Today (May 11) in London History – Assassinated

Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, was gunned down in the House of Commons on May 11, 1812. This Today in London podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

Here’s your London fix for today.

It’s May 11th – and we are going to get into the slipstream of London history, make headway, catch up with one or more of the biggest hits in May 11th London history.

But you’re going to have to be patient.

Got a little stock-taking to do first. This Today in London History podcast got started – on a whim, really – on December 26th. So that makes this one the 139th in the series. 139th rather than 137th because there are two in July that are already down and dusted. Scripted, recorded, just waiting for their date to roll up. 

139 of these is enough to give me some perspective – I can see where we’ve come from, where we’ve got to, see the contours of the terrain, like an Ordnance Survey map.

So right at the beginning, I thought of the project as just a little added extra – an extra feature – for the London Walks website. Didn’t give a moment’s thought to Apple or Spotify or other hosts or platforms. It was just a little something extra for

Couldn’t have been more basic, more homespun, more plain. A month or two in we added our first bit of podcast “texture” – that little bit of music. Our signature tune. Appropriately enough, written and performed by one of our guides.

A little bit further down the road, I started piping up with a few words about London Walks and what the podcast was about. Further on into the game, I thought, well, this series is Today in London History. Let’s put a cherry on top of the sundae. A little top-up. Called, yes, Today in London. So it’s a daily recommendation – for a show or a museum or tea rooms or a walk or a bit of London pageantry or a concert or whatever. A London Walks tip, a recommendation.

And now here comes another wrinkle. I’m in the happy position of writing these things – producing them – first and foremost for myself. If they’re right for some other people, that’s great. But first, last, always, foremost, I’m doing these for myself. I’m not writing for somebody else. The project isn’t yoked to any financial considerations. It’s not making any money and that’s fine by me. I don’t want that ball and chain on my ankle. I want – and I have – complete editorial control. 

The important thing – the only thing – is that I go on finding these fun to do. That they pique my interest. Stimulate me. That I find out things about London that I didn’t know, that enrich my understanding and appreciation of my adopted city.

And that no doors slam, that I can take this podcast where I want to, do what I want with it.

Keep tinkering with it. Jive it up.

And that’s the pass we’ve come to on this day in May. In the interests of its not becoming a chore – in the interests of keeping me interested – it’s time for an occasional new wrinkle. The project is probably going to end up looking like the podcast equivalent of a Heath Robinson production. Brits of a certain age will get the reference – for the rest of you – Heath Robinson was an English cartoonist best known for drawings of whimsically elaborate machines to achieve simple objectives. Any unnecessarily complex and implausible contrivance came to be known as a Heath Robinson contraption. And that might well be where this podcast is headed. Another way of putting that, as of today I’m adding a Googly of one sort or another to at least some of these Today in London History podcasts. You’ll recognise it as soon as we get to it. 

Googly, for the North American uninitiated, is a cricket term used to describe a way of bowling the ball – pitching, if you want to put it into baseball parlance – so that it spins in the opposite way to what the batsman is likely to expect.

And the Googly – the latest Heath Robinson flight of fancy – might not have anything at all to do with London. Though there will usually be at least a tenuous connection. We’ve got a great guide – Adam Scott – who, talking about his craft, says, “it’s all about making connections.”

Anyway, you’ll recognise the Googly as soon as it comes up – recognise it for what it is – and know, at least I hope you’ll know, it’s there just because I felt like jiving a little bit. 

Ok, here we go. Today in London History. It’s May 11th. May 11th, 1812. It’s a little after five o’clock in the afternoon. We’re in the lobby, just inside the entrance to the House of Commons. And look who’s there. It’s the prime minister. Spencer Perceval. He’s dispensed with his usual carriage and walked from Downing Street to the House. And look who else is there. It’s that man who’s been showing up at the House the last few days, asking journalists to tell him who’s who, confirm the identities of some of the ministers. Oh oh. That man’s got a gun. Oh my God, he’s shot the prime minister in the chest. Oh my God, the prime minister’s down. Did you hear that, “I am murdered” – that’s what the prime minister said. Oh look, they’re carrying him into the Speaker’s Quarters. They’re propping him up on a table with his feet on two chairs. Somebody says there’s still a faint pulse. Oh, look, there’s the surgeon. He’s shaking his head. The pulse has stopped. The prime minister’s dead. 

