Friday, 12 June 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Spencer Perceval, KC (1 November 1762 – 11 May 1812)
Spencer Perceval was not, perhaps, absolutely the best Prime Minister we’ve ever had – in fact, he wasn’t even a Prime Minister at all as such, being more your First Lord of the Treasury, seeing the PM term was only really coined as one of opprobrious abuse for the fatheaded dullard Walpole and wouldn’t be used on a royal warrant until as late as 1905 – but nor was he the worst, though that’s probably largely due to the especially stiff opposition there’s been down the years for that particular title. Miraculously, though, he remains the only one to have been assassinated – so far: hope springs eternal – which is what he is mainly remembered for. Actually, let’s be honest, that’s all he’s ever remembered for.
Spencer was the seventh son of John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, a man who had no real need to list his pastimes in Debrett’s, seeing he fathered no less than sixteen children during his two marriages. Though he could still summon up the energy to do other things besides, such as representing Dingle as its member (you couldn’t make that up, could you?) in the Irish House of Commons, and being Lord of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales. Oh, and he was also First Lord of the Admiralty for a while, when he wasn’t giving the current Mrs Perceval a stiff broadside amidships. The good Earl’s first wife, Lady Catherine Cecil, pegged out in 1752 for some unknown reason, aged only thirty three, so he went out and got himself another one – Catherine, that is – this one being Catherine Compton, granddaughter of the 4th Earl of Northampton, who would eventually become Baroness Arden in her own right, not to mention the mother of six daughters and three sons, the second of which was our man himself. Spencer, it seems, was an old Compton family name, Catherine’s great uncle having been Spencer Compton, who succeeded Walpole as Prime Minister (as we’ll call it for convenience) and therefore would not have needed to be all that good at the job to have been a vast improvement. Sadly, however, he was absolutely no good whatsoever, being described as, “a plodding, heavy fellow, with great application but no talents,” though, as luck would have it, he died before he could do too much damage.

You might think that, what with his background, being son of an Earl and a Baroness and all that, Spencer Perceval would’ve pretty much had it made, though that wasn’t the case at all. For a start off, he had an older brother, Charles, in whose shadow he would constantly be and who rather put the kibosh on things for him in the old inheritance stakes. After school at Harrow, where he was a disciplined and hard-working pupil (a sure sign that he was undestined for any kind of Greatness whatsoever), he then followed Charlie to Trinity College, Cambridge and, from there, on into a house in Charlton near their old childhood home, where (being chips off the old man’s block) they quickly espied two comely sisters who now happened to be living there with a father who was armed with an enormously capacious wallet and a vast sprawling mansion, so they promptly fell in love. By this point, however, both Perceval parents having gone to their graves, brother Charlie was now the well-heeled Lord Arden with all the perquisites of the title, whilst young Spencer, a mere second son of a second marriage, had been left with nothing but “an allowance of only £200 a year” – in today’s money, that’s barely even a beggarly twenty eight grand, so no wonder the poor wretch found himself right on his uppers and scratching around for some way to drum up a little extra cash. So he plumped for the Law – in those days, it was either that or the Church and nobody ever got fat on vicaring, so beggar that for a game of clergy – and he was duly called to the Bar in 1786. Not that it did him much good when it came to wooing, mind. Whilst Sir Thomas Spencer Wilson (the girls’ dad and yet another Spencer) positively drooled at the prospect of having a son-in-law who was a real-life Lord and came complete with bucketloads of ready loot with which to keep his eldest daughter happy, he did draw the line when it came to the impoverished legal junior of a sibling he had in tow behind him. So he told the poor barrister to naff orff. Which is precisely what he did. To East Grinstead, as it goes. Hand in hand with the younger sister, Jane, the couple eloping together and then moving into lodgings above a carpet shop. Not, perhaps, the absolute pinnacle of romance but it would prove to be the one and only occasion on which he would ever do anything even remotely approaching adventurous. Until someone shot him, that is. Funnily enough, it wasn’t actually the poor girl’s enraged old man …

One thing we can say for certain about Spencer Perceval, without fear of contradiction, is that he was a man of rock-solid convictions and unbending principles. Unless, of course, there was some hard cash on offer, in which case he could shift faster than Usain Bolt’s carpet slippers. He was unwaveringly and steadfastly pro-Establishment (for fat land-owning toffs keeping their snouts firmly in the trough) and equally as unflinchingly anti-reform (against the peasantry, being more your let-them-eat-cake sort of a guy), plus he absolutely could not abide the French, not so much because they were a bunch of dangerous lower-class revolutionaries but simply because they were French. He didn’t much care for the Catholics either, or working people in general, though it was his loathing of all things French that would eventually land him on the Speaker’s table.

