Friday, 12 April 2013

The Appaling Assassination of the Politician Perceval

                    If it wasn’t for one incident, it would be unlikely that most of us would have even heard of Spencer Perceval. If I were to tell you that he held office between the 3rd Duke of Portland and the 2nd Earl of Liverpool, you’d be right to guess that he was a British Prime Minister, but if you said you can you name one thing that any one of those three ever achieved, I’d say you were either a student of political history or a liar (which is not necessarily a mutually exclusive position). Spencer Perceval, however, is remembered as being the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated, (and considering some of those who have held that position, that’s something of a surprise in itself). 

Spencer Perceval

Late in the afternoon of May 11th 1812, Perceval left Downing Street and walked down Parliament Street, on his way to the chamber of the House of Commons, where debates in Committee on the Orders in Council were taking place. At about a quarter past five, as he ascended the broad steps leading to the folding half-doors of the lobby, he noticed William Jerdan, an up-and-coming parliamentary correspondent and, having a slight acquaintance, the pair smiled briefly to each other. The young journalist held the door open, to allow the Prime Minister to precede him into the Commons. 

"As if the breath of a cigar"

As Perceval passed through the door, a tall, young man in a snuff-coloured suit approached him and Jerdan noticed a curl of smoke, ‘as if the breath of a cigar’, wreath above the politician’s head. A stunned Perceval reeled back momentarily against the ledge of the door and Jerdan heard him gasp, “Oh, God”, or “Oh, my God”, before he staggered forward, seeming almost to be dashing for the safety of the door on the other side of the lobby, but half way across it he dropped to the floor. A faint trace of blood issued from his mouth. Mr William Smith, MP for Norwich, stepped forward and raised the stricken man up in his arms, it was only then that he recognised him as the Prime Minister. 

Perceval perishes

He was carried into the adjoining office of the Speaker’s Secretary and laid upon a table. Back in the lobby, there was pandemonium. One of the officers of the House called out, “That is the murderer,” pointing to the man in the snuff-coloured suit who, with a small pistol still in his hand, slowly sank onto a bench near the fire-place, where Jerdan walked up to him and took hold, without violence, of the collar of his coat. Another officer cried, “Where is the rascal that fired?” to which the man quietly answered, “I am the unfortunate man.” 

William Jerdan

General Gascoigne seized him so strongly that he said later that he feared his arm was being broken; other members and bystanders searched his pockets and found a second pistol, an opera glass and some papers. Meanwhile, in the Secretary’s office, an unconscious Perceval was still laid on the table. A doctor had been sent for, but it was in vain, as he was already dead. The bullet, fired at height by a tall man and entering at an angle, had pierced the chest and entered the heart. Some one came out into the lobby and said directly to the assassin, “Mr Perceval is dead. Villain, how could you destroy so good a man, and make a family of twelve children orphans?" “I am sorry for it,” came the almost mournful reply. 

William Jerdan - Autobiography - 1825

Jerdan, writing in his autobiography later, describes the man as physically strong but shaking almost uncontrollably, speaking coolly and quietly, yet sweating so profusely that it ran down his face and dripped onto his clothing. It seemed that he was almost choking and he struck himself in the chest several times, as if trying to dislodge something that was rising into his gorge. When he spoke, he was incoherent, and seemed to be saying something about injustices that he had suffered. 

The doors were locked and bolted and a search for accomplices was undertaken but no one else was discovered. The man, it seemed, had been acting alone. He was taken to the bar of the House, where a Middlesex magistrate committed him to be held in the prison room of the Serjeant at Arms, and then to be taken to Newgate, secretly taken out through the Speaker’s entrance and under guard by a company of Life Guards. A watch was placed on him, to prevent any attempt at suicide. Jerdan had been so close to Perceval that had the pistol ball passed through the body it would have entered his own yet, he wrote he did not hear the sound of a shot. 

Spencer Perceval

In the Commons and the Lords, however, the report was heard resounding through both Houses, and members from both ran out, to discover that the Prime Minister had died within ten minutes of being shot. The body was taken, first, to the Speaker’s House and then, later on the morning of the following day, to Number 10, Downing Street. He left a wife and twelve children, aged between three and twenty, and had just over one hundred pounds in his bank account. Parliament voted to settle £50,000 on the children, with additional annuities for the widow and the eldest son. At the family’s request, he was buried in a private service. A memorial was placed in Westminster Abbey, at a cost of £5,250. 

Perceval's memorial

I make no comment on the current situation of the recent passing of former Prime Minister, her public funeral and a proposed memorial. No, no comment at all.

Tomorrow – who shot him and why.

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