|Crime and Punishment: John Bellingham|
by Bill McCann
London’s streets have always been crime-ridden. This series presents the tales of some of the individuals convicted of crimes, small and great, at the Middlesex and London assizes, Star Chamber, Court of Aldermen, etc. and their subsequent fate. Tyburn and Newgate are words that are resonant with the extremes of punishment in the 18th and 19th centuries and, naturally, both loom large in the series. However, there will also be articles on some of the more famous crimes in London’s more recent history.
Crime and Punishment: John Bellingham
by Bill McCannExecuted for the Murder of the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister, by shooting him in the House of Commons, in May, 1812
On the 11th of May, in the year 1812, an event occurred which excited deep regret in the minds of the whole of the British public – the death of the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval, then the Prime Minister, by the hand of an assassin.
John Bellingham, the author of this crime, was brought up in a counting-house in London, and afterwards went to Archangel, where he lived during a period of three years in the service of a Russian merchant. Having returned to England, he was married to a Miss Nevill, the daughter of a respectable merchant and shipbroker, who at that time resided at Newry, but who subsequently removed to Dublin. Bellingham, being a person of active habits and of considerable intelligence, was subsequently employed by some merchants in the Russian trade, by whom he was induced again to visit Archangel, and he in consequence proceeded thither, accompanied by his wife, in the year 1804. His principal dealings were with the firm of Dorbecker and Co. ; but before twelve months had expired a misunderstanding arose between them, and each party made pecuniary claims upon the other. The subject was referred by the Governor- General to the decision of four merchants, two of whom Bellingham was allowed to select from his countrymen resident on the spot, and by the award of these arbitrators Bellingham was found to be indebted to the house of Dorbecker and Co. in the sum of two thousand roubles; but this sum he refused to pay, and appealed to the Senate against the decision.
In the meantime a criminal suit had been instituted against him by the owners of a Russian ship which had been lost in the White Sea. They accused him of having written an anonymous letter to the underwriters in London, stating that the insurances of that ship were fraudulent transactions; in consequence of which the payment for her loss was resisted. No satisfactory proof being adduced, Bellingham was acquitted; but before the termination of the suit he attempted to quit Archangel, and being stopped by the police, whom he resisted, he was taken to prison, but was soon after liberated, through the influence of the British consul, Sir Stephen Sharp, to whom he had made application, requesting to be protected from what he considered the injustice of the Russian authorities.
Soon after this the Senate confirmed the award of the arbitrators, and Bellingham was delivered over to the College of Commerce, a tribunal established, and acknowledged by treaty, for taking cognisance of commercial matters relating to British subjects. He was to remain in custody till he discharged the debt of the two thousand roubles; but his confinement was by no means severe, for he had permission to walk wherever he pleased, attended by an officer belonging to the College. Lord Granville Leveson Gower being at this time ambassador at the Russian Court, Bellingham made frequent application, and at various times received from his secretary small sums of money to support him during his confinement, One night, in particular, he rushed into his lordship’s house at St Petersburg, and requested permission to remain all night to avoid being secured by the police, whom he had escaped. This was granted, although the ambassador had no authority to protect him from a legal arrest; but it appears he was afterwards retaken, and, being confined by the authorities of the country, the British ambassador could have no pretence to solicit his release. His lordship, however, in a conversation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, expressed a personal wish that the Russian Government, seeing no prospect of recovering the money from Bellingham, would liberate him on condition of his immediately returning to England; but we are not told what effect was produced, as the ambassador soon after quitted the Russian Court.
Bellingham having, by some means or other, procured his liberation, in the year 1809 returned to England, and at Liverpool commenced the business of an insurance-broker. It appears, however, that, from a constant recital of the circumstances which had occurred in Russia, his complaints were aggravated in his own mind into grievances, and he at length began to talk of demanding redress from the Government for what he termed the culpable misconduct of the officer, Lord Granville Leveson Gower, and his secretary, in omitting to defend his rights as a British subject. He eventually wrote to the Marquis Wellesley, setting forth the nature of his case and the grounds upon which he expected that some compensation would be made. By the noble Marquis he was referred to the Privy Council, and by that body to the Treasury. His efforts being unattended with success in either quarter, he determined to proceed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (at that time Mr Perceval), with a view to obtaining his sanction and support for his demand. Mr Perceval, however having made himself master of the case submitted to him declined to interfere, and Mr Bellingham was then advised by his friends that the only resource left to him was a petition to Parliament. As an inhabitant of Liverpool, he applied to General Gascoyne, then Member for that city, to present a petition to the House of Commons; but that honourable gentleman, having ascertained upon inquiry that the case was unsupported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, refused to have anything to do with it.
