We British don’t go in for political assassinations: it’s just not cricket. So Spencer Perceval holds a unique place in British political history: he is the only Prime Minister ever to have been murdered while in office.
It happened when, on this day, he entered the lobby of the House of Commons where his assassin, John Bellingham, had been sitting quietly by a fireplace. As Perceval entered, Bellingham got up, walked towards him, pulled a pistol out of his coat and fired at the Prime Minister, fatally hitting him in the chest. “I am murdered!” Perceval cried out as he slumped to the floor. And he was right.
Member of Parliament William Smith – the future grandfather of Florence Nightingale – led a team that rushed to Perceval’s aid, but in vain. He managed only what Smith described as “convulsive sobs” before a doctor confirmed that he was dead. By contrast, Bellingham, who made no attempt to escape, was positively verbose. “I have been denied the redress of my grievances by government,” he thundered, adding: “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.” A businessman in his forties, in 1804 he was falsely jailed for debt in Russia and could get no help from the British Embassy. He was released after serving five years in prison, then launched a campaign demanding compensation from the British Government. It did him no good and his mounting sense of rage and injustice led him to the point where he decided to kill the Prime Minister.
Perceval, a married man with 12 children, was just 49 when he met his untimely and unlikely death. So was Britain robbed of a future great man of state? It seems not. A lawyer by profession, he was seen as a decent and honourable man who had risen in the Tory Party to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1807, then Prime Minister in 1809. But the best a colleague could say of him was: “He is not a ship of the line, but he carries many guns, is tight-built, and is out in all weathers.” When tried at the Old Bailey, Bellingham’s plea of insanity was not accepted. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged.