John Bellingham — The Man who Shot Prime Minister Perceval

John Bellingham was raised in a London counting house, and from there went to work for a Russian merchant in Archangel for three years.  He returned to England, married a Miss Mary Nevill, the daughter of a merchant and shipbroker, and together they returned to Archangel in 1804.

He dealt principally with the firm of Dorbecker & Co, but within a year, the relationship had soured and they were making financial claims against each other.  The matter was referred to the Governor General and Bellingham was judged to owe two thousand roubles to Dorbecker & Co.  He refused to pay.

Then, a criminal suit was brought against him for allegedly having interfered with the insurance claims made about a ship lost in the White Sea.  This was dismissed.  But Bellingham was handed over to the College of Commerce and it was decided that until he paid the 2000 roubles to Dorbecker, he must remain under a kind of house arrest.

His frequent (or incessant) petitioning of the British ambassador, Lord Granville Leveson Gower, finally got him some kind of a deal whereby he could forego paying the debt if he would leave the country and not return.  He returned to England in 1809 and set up shop as an insurance-broker.

However, by this point, he’d begun to blame Leveson Gower for the mess in Russia, and so started demanding redress from the Government for Leveson Gower’s behaviour.  He wrote to the Marquis of Wellesley who referred the case to the Privy Council, and by them, to the Treasury.

old bailey 1809Yes, this is starting to sound like the plot of a Dickens’ novel.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out to be one of his sources for Bleak House or Martin Chuzzlewit

But back to the history lesson:  When Bellingham didn’t receive the justice he, er, craved, he brought the matter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval, who declined to interfere.  Then he petitioned General Gascoyne, member for Liverpool, and when he also declined to interfere, he wrote to the Prince Regent.

Three years passed–he’d had no satisfactory response to the hundreds of letters he’d sent to the Chancellor and everybody else he could importune–so on 23 March 1812, he wrote to the police magistrates at Bow Street, informing them that having failed to receive justice he was now prepared to take matters into his own hands.  They believed it to be nothing more than a threat, and did nothing.

He wrote once again to the Treasury and when they failed to respond as he wished, he decided that gave him carte blanche to take matters into his own hands.

assassination3At which point, he began taking a seat each night in the gallery of the House of Commons –doing a recce, really.  Having worked out who everyone was, and how the place worked, he bought a pair of pistols, powder and balls, made an additional pocket in his coat for carrying them, and on 11 May 1812…he waited in the lobby, and when the Prime Minister and Chancellor, Sir Spencer Perceval came out following a debate, he shot him.  Sir Spencer died almost instantly.

Bellingham was tried on 15th May 1812 in a packed courtroom. Following his guilty verdict, (he was also declared insane) he was fed on bread and water, and not allowed to shave for fear he’d attempt suicide…He was executed on the 18th May at 8.00 in the morning, just outside the gate of Newgate Prison.

bellingham at SessionsAnyway, that’s the gist.  If you want more lurid details about the assassination, you’ll have to read my novel, May 1812

Here’s a picture of him; he’s dashed ugly.

I quite like Spencer Perceval, though.  King George said that he was, “the most straightforward man I have ever known”.  And he also used to control the House of Commons rather well too–through his wit.  It was he who once said in debate, “I have nothing to add to the nothing which has been said.”

5 comments on “John Bellingham — The Man who Shot Prime Minister Perceval

  1. Greta Thain says:

    You know what I find interesting?
    Murder 11th
    Trial 15th
    Sentence 18th

    In our society, however obviously guilty a person may be, it’d be a year before they even get a trial.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      There often wasn’t a great deal of time between arrest and trial, but you’re right, this is exceptionally speedy. There were reasons for that though.

      One was that the risk of summary execution had been so great in the aftermath of the shooting. The Commons literally turned into a mob and wanted to string him up there and then.

      Bellingham had made no attempt to escape so they had him; he confessed instantly, though his confession is such that it’s clear he wasn’t playing with a full deck. But they didn’t even dare to try to move him to Newgate and to the magistrates court until very late on the evening of the 11th, because of fear of the mob–so he was under military escort when they finally did move him from the safe room to Newgate.

      What we forget is that they were as wound up about coups and conspiracies at that period of time as we have been about bomb attacks since 9/11 and 7/11.

      With the exception of the Austrian and Prussian thrones, there was not a single government in Europe at that time which hadn’t been violently overthrown. Usually with French help or because of French invasion. That’s dozens of rulers who have been toppled and dozens of places where the mob has gone mad and either executed their opponents or been executed by them in most appalling and savage fashion.

      It’s a very real fear, the fear of the mob. And there are no emergency services either. Plus, Britain doesn’t even have a police force at this time.

      So, back to your point, yes, it was speedy. But they felt that there needed to be rapid justice to keep the country pacified. It was wartime.

  2. Greta Thain says:

    I think I should explain that it wasn’t a criticism on my part. I think far too often these days, one is led to ask why it’s taking so damned long to get to court? But thank you for adding so much to the understanding of the circumstances.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I didn’t take it as a criticism, I assure you. It’s just hard, you know, for us to realise just how petrified of conspiracy they were…how real it was to them. Can you imagine it? Every country you knew, every government, had been overthrown…so it would have a lot in common with the mental atmosphere of 1939, actually…

  3. […] John Bellingham — The Man who Shot Prime Minister Perceval […]

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