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Death of a prime minister

Published 09 May 2012

Letter from Thomas Thompson regarding the assassination of Spencer Perceval, 1812

MP Thomas Thompson's reaction to the murder of Spencer Perceval

On the afternoon of Monday 11 May 1812 Spencer Perceval became the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated. As he entered the lobby of the House of Commons at 5.15, a man stepped forward and shot him in the chest with a duelling pistol. Perceval was taken to a nearby room where he died a few minutes later. His last words were reportedly "Oh, I have been murdered".

His assassin was John Bellingham, a merchant with a grievance against the government. He had been trying unsuccessfully to obtain compensation for unjust imprisonment and debts incurred while on business in Russia.

Bellingham gave himself up immediately. He was tried and condemned to death at the Old Bailey within days, and executed on 18 May. Perceval's body rested for a few days in 10 Downing Street, before being buried in his family vault in St Luke's church, Charlton.

The letter shown here was written and sent from the House of Commons by MP Thomas Thompson on "Monday even.", almost immediately after Perceval had been killed. Thompson tells the recipient, Oswald Smith, "You may be sure that all is confusion here". He names the assassin as "Bellingham from Liverpool".

Thomas Thompson was a self-made businessman, a Wesleyan preacher and a friend of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner. He was also a partner in the Hull bank Smiths and Thompson, which had been formed by Oswald Smith's grandfather Abel Smith in 1784. Several members of the Smith family became MPs, and three of them were at Westminster alongside Thompson and Wilberforce in 1812.

Thompson sat as the MP for Midhurst in Sussex, which was a notorious "pocket borough" controlled by Robert Smith, Lord Carrington, who effectively had the right to nominate two MPs to sit in the as-yet unreformed House of Commons. Carrington was also the uncle of Oswald Smith.

These elements paint a picture of Thompson reporting this momentous news, as soon as he possibly could, to his business partners and to the family to which he owed his brief political career.

Special Collections holds the extensive papers and correspondence of the Thompson family. Of particular note are the letters of Thomas Thompson's son, General Thomas Perronet Thompson. He was the first Governor of Sierra Leone, established by William Wilberforce as a colony for freed slaves.