Trigger Warning: The following episode discusses gun violence – particularly the assassination of a head of state. Note for the readers, I’ll get a blog only post up tomorrow – It’s Matariki in New Zealand (Maori New Year) so I have a day off to write.
Today’s tale is set in foyer of the British House of Commons. The date, 11th May 1812. Parliament was particularly quiet that day, with only around sixty MPs in attendance. All the same, a handful of merchants were milling around the foyer, waiting to be called in by those assembled. In amongst them, a slight, unassuming man in his early 40s. Our mystery man, of late a regular observer, quietly entered the foyer, taking a seat by the fireplace.
The reason for the hearings that day, in front of a committee of 60? Well, their contemporary, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’. It can go both ways, politics becoming another front in a war just as easily. In 1806, France – then ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, slapped Britain with a trade embargo. Britain slapped back with an embargo of their own in 1807, hitting the USA while they were at it.
By 1812, a number of merchants were loudly complaining the embargoes were costing them their livelihoods, and begged parliament to please consider them, before the lost the shirts off their backs. The house agreed to hear from a selection of affected traders and discuss the matter.
The hearings were supposed to begin at 4:30 pm, but all in sundry were waiting on one man, Spencer Perceval.
Spencer Perceval was a lawyer, who entered politics in his early 30s. A Tory he preferred the description “a friend of Mr Pitt” (William Pitt the younger). A devoted family man with 13 children, and an aversion to hunting, drinking or gambling, one imagines Mr Perceval something of an outsider among his party. He became Prime minister in 1809, and lead under trying times. The formerly ‘Mad King George’ III, it appeared again afflicted with his mystery illness. The Luddites protested the mechanisation of their former roles. The ‘Peninsula War’ against Bonaparte in the Iberian Peninsula ground on. Up to a million people would die before the fighting was done. If Spain were his Vietnam, his Bay of Pigs would be The Walcheran Expedition – a failed invasion of the French- controlled Netherlands.
In an effort to aid their allies Austria, Britain landed 39,000 men on an island called Walcheran, now part of Zeeland. The Austrians had already been defeated and sent packing. The British were defeated, not by the French, but Walcheran fever – believed a mixture of two diseases (malaria and typhus). In the wake of 4,000 deaths to the disease, Britain ceded the island and left.
Perceval was, among other issues, against granting greater rights and freedoms to British Catholics. He did, however, approve of the abolition of slavery. All in all he was an interesting guy, in charge in interesting times – and well liked in the house.
Today, as was sometimes the case, he was running late. The sun was out, the prime minister was full of the joys of spring, and insisted on walking in to work that day.
Back at the House of Commons, the examination had begun without the boss. James Stephen, MP for Grinstead was busy interrogating Robert Hamilton – a potter who claimed the embargo was threatening to send him to the poor house.
At 5:15 Perceval arrived, quickening his pace towards the debating chamber. Removing his coat he glided through the lobby towards the door. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the stranger rose from his seat, drew a pistol and fired a shot straight into the prime minister’s chest. Perceval hit the floor, exclaiming “I am murdered”. The assassin was subdued and questioned – where he admitted his guilt, and told a tale of woe to the authorities. He was rather hastily tried two days’ later at the Old Bailey.
So, who was this mysterious assassin, and why kill the prime minister of Britain?
John Bellingham is something of a mysterious figure – though largely so down to poor record keeping. He is believed born in 1769, probably in Huntingdonshire, then brought up in London. He was taken on as an apprentice to a London jeweller – but by the age of 16 found himself on a ship bound for China. The ship, The Hartwell, struck trouble on this, maiden voyage. The captain came into conflict with the crew – who mutinied. Captain Edward Fiott captured the mutineers and made for the Cape Verde islands off modern day Mauritania to hand them over to authorities – but accidentally hit the desert island of Boa Vista – putting a stop to their mission.
The crew of the Hartwell were rescued, and returned to England.
The records are sketchy as to his whereabouts until the late 1790s. A man with the same name opened a tin factory in the mid 1790s which went bust soon afterwards. I’m personally extremely dubious that this was our guy. In 1798 Bellingham shows up as an accounts clerk working in London. Around 1800, he secured a role as an agent for an import-export business, and was sent to Arkhangelsk Russia – formerly Russia’s main trading port with Europe. His 1812 testimony states by 1804 he was a merchant in his own right, trading with the Russians.
