AN ENGLISH ASSASSIN
Only one British prime minister has been assassinated (although, perhaps understandably, there have been several attempts on the lives of others). In 1812 John Bellingham shot Spencer Perceval through the heart in Westminster. I am not particularly political by nature but Bellingham was a local. He lived in Millman Street and had his best coat adapted by another local – Mr Taylor of Guildford Street – with a special pocket to conceal a pistol.
At first thought to be a radical, it turned out that he was apparently just disgruntled. I say ‘apparently’ because there is a third more sinister version of this story but at his trial he was said to have held the prime minister responsible for a series of collective wrongs, neglect and abuses by the government which had ruined many lives. (The continued heavy police presence around teflon Tony Blair’s luxury London lair might suggest that people could still feel that way).
He languished just south of Clerkenwell in Newgate prison briefly before being hung there at the gates on 18 May. He was cleanly shaved, impeccably turned out and, as Samuel Pepys had said of another condemned prisoner:
‘As cheerful as a man could be under such circumstances’.
Newgate was probably the most feared building in the British Empire. It stood in various incarnations for almost a thousand years and was a terrifying temporary home to a vast range of characters – saints, sinners, heros and villains, real and imagined. Countless innocents died there in addition to the guilty – disease taking many before the executioner could. It finally was brought down at the beginning of the twentieth century. All that survives of it now apart from folk memory and some inherited language is a stretch of wall in a very private garden. I managed to make it a visit courtesy of my new friend the wife of the Dean of St Pauls. It is so tranquil there now it is almost impossible to imagine the horrors that went before or to realise what may still lie beneath the flowers.
The clothes of the executed were by ancient perogative awarded to the hangman and could be sold on for considerable sums due to their curiosity and alleged curative value. I saw a ‘Bellingham’s Cravat’ for sale a couple of years ago in an old shop on Lambs Conduit street. The shop is now gone but if you ever come across the cravat do let me know.