Of John Bellingham: The man who shot Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.

5 min readMay 12, 2022

For the pub quiz or the TV game show the name of the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated is useful to know. Less well-known is the name of his assassin: John Bellingham. Even less well-known is why he did it and what happened afterwards.

(Image in St Neots Museum)

On May 11th 1812 the Prime Minister walked from 10 Downing Street to the House of Commons. John Bellingham was in the lobby of the Parliament Building. As Perceval crossed the lobby floor Bellingham walked up, drew two pistols from the deep pockets of his overcoat, stood close to Perceval, and shot the Prime Minister. Bellingham then walked to the side of the lobby and sat quietly, allowing the ensuing hubbub to grow and then subside, waiting to be arrested and taken into custody. He made no effort to escape or to deny what he had done.

Perhaps we could classify his actions as those of a madman. After all, people who are mad are often (and often wrongly) presumed to commit violence without having a good reason. It is quite enough to point to this insanity to justify unusual actions and hence no other motive is required. But, as with so many human actions, things were not quite as simple, not so black and white. There was, in fact, more to this than meets the eye.

Sometimes the assassination of a politician signals the ferment of revolution beginning to froth over from secrecy to sedition. But, although the French revolution and Napoleonic wars were in the forefront of many minds, this did not seem to be the motivation here.

So, what was this all about?

By all accounts John Bellingham — born in 1769 and raised in the County of Huntingdonshire in the East of England, was an unexceptional young man. He worked for a time as a midshipman and then probably opened a business in London. The crew of the first ship on which he worked mutinied and the ship ran aground off the coast of Africa. The business he opened in London failed. These experiences as a young man were something of a foretaste of what was to happen later, but they also provided him with useful contacts. He was employed for a time as a clerk in a finance house — basically an accountant.