Friday, 11 May 2012

Prime Minister Assassinated

Perceval 1762 - 1812 was the only Prime Minister to have been assassinated. He was the son of an Irish earl and became First Lord of the Treasury on 4th October 1809 effectively Prime Minister although that title was not in use at the time.

On 11th May 1812 Perceval was entering the lobby of the House of Commons when a man came forward, drew a pistol and shot the politician. The assassin, John Bellingham was  a businessman with a grivance against the government and did not attempt to escape.  Perceval died a few minutes later and in the early hours of the morning his body was taken to 10 Downing Street. The inquest was held on the morning of 12th May at the curiously named Cat and Bagpipes public house which was at the corner of Downing Street; the verdict was murder.

The funeral was held on 16th May in Charlton. No time had been lost in bringing Bellingham to court. The trial was held on 15th. The accused refused to enter a plea of insanity and was found guilty. He was hanged just three days later.

Perceval was not a wealthy man and left only £106 to provide for his widow and twelve children. Parliament made a settlement of £50,000 to provide for the children and the widow was granted an annuity.

In 1983, Henry Bellingham, a descendant of the assassin was elected to Parliament for the North West Norfolk constituency a seat he held until the 1997 election when he lost by 1339 votes. The candidate for the referendum party received 2923 votes and was perhaps responsible for Bellinghams defeat. That candidate was Roger Percival who claimed to be descended from the Prime Minister.

The Cat and Bagpipes was one of many pubs that had existed in the vicinity of Downing Street.  This had been an area of narrow streets and alleys, a medieval district. Many of these hostelries had been established to cater for pilgrims visiting the shrine of Edward the Confessor.   These streets also hosted dressmakers workshops, livery stables and cheap lodging houses for MPs and private houses as well as the offices of state. There are stories of government clerks buying strawberries in baskets suspended by red tape, paying street singers with hot penny coins and signalling by mirror to the dressmakers opposite.  These were not sound buildings and were nopt expected to last for more than their twenty year leases. The ground was made boggy by an underground stream, buildings had collapsed and the Foreign Office was shored up with wooden posts.

Number 10 Downing Street was originally three houses; a mansion, a townhouse and a cottage. The townhouse at 10 was one of several built by Sir George Downing in the seventeenth century. Downing had been a spy for both Cromwell and CharlesII. Although designed by Wren, these buildings were put up cheaply on poor foundations. The brick and mortar facade was false, the courses havinng been painted on.

Downing Street was rebuilt and altered on many occassions. By 1958 an investigation revealed that 10, 11 and 12 had deteriorated to such a degree that only a limited number of people were allowed on the upper floors for fear of collapse. Renovations took over three years and cost three million pounds. Further renovations were required in the 60's and 80's.  The black appearance of the brickwork was due to centuried of pollution. The bricks when cleaned were buff coloured and were repainted in black to retain the oringinal appearance.

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