Perceval was also something of a man of action and what he turned to next was a spot of pamphlet-writing – anonymously, of course: you can’t be too careful when you’re flinging mud at someone’s good name – the first one denouncing Warren Hastings, who’d had the brass-faced temerity to come back from India with his pockets stuffed with cash, which Parliament instantly decided had to be ill-gotten gains and how, pray, had he managed to get his hands on so much dodgy loot in the first place when he wasn’t even an MP? So a mob of them, including Charles James Fox and the aptly-named Edmund Burke impeached and then tried him. It took two days solid just to read out the counts against him, which was pretty swift going compared to the rest of it, which stretched on over seven years, during which time Hastings spent £71,000 in legal fees and went slowly broke. And then was acquitted. And compensated. Still, it wasn’t all bad news: at least the lawyers had made themselves a tidy bundle. Next up, Perceval penned a tract against sedition, which then caught the eye of no lesser personage than William Pitt the Younger, who thought to himself, “Well now, this gentleman certainly talks the most ineffable twaddle and downright horse manure one has ever come across but, by golly, it’s my kind of twaddle and horse manure, so we simply must have the fellow on board.” So he promptly offered Perceval the appointment of Chief Secretary for Ireland. To which Perceval replied with a firm no thanks, seeing he could make more by being King’s Counsel on a grand a year (about £100,000 today). As it happened, the very next year (1796), Percy’s uncle, the 8th Earl of Northampton, and also MP for Northampton, died and so Spencer took his seat. Which he won unopposed. Only for a general election to come along in which someone had the unmitigated gall to stand against him, but he won that nonetheless, though it did turn out to be the only contested election he would ever win.
Pitt resigned in 1801, though our man saw no pressing need to go with him merely on principle, and certainly not when he was doing rather nicely thanks out of being Solicitor to the Ordnance, even though it meant working for Addington, someone else he couldn’t stand (Fox was another one). Besides which, Addington would first make him Solicitor General and then Attorney General a year later. In 1804, back came Pitt and Perceval stuck to his non-resigning convictions, only for Pitt to inconveniently die in 1806, at which in swept Grenville’s “Ministry of All the Talents” (but, alas, container of almost none), so Perceval finally did fall on his sword, but only because Fox was one of the alleged Talents. Then Grenville went too and along came the Duke of Portland as top bod, who asked our man to become Chancellor of the Exchequer – secretly, Perceval wanted to be Home Secretary (bigger salary, you understand) – so he pleaded that he knew nothing whatsoever about financial affairs. Basic but fatal mistake. Portland said he sounded absolutely ideal, as neither did (or would) any of the other Chancellors. Perceval would now have to raise funds for fighting Napoleon and this was where his troubles really began.

Soon Portland became too ill to continue and resigned. Which pretty much left a choice between a stick and the bucket of pigs’ swill it’s standing in as replacement. There was Canning, who wanted to be Prime Minister or nothing (but he’d only just duelled with Castlereagh on Putney Heath, so he was out); or there was Castlereagh (the duellist, so he was out); Lords Grey and Grenville were asked but they said a resounding No Way; all which left only the bucket of pigs’ swill, so Perceval got the job. His first task was to expand the Orders in Council that restricted trade with France but which, in practice, meant everyone went bust and ended up starving. He received five refusals to take the job of Chancellor, so ended up doing that himself too but with only one Cabinet member in the Commons, his Home Secretary, to support him. And thus this weak government lurched on from crisis to crisis. Still, at least things could only get better …

On the evening of Monday 11 May 1812, a man was seen to be sitting quietly by the fireplace in the lobby of the House of Commons, though there was nothing unusual in that because the fellow often took up a place there, rising whenever he spotted an opportunity to corner a passing member in order to bend his ear over some grievance or other that he happened to be harbouring at that time. This was John Bellingham, a particularly misfortunate individual for whom very little ever seemed to go right: he’d opened a factory in London and that went bust; he then sailed as a midshipman on a voyage to China, only there was a mutiny on board and the ship ended up sinking; then he tried his luck at exports in Arkhangelsk (Russia) and ended up by being flung in jail over a debt that wasn’t even his; and, when he was released a year later in 1805, the Russians put him straight back in clink again for sneaking out of Arkhangelsk in a “clandestine manner.” Eventually, in October 1808, they finally threw him out onto the streets but, even then, he wasn’t allowed to leave until he resorted to petitioning the Tsar himself, who said fair enough, off you go, we’ll say no more about it. That wasn’t quite good enough for Bellingham who, as you can imagine, was more than a mite ticked off about the way he’d been treated by his Russian hosts but, over and above that, he wanted to know just what the British Ambassador had been doing all that time. Apart, that is, from stuffing his face with Ferrero Rocher.