Driven now to pursue a course quite unusual in such cases, he petitioned the Prince Regent; but from him he was referred again to the Treasury, and he again received an intimation that all applications from him must be futile. Three years had now been spent in these constant and fruitless attacks upon the Government, but the unfortunate and misguided gentleman appeared even yet to cherish hopes that his case would be attended to. On one occasion, it is reported, he carried his wife, who had in vain striven to wean him from what she considered to be his malady, and another lady to the Secretary of State’s office for the purpose of’ showing them the success with which his exertions were attended; and although he then, as he had before, received a flat denial of his claims, he yet continued to assure them that he did not in the least doubt that ere long all his hopes would be made good, and he would receive compensation for his sufferings.
He now adopted a new, and certainly an unprecedented, mode of attack. He wrote to the police magistrates of Bow Street in the following terms :-TO THEIR WORSHIPS THE POLICE MAGISTRATES OF THE PUBLIC OFFICE IN BOW STREET
SIRS, — I much regret its being my lot to have to apply to your worships under most peculiar and novel circumstances. For the particulars of the case I refer to the enclosed letter of Mr Secretary Ryder, the notification from Mr Perceval, and my petition to Parliament, together with the printed papers herewith. The affair requires no further remark than that I consider his Majesty’s Government to have completely endeavoured to close the door of justice, in declining to have, or even to permit, my grievances to be brought before Parliament for redress, which privilege is the birth- right of every individual. The purport of the present is, therefore, once more to solicit his Majesty’s Ministers, through your medium, to let what is right and proper be done in my instance, which is all I require. Should this reasonable request be finally denied, I shall then feel justified in executing justice myself — in which case I shall be ready to argue the merits of so reluctant a measure with his Majesty’s Attorney-General, wherever and whenever I may be called upon so to do. In the hopes of averting so abhorrent but compulsive an alternative I have the honour to be, sirs, your very humble and obedient servant,
JOHN BELLINGHAM .No. 9 NEW MILLMAN STREET,
March 23, 1812This letter was at once conveyed to the Members of the Government, now led by Mr Perceval who had become Prime Minister in 1909, but it was treated by them as a mere threat, and no further notice was taken of it than, on Mr Bellingham’s again presenting himself, by a fresh refusal being given to him by Mr Read. Once more he applied to the Treasury, and again he was told that he had nothing to expect; and, according to his statement, Mr Hill, whom he now saw, told him that he might resort to whatever measures he thought fit. This he declared he considered a carte blanche to take justice into his own hands, and he accordingly determined to take such measures of revenge as he madly supposed would effectually secure that attention and consideration for his case which he deemed it had not received, and to which it was in his opinion fully entitled. This unhappy determination being made, he began to make the necessary preparations for the foul deed which he contemplated. His first step was to make himself acquainted with the persons of those Ministers who had seats in the House of Commons, and for this purpose he nightly visited the House, and there usually took his seat in the gallery appropriated to strangers ; and, having obtained a general knowledge of their persons, he afterwards posted himself in the lobby of the House, in order to be able to identify them. He then purchased a pair of pistols, with powder and ball, and had an additional pocket made in his coat for carrying them the more conveniently.
On the evening of the 11th of May, 1812, he took his station behind the folding-doors leading into the body of the House, and at five o’clock, as Mr Perceval advanced up the lobby, he presented one of his pistols and fired. His aim was true, and the ball entered the left breast of his victim and passed through his heart. Mr Perceval reeled a short distance, and exclaiming,
“Murder !” in a low tone of voice, fell to the ground. He was instantly picked up by Mr Smith, Member for Norwich, and another gentleman, and carried into the office of the Speaker’s secretary, where he expired almost immediately. Loud cries of
“Shut the door; let no one out!” were heard immediately after the shot was fired, and several persons exclaimed:
“Where’s the murderer?” Bellingham, who still held the pistol in his hand, answered,
“I am the unfortunate man,” and he was immediately seized and searched. Mr V. G. Dowling was among the first who went up to him, and on his examining his person he found in his left-hand trousers-pocket a pistol loaded with ball and primed. There were also found upon him an opera-glass, with which he had been accustomed to examine the persons of the Members of the House while sitting in the gallery, and a number of papers. Upon his being interrogated as to his motives for committing such an act he replied :”Want of redress, and denial of justice.”During the momentary confusion which followed the firing of the pistol he made no attempt to escape; and though when taken into custody he betrayed some agitation, he soon recovered his self-possession, and with great calmness answered every question put to him.
Find the House of Commons on the Map
During his examination before the magistrates upstairs in the House of Commons he still retained his self-possession, and even corrected a witness as to an omission in his evidence. He persisted in denying any personal enmity to Mr Perceval, for whose death he expressed the greatest sorrow, separating, by a confusion of ideas, the man from the Minister; and seemed to think he had not injured the individual though he had taken away the life of the Prime Minister.
This event excited the greatest sensation in the country. A Cabinet Council was called, and the mails were stopped, until instructions were prepared to secure tranquillity in the districts ; for at first it was apprehended that the assassin was instigated by political motives, and that he was connected with some treasonable association.
