Friday, May 11, 2012

An agony of tears

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the only assassination of a British Prime Minister - that of Spencer Perceval. He was shot down in the lobby of the House of Commons by a Liverpool merchant, who was detained immediately under orders from Charles Abbot, Speaker of the House of Commons. Abbot kept a diary for most of his political life, and in it records, the day after the murder, that there was ‘an agony of tears’ in the House.

Perceval was born in 1762, the younger son of an Irish earl, and was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. He studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and practised as a barrister on the Midland Circuit, becoming King’s Counsel in 1796. The same year he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Northampton. Known as an admirer of William Pitt the Younger, he was politically conservative, and an active Anglican, opposing (unlike Pitt) Catholic emancipation. When Pitt resigned as Prime Minister in 1801 over the issue of Catholic emancipation, Perceval continued to prosper politically, and was appointed Solicitor General in 1801 and Attorney General the following year.

After a period in opposition, Perceval was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Duke of Portland’s administration; and, then, after Portland’s resignation, a political compromise led to him taking over as Prime Minister. He soon faced a number of crises, not least the disastrous Walcheren expedition (see Walcheren Fever story), and the madness of King George III; but, he won the support of the Prince Regent. By the spring of 1812, his position as Prime Minister was looking stronger, when John Bellingham, a Liverpool merchant shot him dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. Further biographical information is available from the No 10 website, and from Wikipedia. The National Archives website has online documentation specifically about the assassination, as well as an article about its documents.

Wikipedia has a good account of Bellingham and the reasons for his killing Perceval. Essentially, he felt he had been wrongly imprisoned in Russia, where he had been posted as an export representative, and that the British government therefore owed him compensation. After several years of petitioning without result, he bought two pistols, and had a pocket created inside his coat to hold one. On 11 May 1812, he waited in the lobby of the House of Commons for Perceval to arrive, and shot him through the heart. He then sat down on a bench, was soon detained, and sent to Newgate. Tried on 15 May at the Old Bailey, he was executed on 18 May.

At the time of the murder, Charles Abbot was Speaker, and thus the presiding officer, of the House of Commons. He was born in Abingdon, the son of a rector, in 1757, and studied at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. He worked as a lawyer first, and was then elected to Parliament in 1795. He helped reform certain legal and financial processes, and to launch the first census in 1801. That same year he became Chief Secretary and Privy Seal for Ireland. In February 1802, he became Speaker of the House of Commons, a position he held until 1817. He died in 1829.

Abbot appears to have started keeping a diary at the time of his election to Parliament, and continued through to the end of his life. It was first edited by his son Charles, Lord Colchester, and published by John Murray in 1861 as The Diary and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1802-1817. Though lacking in colour, the diary is considered to be a useful historical record. Here are some of Abbot’s diary entries from the day of the murder to a week later.

11 May 1812
‘The House of Commons being in Committee hearing evidence on the Orders in Council, at a few minutes after five, I was called down from my room into the house by a message that Mr Perceval was shot in the lobby.

As soon as I had taken the chair, the assassin, a bankrupt Liverpool merchant, John Bellingham, was forcibly brought to the bar. I detained him till a Magistrate was brought, who came almost instantly; and then the assassin was conducted to the prison room belonging to the Serjeant-at-Arms, where he was examined before Mr White, a Westminster Justice; and Mr Alderman Combe and Mr Taylor, two Members who were also Justices, and thereupon committed to Newgate for murder.

Mr Perceval’s body (for he fell lifeless after he had staggered a few paces into the lobby) was brought into my house, and remained in the first picture room till the family removed it (for privacy) at one o’clock in the morning to Downing Street.’

12 May 182
‘[. . .] In the House of Commons, by common consent, no other business was done. Lord Castlereagh presented the Message, and moved the Address. In most faces there was an agony of tears; and neither Lord Castlereagh, Ponsonby, Whitbread, nor Canning could give a dry utterance to their sentiments. The House resolved by common acclamation to present the Address “as a House,” and not by Privy Councillors. All other business was put for distant or nominal days.’

13 May 1812
‘House of Commons. Unanimous votes in Committee upon the Regent’s Message, to grant 50,000 l. among the children, and 2000 l. a year to Mrs Perceval for her life.’

15 May 1812
‘House of Commons. Motion for an address and monument to Mr Perceval in Westminster Abbey carried by 199 to 26.’

16 May 1812
‘Mr Perceval was privately buried at Charlton. Perceval, though by no means an eloquent speaker, was the ablest debater in the House; but his treatment and management of the House of Commons was by no means satisfactory to me; and I think he was not desirous of holding high either its credit or its authority.’

18 May 1812
‘Bellingham was executed at Newgate.’

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