john Bellingham

Has a British Prime Minister ever been assassinated?

The answer is yes – but only once over two hundred years ago, on the 11 May 1812 by John Bellingham who shot dead the Rt. Hon. Spencer Perceval as he entered the House of Commons.

John Bellingham’s early life is largely unknown, and most post-assassination biographies included speculation as fact. Recollections of family and friends show that Bellingham was born in St Neots, Huntingdonshire, and brought up in London, where he was apprenticed to a jeweller, at age fourteen. Two years later, he went as a midshipman on the maiden voyage of the Hartwell from Gravesend to China. A mutiny took place on 22 May 1787, which led to the ship running aground and sinking.

In early 1794, a man named John Bellingham opened a tin factory on London’s Oxford Street, but it failed and the owner was declared bankrupt in March. It is not certain this is he, but Bellingham definitely worked as a clerk in a counting house in the late 1790s, and about 1800 he went to Arkhangelsk, Russia, as an agent for importers and exporters. He returned to England in 1802 and was a merchant broker in Liverpool. He married Mary Neville in 1803. In the summer of 1804, Bellingham again went to Arkhangelsk to work as an export representative.

In 1803, the Russian ship Soleure, insured at Lloyd’s of London, had been lost at sea. Her owners filed an insurance claim but an anonymous letter told Lloyd’s the ship had been sabotaged. The owners believed Bellingham was the author, and retaliated by accusing him of a debt of 4,890 roubles to a bankruptcy of which he was an assignee. Bellingham, about to return from Russia to Britain had his travelling pass withdrawn because of the alleged debt and he was placed in a Russian jail.

He 1809 he was allowed to leave Russia and once home, Bellingham began petitioning the United Kingdom’s government for compensation over his imprisonment. This was refused, as the United Kingdom had broken off diplomatic relations with Russia in November 1808. Bellingham’s wife urged him to drop the matter and he reluctantly did.

In 1812, Bellingham renewed his attempts to win compensation. On 18 April, he went to the Foreign Office where a civil servant told him he was at liberty to take whatever measures he thought proper. On 20 April, Bellingham purchased two .50 calibre (12.7 mm) pistols from a gunsmith of 58 Skinner Street. He also had a tailor sew an inside pocket to his coat. At this time, he was often seen in the lobby of the House of Commons.

After taking a friend’s family to a painting exhibition on 11 May 1812, Bellingham remarked that he had some business to attend to. He made his way to Parliament, where he waited in the lobby. When Prime Minister Spencer Perceval appeared, Bellingham stepped forward and shot him in the heart. He then calmly sat on a bench. Bellingham was immediately restrained and was identified by Isaac Gascoyne, MP for Liverpool.

John Bellingham was tried on Friday 15 May 1812 at the Old Bailey, where he argued that he would have preferred to shoot the British Ambassador to Russia, but insisted as a wronged man he was justified in killing the representative of his oppressors.

Evidence was presented that Bellingham was insane, but it was discounted by the trial judge, Sir James Mansfield. Bellingham was found guilty, and was sentenced to death and was hung in public three days later. His skull was preserved at Barts Pathology Museum, where unusually you can chat with it online.

A subscription was raised for the widow and children of Bellingham, and “their fortune was ten times greater than they could ever have expected in any other circumstances”. His widow remarried the following year.

In September 2009 the St Neots Local History Society erected a plaque on Bellingham House in St Neots. The house, on the corner of Huntingdon Street and Cambridge Street, is said to be the birthplace of Bellingham.

Walter Horsford

Walter Horsford and the case of the St Neots poisoning

In 1898 a 26-year-old farmer, Walter Horsford, stood trial at Huntingdon Assizes charged with the murder, by poisoning, of his cousin Annie Holmes. He pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution, led by Mr. Rawlinson, Q.C., stated that Annie lived at Stoneleigh near Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire. She was a widow and had three children, the youngest still a baby. It was alleged that Horsford was intimate with Annie. In October of 1897, Horsford had married a woman named Bessie. At the end of that month Annie moved to a cottage at St. Neots. By December Annie told Horsford that she was pregnant by him. He wrote her a letter which said, “Dear Annie, Will come over on Friday to see if we can come to an arrangement of some sort or other, but you must remember that I paid you for what I had done. I gave you half a crown and so if I thought well not to give you anything you could not get it. But still I don’t want the talk and to hear it that was by me that you are so.”

On the 28th of December Horsford went to a chemists in Thrapstone and purchased 90 grains of strychnine, on the pretext of killing rats. On the 7th of January 1898, Annie was found dead by her daughter, also Annie. A search of her bedroom revealed a packet containing strychnine with the words “Take in a little water. It is quite harmless”, written on it in Horsford’s handwriting.

Mr. Paine the chemist who had sold Horsford the poison gave evidence and produced the poison register showing Horsford’s signature.

Annie junior told the court that on the evening of January the 7th her mother had taken a full glass of water up to her bedroom. When she looked in her mother later most of the water had gone. Later that night her mother began exhibiting the signs of poisoning and Annie went to get help.
Expert witnesses testified about the handwriting, the cause of death and the fact that Annie was not pregnant. On Monday the 6th of June 1898, after a brief deliberation by the jury, Horsford was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.

Horsford was transferred to Cambridge prison for execution on Tuesday the 28th of June 1898. An execution shed had been constructed in one of the prison’s yards. Two member of the press were admitted. James Billington pinioned Horsford in the condemned cell at 7.59 am. He was led out into the yard and on into the execution shed in a procession formed by the governor, the Sheriff, Mr. Fowler, the surgeon, four warders and the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Christie. Horsford walked unaided and maintained his composure to the end. Billington got the hood and noose on quickly, while his assistant, Robert Wade, strapped Horsford’s legs. A drop of 7 feet was given and death was recorded as “instantaneous”. A large crowd had gathered outside the prison to see the black flag raised.

At the inquest later in the morning the prison surgeon testified that there had been fracture/dislocation of Horsford’s neck vertebrae.

Newspapers could print pictures by this time and it is thus possible to have an artist’s impression of what Annie and Horsford looked like.