The Russian ship Soleure (or Sojus) belonged to Solomon van Brienen and Vassiley Popoff, and it was lost at sea in 1803. At the time, it was insured through Lloyd’s of London. The ship’s owners filed a claim to receive restitution for their loss. Unfortunately, Lloyd’s of London received an anonymous letter alleging the ship had been sabotaged, and, so, they refused to pay compensation to the owners. At the time, John Bellingham was working in Russia as an export representative. Van Brienen believed Bellingham had sent the letter to Lloyd’s of London and, therefore, he and Popoff took retaliatory action against Bellingham by claiming Bellingham owed them a debt of 4,890 rubles.
When accusations of the debt occurred, Bellingham was preparing to leave Russia. Because of the debt, Russian authorities withdrew Bellingham’s traveling pass and he was stuck in Russia. Van Brienen and Popoff then made matters worse by convincing the Governor-General to arrest Bellingham for the debt. Bellingham was then sentenced and forced to serve a year in jail. In the meantime, Bellingham was writing letters to the British government. He asked for help but received little. After his release, Bellingham attempted to impeach the Governor-General, which upset Russian authorities, and, caused them to arrest Bellingham on another charge and re-imprison him.
In 1809, Bellingham finally left Russia for good. He arrived in England in December, and, soon after began petitioning Parliament for compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Unfortunately, England had broken off diplomatic dealings with Russia and determined his petition inadmissible. Bellingham’s wife, who had returned earlier to England, then convinced him to drop the matter, which he reluctantly did, but his wrongful imprisonment and lack of relief continued to eat at him.
In 1812, Bellingham resumed his attempts to gain relief from the British government. He sent letters to the Foreign Secretary, Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, Under-Secretary, Privy Council, and the Prime Minister. Having received nothing but rejections, a civil servant told him he could do whatever he thought was proper to receive compensation.
Bellingham decided to take action. He purchased two .50 caliber pistols, which were then sewn inside his coat pockets. He made his way to the House of Commons, waited for the Prime Minister’s arrival, and, to the shock and horror of everyone, shot and killed Spencer Perceval.
One eyewitness at the scene claimed that while he was in conversation with another person, he heard a shot and turned to see a dozen men in commotion. He then saw a man rushing towards him “and several voices cried out, ‘Shut the door — let nobody escape!'” The man approaching him then reeled and fell, face down, but before he fell he heard him cry indistinctly, something like “murder.”
The fallen man did not stir and when the witness and others turned the fallen man face up, they “perceived that it was … Perceval.” A group of men then carried the Prime Minister, who groaned twice, to an office. “His face was completely pale, the blood issuing from his mouth, and … [there were] scarcely any signs of life in him.” He was dead, the only English Prime Minister to have been assassinated, at the age of 49 on 11 May 1812.
Bellingham calmly seated himself on a bench near a fireplace and was quickly seized. He was arrested and tried on Friday the 15th of May at Old Bailey. Dressed in a patched coat Bellingham argued fluently but emotionally that he had executed justice. He said he would have preferred to killed the British Ambassador to Russia, but he justified the killing of the Prime Minister stating:
“Recollect, Gentlemen, what was my situation. Recollect that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr. Perceval’s pleasure that justice should not be granted … In a case so strong as mine, when I demanded justice, I demanded only my right, and not a favour; I demanded what is the birth-right and privilege of every Englishman.”
The jury adjourned for about ten minutes and being unconvinced by Bellingham, they rendered a verdict of “Guilty.” The following was then addressed to Bellingham:
“You have been convicted by a most attentive and merciful jury, of one of the most malicious crimes that human nature can perpetrate … Assassination is the most abhorred of human crimes. It renders bravery useless, and cowardice triumphant. … It now only remains for me to pass the sentence … which is, That you be taken, on Monday next, to a place of execution, there to be hung by the neck till you are dead, and your body delivered over to be anatomized, and may God have mercy on your soul!”
- Fraser, Alexander, The Trial of John Bellingham for the Assassination of the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval, 1812
The (Kirby’s) Wonderful and Scientific (Eccentric) Museum, Volume 4, 1820
“Trial of John Bellingham,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 21 May 1812
“Trial of John Bellingham,” in Bury and Norwich Post, 20 May 1813
“Trial of John Bellingham,” in Hull Packet, 19 May 1812