Back home in Britain, and still steaming mad about the whole affair, he decided to do something about getting himself some compensation out of the chronically useless government for their woeful dereliction of him in his time of utmost crisis, only to be told that, “Well now, you see how things stand, Mr Bellingham: this government severed its diplomatic relations with Russia in November 1808, so there’s really nothing to be done.” Not entirely unsurprisingly, this only raised his overheating dander another few notches towards boiling point, not least because they hadn’t done any actual severing (apart from their palpable responsibilities) until long after he’d finally got out of jail, no thanks to them. Which is when he took to hanging around the lobby in repeated but vain attempts to get his case heard and some justice done, even buttonholing the Prime Minister on a number of occasions, only to see a deaf ‘un cocked as the great man stalked away. What was a man to do under such circumstances? Other than to buy himself some hardware and have a large pocket sewn inside his coat?
About a quarter past five time, in strolls Spencer Perceval, on his way to the Chamber to deal with the tiresome business of investigating why his own government’s measures, the Orders in Council, which were largely responsible for the depression and widespread unemployment faced by the country (the usual Tory fiscal policy, in other words), seemed to be upsetting people a tad. As if all that were not quite enough on his plate already, he now finds the same old doggedly persistent blighter making straight for him, ready to get in his face yet again and to start giving it all that. Well, he wasn’t standing for any of that sort of nonsense, was he? And yet there seemed to be no effective way of snubbing the fellow so that he stayed snubbed, this being at least their fifth encounter. There was only one language that blackguards of this sort understood and so, rather than ignoring him completely like something he’d just stepped in, this time he told him to take a running jump. To the premier’s utter astonishment, and not a little chagrin, instead of doing as he had been bidden, the ungrateful Bellingham calmly produced a pistol and shot him in the chest.

As luck would have it, standing by was MP William Smith, later to become grandfather of Florence Nightingale, the renowned Lady of the Lamp, founder of modern nursing and saviour of many a poor wounded soldier in the Crimea. Rather less luckily, alas, Smith himself knew nothing whatsoever about First Aid or dealing with a casualty, so he and a bunch of equally cack-handed colleagues hauled the stricken Perceval to the Speaker’s apartments and there they proceeded to sit the hapless fellow bolt upright on the table, the immediate effect of which was that Perceval died within minutes. Meanwhile, Bellingham, who had quietly returned to his seat by the fire, was apprehended and carted off to Newgate Prison but, so despised were Perceval and his policies by now, a crowd gathered outside the House had attempted to rescue Bellingham en route without success, so it was about midnight before they managed to get the prisoner into his cell and clapped in irons, where he reportedly slept like a top all night.
John Bellingham was tried on Friday 15 May (just four days later) at the Old Bailey, where he pleaded not guilty – his brief wanted him to plead insanity but, having just shot a hated Prime Minister, that would never wash, would it? – stating that, “my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval's pleasure that justice should not be granted; sheltering himself behind the imagined security of his station, and trampling upon law and right in the belief that no retribution could reach him.” In other words, “Perceval had been asking for it.” Fat lot of good it did him, though. After ten minutes’ deliberation, he was found guilty and hanged on the Monday morning, two days after his victim’s funeral. And then History began to play curious tricks and repeat itself in odd ways.

A subscription was raised for Bellingham’s widow and children, meaning that, “their fortune was ten times greater than they could ever have expected in any other circumstances,” the grateful Mrs Bellingham swiftly remarrying the following year. Perceval left behind him a widow and twelve children (he clearly took after his dad in that respect) but, despite a lifetime devoted to raking in the cash, not much more than a hundred pounds in the bank. Parliament immediately sprang to the rescue and voted a cool £50,000 on the Perceval brood, with additional annuities for Mrs P and her eldest son. She thanked them in the now-traditional manner by marrying a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1815, which put one or two ministerial noses right out of joint, especially when she saw him off too only six years later. For its last roll of the dice (or is it?), History waited until 1997 in North West Norfolk. The standing MP there, elected in 1983, was one Henry Bellingham, distantly related to our hero – sorry, we mean to the despicable murderer – who would eventually lose his seat fourteen years later, no small thanks to the nigh on three thousand votes taken from him by the Referendum Party candidate, Roger Percival, who claimed kindred to the assassinated Prime Minister.

Spencer Perceval was a small, slight, and very pale man, hugely unpopular and deeply despised. As a Prime Minister, he was as woefully incompetent as many another and far worse than most, a rabid bigot who hated the French, the Catholics and the lower orders, and a zealot who would stop at nothing for the sake of his country, no matter the cost inflicted upon the people. But there was another side to him also. He was a loving husband and a doting father, who clearly liked nothing better than staying in of an evening for an early night with Mrs P, whenever the opportunity arose. He is still the only Solicitor General or Attorney General to have clambered to the top of the greasy pole and, once there and thanks to his disastrous financial policies that had led to raging inflation, was the one to introduce banknotes as legal tender. Also on his cv, he can claim to be the last Prime Minister to have worn a powdered wig tied in a queue (pigtail) or to have sported knee-breeches (culottes), even though they were well out of fashion and he probably only did it simply to thumb his nose at those ghastly French Revolutionaries (the sans culottes), who had torn down the Bastille because of their preference for a full-length trouser. Sadly, Perceval died without recovering consciousness, so he left to posterity no memorable last words.

Unless, of course, they happened to be, “Oh yeah? And what are you going to do about it if I don’t listen to you, eh, Bellingham?”

[All views expressed herein are entirely personal]


Spenser Perceval: By George Francis Joseph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Earl of Egmont: Thomas Hudson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlton House: By Bencherlite (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Spencer Perceval again: George Francis Joseph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Warren Hastings: By Tilly Kettle (died 1786) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
William Pitt the Younger: John Hoppner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Suicide of Castlereagh: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
John Bellingham: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Assassination: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Florence Nightingale: Henrietta Rae [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A Hanging at Newgate: See page for author [GFDL ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Bellingham: By Foreign Office [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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