Murder Most Forgotten

Ask most adults or students anywhere in the world to name at least one American president that had been assassinated during their time in office then the chances are they could. (Though they may struggle with Garfield or McKinley). Ask the same people to name an assassinated British prime minister from history and my guess is their faces would look blankly back at you. I find it most irritating that throughout all of my school days not once did I hear a history teacher mention the name of Spencer Perceval. In any case, does it really matter? Well, I think it matters only because they chose to teach us some things but not all. I knew more about John Wilkes Booth and Doctor Mudd than I did about a political tragedy on my own ‘doorstep’. We were taught about Abraham Lincoln and we lived through JFK yet not one lesson included a similar such crime much closer to home which had occurred in a Westminster doorway. Spencer Perceval had served as British prime minister since 1809 and was the Tory MP for Northampton. Indeed, should you visit Northampton’s Guildhall you will find a rather grand statue of him. On Monday 11th May 1812, in broad daylight, he was shot dead at point blank range in the lobby leading to the House of Commons. His assassin, John Bellingham, was a disgruntled merchant, upset that the government had not supported him either financially or diplomatically during his time in a Russian jail. He was immediately detained by those who witnessed the shooting. He was subsequently tried at the Old Bailey, found guilty, and executed. Perceval’s body lay in 10 Downing Street for five days before burial. He is buried at St Luke’s Church in Charlton, south-east London. Britain has had only 52 prime ministers (First Lord’s of the Treasury) since Sir Robert Walpole took up office in 1721 (to date) and I have often wondered why such a grotesque event had not stood out sufficiently to be deemed worthy of discussion. So, the next time you are visiting London as a tourist, or perhaps on business, take a little detour to our own ‘grassy knoll’ or Ford’s Theatre and spare a thought for Spencer Percival. Indeed, it surprises me that the sight of Percevals macabre assassination has not been predictably exploited by the London tourist industry. This is not a conspiracy theory by the way. I should like to add that the rest is history, but of course it isn’t: well, it is, but it never was.

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