Whatever the path which led Bellingham to Arkhangelsk, he claims he was there in 1804, when accused of causing another merchant’s bankruptcy. Official documents put the incident two years earlier. In 1802 a ship – more ‘coffin boat’ than sea-worthy vessel if the tale is to believed – named The Sojus wrecked while travelling from Russia to England. The ship was insured – allegedly over insured – through Lloyds of London. It was likely to have been overloaded and decrepit, and as such a win-win for the rival merchant. Get to England safely, you sell your goods, make your money and try your luck again next voyage. The ship sinks – for the low, low cost of a few hundred lives the merchant could care less about – the merchant gets their payout from the insurer. Davy Jones’ locker, more often than not, gets to keep the evidence. The merchant buys another broken down old vessel and gets to roll the dice again.
The rise of the coffin ship in itself is a horrifying subject which widowed many sailors wives – and criminalised thousands of seamen who chose to breach contract when confronted with the hole-ridden old nag they were meant to sail on. We’ll save that for another day.
In this case the crew survived the wreck and were rescued in their entirety. Lloyds refused to pay the merchant, and rightly or wrongly, Bellingham was accused of tipping the insurers off to the fraud. He was ordered to recompense the rival merchant at a cost just shy of 5,000 roubles. He couldn’t pay, and served time. On release he travelled to St Petersburg, where he tried to have the governor of Arkhangelsk, General Van Brienan, impeached for having him wrongly jailed. This led to a further prison term. All up he spent six years in prison in Russia, before being released.
Bellingham was suddenly homeless, left to beg for food on the streets of St Petersburg. He managed to successfully petition the Tsar to pay for his ticket back to England, and was repatriated in 1809.
During his incarceration he was bankrupted by his creditors. Also during his incarceration, he reached out to the British Attorney General Lord Granville Leveson-Gower on multiple occasions to ask for help. Leveson-Gower contacted the governor of Arkhangelsk to request Bellingham be released. The governor convinced the attorney general Bellingham was guilty, so the crown left the Russians to it.
On his return, Bellingham doggedly pursued the crown for reparations – and when that went nowhere, took to sitting in the gallery at the House of Commons with a pair of opera glasses. He was there to stalk Lord Leveson-Gower – who was the likely original target for assassination. In April 1812 he took his coat to a tailor, who he paid to make an inner pocket big enough to conceal his pistol. It’s a mystery as to why he shot Spencer Perceval instead that day, but is generally speculated he mistook the prime minister – himself a former attorney general as it turns out – for his intended target.
Evidence was presented as to Bellingham’s insanity – for the most part in the form of his letters demanding reparations, and witnesses who claimed he told them he had a £100,000 payout coming, from which he’d buy a country estate in the west of the country. Bellingham chose to brush that away in his own defence, in the hope others would see he had a legitimate right to recompense – denied him by the authorities. On 13th May a jury of 12 men found him guilty of murder. The judge, Sir James Mansfield ordered him to hang. His body subsequently to be given to a medical school to be anatomised in front of trainee doctors.
Curiously, some members of the public did believe John Bellingham was within his rights to murder a politician. Rene Martin-Pillet, a French author present at the execution later wrote of the mood of the crowd. Rather than the usual buzz which attended a hanging, the crowd was allegedly somber. Many in attendance felt Bellingham was the real victim, treated abysmally from his arrest in Russia, to his execution. Politicians weren’t listening to the people. This murder might just teach a few of them a little humility.
Martin-Pillet wrote that a collection was taken for his widow, who suddenly found herself rich beyond her wildest dreams.
John Bellingham’s skull is kept at the Pathology museum at Queen Mary University, in London. A distant relative of his, Baron Henry Bellingham, is a Tory politician who sits in the House of Lords. In 1997 Bellingham, not yet a Lord, lost his seat in the House of Commons to a Labour politician. A UKIP politician who split the right wing vote, caused the loss. The UKIP candidate was Roger Percival – a distant relative of former prime minister Spencer Perceval. In 2012 Baron Bellingham expressed shame and sorrow for the actions of his forbear in a poorly attended public ceremony, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the murder.
Spencer Perceval’s family were granted £50,000 in compensation by approval of both Houses of Parliament – to be paid out at £2,000 a year to his widow, Jane.