. Greatly mourned by his political colleagues, he was laid to rest in a private funeral attended by close colleagues and family. He is, so far, the first and only Prime Minister to fall victim to an assassin.