What about the assassin? Did he get away? He could have. So easily. Could have just walked out into the street. But look, there he is, sitting on a bench.

“Why?” Somebody’s asking him. 

Did I hear right? Did he just say, “I shot the prime minister to rectify a denial of justice on the part of the government.”

You heard right. That’s what he said.

Ok, what you’ve just witnessed was the one and only assassination of a British prime minister.

It wasn’t a political assassination.

The assassin, John Bellingham, was a businessman who had an obsessive grievance against the government. He was in Russia on a business trip. He was leaving. He was detained on account of a supposed unpaid debt. Something that stemmed from losses incurred by a business associate for which Bellingham was deemed liable. He was imprisoned for several years. He got no assistance from the British government. When he was finally released and came back to England he wanted compensation for the imprisonment and financial losses he’d suffered in Russia. He wanted justice. He didn’t get it. 

He was blocked, thwarted, cold-shouldered. As the saying goes, he’d exhausted all avenues.  He made it clear to the authorities that he was going to take independent action. He was told to do his worst. He said, “I have obeyed them. I have done my worst, and I rejoice in the deed.”

Bellingham’s was a personal grievance. But what happened wasn’t completely removed from events on the world stage. Napoleon was running amok on the continent. France was a nation of 30 million people. Much more populous than this country’s 13 million. Napoleon had an army of 350,000 men. Britain’s army numbered all of 30,000. The government – feeling that pressure from abroad – and not that far abroad – was nervous about unrest at home. The last thing it needed was a popular uprising. There were fears that the assassination might herald or trigger that very development.

And the outcome. Well, on that occasion, the wheels of British justice turned with unaccustomed speed. John Bellingham was tried, convicted and hanged in a week. 

Takeaways – things I, David, didn’t know. And am glad to know. Spencer Perceval was born in Audley Square in Mayfair. He was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College Cambridge. He was a member of Lincoln’s Inn. He fathered twelve children on his wife. Twelve children in 14 years. Small of stature, he was nicknamed P. He was very conservative. He came down hard on radicals and Roman Catholics. But he championed the anti-slavery campaign. 

As for poor John Bellingham, he was hanged at Newgate prison and dissected at Bart’s Hospital.

But let’s hear from the assassin, hear from John Bellingham. Here’s what he had to say:


And for a Today in London recommendation. Has to be the London Walks Inns of Court walk. We’ll go looking for Spencer Percival’s House in Lincoln’s Inn. It’s marked with a plaque.

Anything else? Well, we’ve had a fair old bit of yin in this podcast. How about a bit of yang. A tale about a criminal – a contemporary of Spencer Perceval and John Bellingham – who got lucky. Spencer Perceval was assassinated on the 11th of May. I think there might be something for us in that number 11.

Sure enough, there is. A pickpocket named James Hardy Vaux was sentenced during the reign of George III to transportation, seven years hard labour in exile in Australia. His crime had been the theft of a handkerchief valued at 11 pence. James Hardy Vaux caught a break. Had the handkerchief been worth a shilling – just one penny more – he would have been sentenced to death. And presumably carved up by the anatomists on the same table at Barts Hospital where John Bellingham was served up.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

Our secret recipe? It’s no secret. It all comes down to the guiding. The muzzleloading velocity of the guiding you get on a London Walk. At London Walks you will NEVER be guided by a callow youth who’s memorised a script.

A callow youth who hasn’t lived long enough to have read very much, to have found out much about the subject, let alone master it. And what that leads to is well described in a brief email we received last week. Mike says, 

“ Unlike all of the London Walks that I’ve been on, which have been informative from beginning to end, the guide from another company we used spent a lot of time joking with us, telling stories from his life and asking questions to find out how much or little we knew — I didn’t get much out of it.”

It takes time – and effort – to acquire expertise. Nobody’s born with it. Mike’s guide will have been a callow youth who has to fall back on telling stories from his life and asking questions because there’s precious little in the tank, he hasn’t lived long enough, hasn’t read enough to store up much in the way of expertise. You can’t draw on what’s not there. 

Different story here. At London Walks you will not be guided by wing and a prayer callow youngsters.

You will be guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, University of London geologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Professionally qualified guides who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award. With London Walks not only are you in the big leagues – you’ve got All Star guides, many of them MVPs.

So, yes, the creme de la creme – well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted is of course compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that jolly caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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