Friday, 11 May 2012

Death of the Prime Minister

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval. A good subject for a Quiz question, Spencer Perceval holds the dubious distinction of being the only British PM to have been assassinated.

Spencer Perceval was born on 1st November 1762. The younger son of an Irish earl, Perceval was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. He studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, practiced as a barrister on the Midland Circuit and became a King’s Counsel, before entering politics at the age of 33 as a Member of Parliament for Northampton. A follower of William Pitt, Perceval always described himself as a "friend of Mr Pitt" rather than a Tory. Perceval was opposed to Catholic emancipation and reform of Parliament; he supported the war against Napoleon and the abolition of the slave trade. He was opposed to hunting, gambling and adultery, did not drink as much as most Members of Parliament, gave generously to charity, and enjoyed spending time with his twelve children.

After a late entry into politics his rise to power was rapid; he was Solicitor and then Attorney General in the Addington Ministry, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in the Portland Ministry, and became First Lord of the Treasury (effectively making him Prime Minister, although the term was not used at the time) in October 1809. At the head of a weak ministry, Perceval faced a number of crises during his term in office including an inquiry into the disastrous Walcheren expedition, the madness of King George III, economic depression and Luddite riots. He survived these crises, successfully pursued the Peninsular War in the face of opposition defeatism, and won the support of the Prince Regent. His position was looking stronger by the spring of 1812.

At 5:15 on the evening of 11th May 1812, Perceval was on his way to attend the inquiry into the Orders in Council. As he entered the lobby of the House of Commons, a man stepped forward, drew a pistol and shot him in the chest. Perceval fell to the floor, after uttering something that was variously heard as "murder" or "oh my God". They were his last words. By the time he had been carried into an adjoining room and propped up on a table with his feet on two chairs, he was senseless, although there was still a faint pulse. When a surgeon arrived a few minutes later, the pulse had stopped, and Perceval was declared dead.

At first it was feared that the shot might signal the start of an uprising, but it soon became apparent that the assassin – who had made no attempt to escape – was a man with an obsessive grievance against the Government and had acted alone. John Bellingham was a merchant who had been unjustly imprisoned in Russia and felt he was entitled to compensation from the Government, but all his petitions had been rejected. Perceval’s body was laid on a sofa in the speaker’s drawing room and removed to Number 10 Downing Street in the early hours of 12th May. That same morning an inquest was held at the Cat and Bagpipes public house on the corner of Downing Street and a verdict of wilful murder was returned.

Perceval left a widow and twelve children aged between three and twenty, and there were soon rumours that he had not left them well provided for. He had just £106 5s 1d in the bank when he died. A few days after his death, Parliament voted to settle £50,000 on Perceval’s children, with additional annuities for his widow and eldest son. He was buried on 16 May in the Egmont vault at St Lukes Church, Charlton. At his widow's request, it was a private funeral. Lords Eldon, Liverpool, and Harrowby, and Richard Ryder, were pall-bearers. The previous day, Bellingham had been tried, and, refusing to enter a plea of insanity, was found guilty. He was hanged on 18th May.

Jane Perceval married Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Carr in 1815 and was widowed again six years later. She died aged 74 in 1844. Of her 13 children with Spencer, twelve survived into adulthood.

• Jane (1791–1824) married her cousin Edward Perceval, son of Lord Arden, in 1821 and lived in Felpham, Sussex. She died three years after marrying, apparently in childbirth.

• Frances (1792–1877) lived with her mother and three unmarried sisters in Elm Grove, Ealing. On her mother’s death the sisters moved to nearby Pitzhanger Manor House, while her brother Spencer took over Elm Grove.

• Maria (1794–1877) lived with her unmarried sisters in Ealing.

• Spencer (1795–1859) was, like his father, educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. After Perceval's assassination Spencer junior had been voted an annuity of £1000, free legal training at Lincoln's Inn and a tellership of the Exchequer, all of which left him financially secure. He became a Member of Parliament at the age of 22 and in 1821 married Anna, a daughter of the chief of the clan Macleod, with whom he had eleven children. He joined the Catholic Apostolic Church and was created an apostle in 1833. He served as a Metropolitan Lunacy Commissioner.

• Charles (born and died 1796).

• Frederick (1797–1861) was the only one of Perceval's sons not to go to Harrow. Due to his fragile health he was sent to school at Rottingdean. He married for the first time in 1827, spent some time in Ghent, Belgium, was a director of the Clerical, Medical and General Life Assurance Society and a Justice of the Peace for Middlesex and for Kent, but generally led a quiet and retired life. Widowed in 1843, he married for the second time the following year. A grandson who was a Canadian rancher became the 10th Earl of Egmont.

• Henry (1799–1885) was educated at Harrow, where he was the only Perceval to become Head of School. He went to Brasenose College, Oxford. In 1826 he married his cousin Catherine Drummond. For 46 years Henry was the rector of Elmley Lovett in Worcestershire.

• Dudley (1800–1856) was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford. Like his brother Spencer, he was given free legal training at Lincoln's Inn but was not called to the bar. He spent two years as an administrator at the Cape of Good Hope, where he married a daughter of the Governor in 1827. Back in England he obtained a Treasury post and defended his father's reputation after it was attacked in Napier's history of the Peninsular War. In 1853 he stood unsuccessfully against William Gladstone in the election for an MP to represent Oxford University.

• Isabella (1801–1886) married her cousin Spencer Horatio Walpole in 1835 and was the only one of Perceval's daughters to have children. Her husband was a lawyer who became an MP in 1846 and served as Home Secretary. They lived in the Hall on Ealing Green, next-door to Isabella's four unmarried sisters.

• John (1803–1876) was educated at Harrow. After a three-year career as an officer in the Grenadier Guards and a term at Oxford University, he spent three years in asylums and became a campaigner for reform of the Lunacy Laws. In 1832, just after his release from an asylum, he married a cheesemonger's daughter. • Louisa (1804–1891) lived with her unmarried sisters in Ealing.

• Frederica (1805–1900) lived with her unmarried sisters in Ealing. In her will she left money to build All Saints Church, Ealing, in memory of her father (he was born on All Saints Day). It is also known as the Spencer Perceval Memorial Church.

• Ernest (1807–1896) was educated at Harrow. He spent 9 years in the 15th Hussars, seven of them as a captain. In 1830 he married his cousin Beatrice Trevelyan. They settled in Somerset and raised a large family. Ernest served as Private Secretary to the Home Office on three occasions.

And why the interest, you may ask? Well, Spencer Perceval’s great-x6-grandfather, David Perceval, who died in 1534, is my great-x12-grandfather! A very tenuous claim-to-fame I admit, but as well as possessing Spencer Perceval’s silver pencil holder with a seal at the end carrying his initials, I also have Perceval as one of my names. I shall raise a glass to his memory tonight.


  1. Did you get hell as a kid on account of that name?

  2. At Grammar School I got called "Percy", and I can't say that I liked it - the name or the school. There was then a phase when I wanted to be called "Dick", and a small number of my friends still address me by that name. But nowadays, if I know people are speaking to me I'll answer to just about anything!

  3. FYE, Queen Victoria had six men try to kill her.

  4. But they were unsuccessful! A bullet in the breast is worth six in the cushion.