Measures being provided for securing order through the country and the metropolis, Bellingham was removed, under a strong military escort, about one o’clock in the morning, to Newgate, and conducted to a room adjoining the chapel. One of the head turnkeys and two other persons sat up with him all night. He retired to bed soon after his arrival at the jail; but he was disturbed during the night, and had no sound sleep. He rose soon after seven o’clock, and requested some tea for breakfast, of which, however, he took but little. No private persons were admitted to see him, but he was visited in the course of the day by the sheriffs and some other public functionaries. He conversed very cheerfully with the sheriffs and others who were in his room, and stated that the question would soon be tried, when it would be seen how far he was justified. He considered the whole as a private matter between him and the Government, who gave him a carte blanche to do his worst, which he had done.
On the 15th of May, 1812, four days after the death of Mr Perceval, the trial of the prisoner came on at the Old Bailey. The judges at ten o’clock took their seats on each side of the Lord Mayor; and the recorder, the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis Wellesley and almost all the aldermen of the City of London occupied the bench. The court was crowded to excess, and no distinction of rank was observed, so that Members of the House of Commons were forced to mingle in the throng. There were also present a great number of ladies, all led by the most intense curiosity to behold the assassin, and to hear what he might urge in defence or in palliation of his atrocious act.
At length Bellingham appeared, and advanced to the bar with a firm step, and quite undismayed. He bowed to the Court most respectfully, and even gracefully; and it is impossible to describe the impression which his appearance, accompanied by this unexpected fortitude, produced. He was dressed in a light brown surtout coat and striped yellow waistcoat; his hair plainly dressed, and without powder. The Attorney-General opened the case at length for the prosecution, and called several witnesses. For Bellingham, witnesses were called who expressed the belief that he was insane. After Lord Chief Justice Mansfield had summed up, the jury retired, and after an absence of fourteen minutes returned a verdict of guilty, and sentence of death was then passed, and the prisoner was ordered for execution on the following Monday.
From the time of his condemnation the unfortunate convict was fed upon bread and water. All means of suicide were removed, and he was not allowed to be shaved, a prohibition which gave him much concern, as he feared he should not appear as a gentleman. He was visited by the ordinary on Saturday, and some religious gentlemen called on him on Sunday, with whose conversation he seemed greatly pleased. He appeared naturally depressed by his situation; but persisted in a resolute denial of his guilt. He frequently said that he had prepared himself to go to his Father, and that he should be pleased when the hour came. Being informed by Mr Newman that two gentlemen from Liverpool had called, and left word that his wife and children would be provided for, he seemed but little affected ; but, having requested pen, ink and paper, he wrote the following letter to his wife:-MY BLESSED MARY, — It rejoiced me beyond measure to hear you are likely to be well provided for. I am sure the public at large will participate in, and mitigate, your sorrows; I assure you, my love, my sincerest endeavours have ever been directed to your welfare. As we shall not meet any more in this world, I sincerely hope we shall do so in the world to come. My blessing to the boys, with kind remembrance to Miss Stephens, for whom I have the greatest regard, in consequence of her uniform affection for them. With the purest intentions, it has always been my misfortune to be thwarted, misrepresented and ill-used in life; but however, we feel a happy prospect of compensation in a speedy translation to life eternal. It’s not possible to be more calm or placid than I feel, and nine hours more will waft me to those happy shores where bliss is without alloy. Yours ever affectionate,
On the Monday morning, at about six o’clock, he rose and dressed himself with great composure, and read for half-an- hour in the Prayer Book. Dr Ford being then announced, the prisoner shook him most cordially by the hand, and left his cell for the room allotted for the condemned criminals. He repeated the declaration which he had frequently before made, that his mind was perfectly calm and composed, and that he was fully prepared to meet his fate with resignation. Just before he left the room to proceed to the place of execution he stooped down his head, and appeared to wipe away a tear. He was then conducted by the Lord Mayor, sheriffs, under-sheriffs and officers (Dr Ford walking with him) from the room in which he had remained from the time his irons were taken off, through the press-yard and the prison to the fatal spot, before the debtors’ door at Newgate.
He ascended the scaffold with rather a light step, a cheerful countenance and a confident, calm, but not exulting, air. The fastening on of the cap being accomplished, the executioner retired, and a perfect silence ensued. Dr Ford continued praying for about a minute, while the executioner went below the scaffold, and preparations were made to strike away its supports. The clock struck eight, and while it was striking the seventh time, the clergyman and Bellingham both fervently praying, the supports of the internal part of the scaffold were struck away, and Bellingham dropped out of sight down as far as the knees, his body being in full view, and the clergyman was left standing on the outer frame of the scaffold. The body was afterwards carried in a cart, followed by a crowd of the lower class, to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and privately dissected.