March 11 1812 : Assassination of the Prime Minister

It was a fine Monday morning on May 11, 1812 when John Bellingham joins a family friend at a London art gallery to view an exhibition of water-colour paintings. Bellingham casually remarks that he has some business to attend to, excuses himself and leaves. 

Bellingham returns to his lodgings. He finds the two half-inch calibre pistols that he had purchased on April 20 from W. Beckwith, a gunsmith. Belligham places the pistols in a concealed inner pocket of his coat. 
At about 5 p.m. Bellingham enters the House of Parliament at Westminster. He walks into the lobby and sits at bench near the fireplace close to the entrance to the chambers of the House of Commons. He waits.

Meanwhile, Spencer Perceval, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister,  is summoned to the House of Commons to participate in a debate in Committee on the Orders in Council. It is a sunny day. He decides not to take his carriage and walks from No. 10 Downing Street to Westminster. He arrives at about 5:15 pm. He enters the lobby and is making his way to the entrance to the House of Commons. 

Bellingham stands up. He reaches into his coat, finds the inner pocket and takes out his pistol.  He walks unnoticed towards Perceval. A few feet away from Perceval, he stops, lifts his pistol and fires. The large pistol ball enters the left side of Perceval's chest creating a wound over the fourth rib, extending downwards into the heart some three inches deep. Perceval reals and falls to the floor. “I am murdered!” or ‘Murder, Murder’ or ‘Oh God!’ or ‘Oh my God!’ various witnesses hear different cries. Perceval's white waistcoat is covered in blood. 

Perceval is carried to the nearby Speaker’s apartments. He is placed on a table in a sitting position and supported by those around him. William Smith, an MP, tries to find a pulse but cannot and concludes that the Perceval is dead. William Lynn, a surgeon, arrives and confirms that Spencer Perceval, the first and last British Prime Minister to be assassinated, is dead.    

Bellingham returns to his seat beside the fireplace and makes no attempt to escape. As the confusion lessens, someone identifies Bellingham as the murderer. Onlookers grab him. He seems to be having some difficulty breathing and sweat is pouring down his face but he is able to identify himself. His coat is searched and another pistol is found. It turns out this pistol is loaded. The Speaker gives directions to take Bellingham to the Serjeant at Arms’ quarters to be questioned. Bellingham does not attempt to escape and calmly explains: "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 sufficient justification for what I have done.’ Bellingham is questioned by Mr. Watson, the House's Sergeant-at-Arms,  Alderman Combe and Angelo Taylor, who are also Members of Parliament and magistrates.

What they learn is that Bellingham is a businessman from Liverpool who was involved in an  exporting business in Russia. In 1804 a commercial dispute had escalated and he had been imprisoned in Russia for nearly five years in horrible conditions. He had tried to get British authorities to help without success. In 1809, he had returned to England. He again unsuccessfully tried to get British government officials to hear his case, seeking the assistance of the Foreign Secretary, the Treasury, the Privy Council, the Prime Minister and even petitioning the Prince Regent.  

In early 1812, Bellingham formulated an insane plan. He reasoned that if he killed a high government official this would provide him with the forum where he could seek redress for the injustice done to him. After the murder, Bellingham wrote to his landlady: "For eight years I have never found my mind so tranquil as since this melancholy but necessary catastrophe, as the merits or demerits of my peculiar case must be regularly unfolded in a criminal court of justice, to ascertain the guilty party, by a jury of my country."

News of the murder spreads throughout London together with fears that it is the signal for the start of a political revolution. William Wordsworth is attending a party at Samuel Roger's house when Lord Byron arrives, in an excited state, to tell everyone the news that the Prime Minister had been assassinated. Wordsworth is shocked. It is the first meeting between the two poets. Their meeting is cordial but Wordsworth will later intimate to Henry Crabb Robinson that he thought Byron was "somewhat cracked." 

Wordsworth was disturbed by the murder. He will write to his wife: “the lower orders of the People in London cry out ‘Burdett for ever’ in the Pot houses, deeming him their champion…The country is no doubt in a most alarming situation; and if much firmness be not displayed by the Government confusion & havoc & murder will break out and spread terribly."[1]

Meanwhile, John Cam Hobhouse also hears about the assassination. He writes in his diary
Just heard (half past six) that Perceval has been shot on the steps going into the

House of Commons by a man who stepped up to him and said “I am John James

Bellingham, a merchant of Liverpool”, and shot him through the heart. William Smith was there and said “We have got a pistol among us! – at that moment a man whom he took to be Wilberforce reeled up to him, and fell at his feet, just calling out “Murder!” Smith picked him up and took him into the vote office, where he died in two minutes.... 

Strangely perturbed by this incident.
Dined at Cavendishe’s – Henry – his wife – and sister-in-law – Mrs Cavendishe fell into hysterics after tea, on the Lord Walpole’s detailing the circumstances of the murder – called on my father at half after eleven. Found him in bed at number 11, and asleep. Old people certainly feeling nothing – and yet he lost more than I by this event.
1. Richard Holmes Coleridge: Darker Reflections (New York: Harper Colins, 2000), page 56

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for supplying more details on this event. You can see M.M. Bennett's post on the topic at