Revealed, 200 years on: What really happened when the PM was shot

The shot that killed Spencer Perceval still echoes around the corridors of power
  • @MattChorley

All political careers, we are told, are doomed to end in failure and all prime ministers must face the wrath of their electorate eventually. But only one has been shot through the heart.

Two hundred years ago this week, Spencer Perceval became the first – and only – PM to be assassinated, gunned down on the threshold of the Commons chamber by a bankrupt businessman, John Bellingham, who walked towards him, drew a pistol and fired at point-blank range.

Court papers, witness statements and even a diagram of Perceval's last movements – released online this week – reveal a case of personal desperation, public anger at politicians and anonymous threats of violence and revenge that will seem all too familiar to the 21st-century inhabitants of the Westminster village.

On 11 May 1812, at about a quarter past five, the Prime Minister was walking through the crowded lobby to give a speech when Bellingham approached and pulled the trigger.

Documents released by the National Archive to mark the bicentenary of the event describe how Bellingham then calmly "turned round and went and seated himself on the bench". The diagram and notes published online show how Perceval, "on being shot, staggered backward in the direction of the dotted line for a moment and said, 'Oh: Murder! Murder!' and then advancing in agony attempted to get into the House but fell at the mark X [on the diagram] from where he was carried... a corpse... into the secretary's room".

One witness, Henry Burgess, a Mayfair solicitor, spotted the pistol in Bellingham's hand and grabbed it. The assassin was asked why he had shot the PM. "Want of redress of grievance," was the reply.

Bellingham was a businessman who became embroiled in a bitter six-year row with a Russian shipping magnate, which culminated in him being imprisoned. Released in 1809, he returned to Britain and sought compensation from the government for his ordeal. "My family was ruined and myself destroyed," he said later during his trial.

Repeated attempts to petition the government failed, so in April 1812 he bought two pistols and had a pocket sewn inside a jacket. He had hoped to target the British ambassador to Russia, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, who had rebuffed his demands for help, but instead he saw Perceval and took his chance. Quickly tried and found guilty of murder, Bellingham was hanged on 18 May.

One of Britain's more obscure leaders, Perceval opposed hunting, gambling and drinking to excess. First Lord of the Treasury during the madness of King George III and the Luddite riots, he worked alongside William Wilberforce to abolish slavery.

Lord Blair of Boughton, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, recently expressed surprise "that there is no memorial to such a grave and unique event [as Perceval's assassination] within the precincts of Parliament".

In fact, Perceval's dramatic demise still echoes along the corridors of power. Lord Walpole, a hereditary peer, is a relative, describing him as a "great, great something uncle". And Henry Bellingham, a descendant of the assassin, is now a Foreign Office minister. Despite their history, Lord Walpole jokes that the pair are on speaking terms: "I think we can get over grudges like that."

Back in 1812, the country was very far from being plunged into a state of collective mourning by the murder of the Prime Minister. Letters released this week reveal crowds in Wolverhampton "rejoicing, by firing guns till near midnight". One correspondent feared that: "It cannot be long before some very serious event must take place."

Indeed, Bellingham himself gave a warning that all tenants of Downing Street would do well to heed: "If the upper ranks of society are permitted to act wrong with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupted."