Sunday, 13 January 2019

John Bellingham

Political assassinations are thankfully uncommon here in the UK. Aside from the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, there have been precious few attacks on our MPs.

Before Jo Cox's tragic death, the IRA and their predecessors had done their best to kill MPs, succeeding on six occasions. Despite the list of sitting MPs who have been murdered is thankfully low.

But these are just the successful attempts; there have been other, unsuccessful ones. Labour MP Stephen Timms was attacked by an Islamic extremist, whilst a tragic machete attack on Nigel Jones killed his researcher, Andrew Pennington. It is clear that MPs can make an attractive target.

A simple plaque on a building in St Neots tells the story of John Bellingham, the only person to successfully murder a sitting Prime Minister.

An event to have civic pride in?

By all accounts (mostly, it should be said, written after his crime), Bellingham was not a success in  life. Born in St Neots in 1776, he set himself up in business and travelled the world, including to Russia, where he ended up in jail in 1804 over bad debts. It took him five years to finally make it home, and he seems to have spent that time getting increasingly annoyed.

For some reason, he believed the British government owed him compensation for his imprisonment in Russia. After his pleas to the government failed, he travelled on the 11th May 1812 to the Houses of Parliament, where he waited in a lobby. As Prime Minister Spencer Perceval (apparently not 'Percival' as on the plaque) appeared at about 5.15 in the afternoon, Bellingham shot him in the chest.

Bellingham made no attempt to escape, and in fact sat down on a bench. He therefore cannot have been very surprised when he was swiftly arrested, tried and executed within a week - despite people attempting to help him escape!

There was a surprising amount of public sympathy for him, partly due to Spencer Perceval's unpopularity, and a subscription ensured that the success he had missed in life was partly gained in death.

As for Perceval? He is a forgotten Prime Minister. Few remember him, and when they do, it is for the nature of his death that any of his many achievements in life.

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