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The assassination of Spencer Perceval The Liverpool Connection

Spencer Perceval
British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was shot dead in the House of Commons lobby on May 11, 1812. Two hundred years later, his murder remains the only assassination of a British prime minister in history.

John Bellingham
John Bellingham was a Liverpool businessman, his early life is largely unknown, he was born in St Neots, Huntingdonshire, in the late 1790s, and about 1800 he went to Arkhangelsk, Russia as an agent for importers and exporters. He returned to England in 1802, and was a merchant broker in Liverpool.

Bellingham entered the House of Commons lobby around 5 p.m. on May 11, 1812, he sat down on the bench next to the fireplace.

John Bellingham had been arrested in Russia on charges of insurance fraud in 1804, and he spent more than five years festering in rat-infested jails, surviving at times on just bread and water. His appeals to the British ambassador and the foreign office were ignored, however, Russian authorities eventually dropped the charges. Bellingham returned to his family in Liverpool, he was now bankrupt and a broken man. He continued to lobby the British government for financial compensation for his suffering and the loss of his business, but his letters went unanswered, he travelled to London in January 1812 to personally petition his case.

Bellingham sat in the House of Commons, angry in his belief that the British government had denied him justice, he focused his rage on Spencer Perceval.  At about 5:15 p.m. Bellingham saw the Tory Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, cross into the lobby. Without saying a word, he walked toward the prime minister, pulled one of the two duelling pistols he had concealed in his overcoat and pumped a shot directly into the chest of the leader of the world’s most powerful country. The large lead ball instantly pierced the prime minister’s heart. Perceval put his hand to his chest and, according to eyewitness accounts, gasped “I am murdered!” before falling to the ground. The politician was carried to a nearby room, his white waistcoat scarlet, he, was propped up in a sitting position on a table. Minutes later, a surgeon arrived and pronounced the prime minister dead.

An illustration of the shooting from the Telegraph

Bellingham, did not attempt to escape after firing the fatal shot. Instead, he simply returned to his seat with the smoking gun literally still in his right hand. He offered no resistance and was taken into custody and placed in a prison cell inside Parliament.

Plan Of The House of Commons Lobby at the time of the assassination 

The assassin was escorted out of Parliament in handcuffs hours after the assassination and large crowd that had swelled outside Parliament cheered upon seeing Bellingham. The crowd even tried to assist the shooter’s escape by throwing open the doors of the hackney coach that was to transfer him to Newgate Prison. Sir Samuel Romilly, a member of Parliament, recounted in his memoir that 

“the most savage expressions of joy and exultation were heard, accompanied with regret that others, and particularly the attorney-general, had not shared the same fate.”

The lack of national mourning testified just how divisive a figure Perceval had been in Britain since becoming prime minister in 1809. During his tumultuous time in office, he pursued war against Napoleon, and his continuation of efforts to impede American trade with France would soon help to ignite the War of 1812. The high taxes imposed by Perceval to fund the military ventures strained an economy already crippled by French naval blockades. Driven by his religious convictions, Perceval also strangled the illegal slave trade that had been an economic lifeline to port cities such as Bellingham’s hometown of Liverpool. While many with deep animosity toward Perceval celebrated his passing, justice for Bellingham was swift. Just four days after the assassination, he stood trial in London’s historic courthouse, the Old Bailey. When Bellingham addressed the court, he recounted his experiences in Russia to the court and said that his action, while necessary and justified, did not spring from any personal malice toward the prime minister. He is quoted as saying

“The unfortunate lot had fallen upon him as the leading member of that administration which had repeatedly refused me any reparation,”

He  added rather chillingly,

“I trust this fatal catastrophe will be warning to other ministers. If they had listened to my case, this court would not have been engaged in this case.”

The jury, took less than 15 minutes to render its verdict: guilty. Bellingham was once again thrown in a prison cell, existing on bread and water. This time, however, not for long. On May 18, 1812, just a week after the sensational murder, Bellingham hanged from the gallows the executioner was William Brunskill. Robert Banks Jenkinson, earl of Liverpool, soon became prime minister, and the stability of his 15-year rule stood in contrast to the rocky tenure of his predecessor. Perceval faded into obscurity, and while he ranks high among Britain’s forgotten prime ministers, he may always be remembered for his violent end.

Robert Banks Jenkinson,
2nd Earl of Liverpool
Percival was succeeded byRobert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool KG PC (7 June 1770 – 4 December 1828) he was a British politician and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was 42 years old when he became premier in 1812, which made him younger than all of his successors. As Prime Minister, Liverpool became known for repressive measures introduced to maintain order; but he also steered the country through the period of radicalism and unrest that followed the Napoleonic Wars.


Liverpool Library
Liverpool Records Office

By Robert F Edwards

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