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Two hundred years ago last Friday, the 11th May, Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minster, shown below, was shot in the Lobby of the House of Commons.
He was killed by John Bellingham, shown below.
He was, thus far, the only British Prime minister to have been assassinated. The assassination came at a time that has so many parallels with our dire economic situation today. Britain was suffering from a credit crunch and was in a recession, one of the causes of which was the effects of the infamous Orders in Council issued by Perceval’s government in 1809, which expanded the Orders in Council of 1807 that had been brought in by the previous Portland administration, and were designed to restrict the trade of neutral countries with France. These had been enacted in retaliation to Napoleon’s embargo on trade by Britain with all allies of France. Controversially, the Orders gave the British Navy the right to board all neutral ships in search of goods destined for France. Exports sharply declined with the result that ports such as Liverpool, dependant on trade with Russia and the United States, had their trade severely reduced: legitimate trade dwindled.
John Bellingham was a merchant from Liverpool who had become involved in the Baltic trade, trading with Russia. He was imprisoned in the Russian port of Arkangel for a fraud he claimed did not commit. As a result , he lost a sum that would amount to many hundreds of thousands of pounds today. He appealed for help to the British ambassador in St Petersburg, who passed the case on to the consul, who did little to help Bellingham. When eventually released and back in Britain, Bellingham regarded the government as morally bound to indemnify him for his losses for his dependant family’s financial future depended upon him recovering all he had lost. He was married and had 12 children.
Bellingham believed every man in Britain had the right to petition Parliament to bring attention to grievances, and wanted to petition Parliament about compensation for his losses. Perceval insisted that the government had no obligation to recompense him, and refused to receive his petition. Bellingham reasoned that the only remaining chance of a remedy was to kill the prime minister. He claimed that he had no personal grudge against Perceval, but considered that to kill the Prime Minister would be a simple act of justice and would be the means of bringing his claim to court. He sincerely held the belief that once he explained the reasons for his action at his trial, he would be acquitted and his losses would be repaid by the Government. This defence, which his lawyers insisted was the workings of a deranged mind, cut no ice and, indeed Bellingham insisted he was sane. Bellingham was tried four days after Perceval died and was hung a week after the assassination.
What I find fascinating in all this, are not only the parallels with today’s economic situation, but the reaction to the assassination of Jane Austen’s sister-in -law, Mary Austen, neé Lloyd, who was married to James Austen. She recorded her thoughts in her pocket-book, which is now in the collection of the Hampshire Record Office . This, below, is a silhouette of Mary, who was Jane Austen’s eldest brother’s second wife:
Pocket books were small red leather covered booklets which contained standardised useful information- much more on this in my next post-and a section for diary entries, and were used by many people in the early 19th century .They were rather like the small diaries we carry about today- if we don’t rely upon electronic means to keep track of our engagements. Indeed, Jane Austen kept one, and one page of it, detailing her expenses in 1807, survives in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Go here to read more about it. If only the other interesting pages of Jane Austen’s pocket books could be found…..
Back to Mary Austen. Most of Mary’s pocket-book entries are concerned with day-to-day life at the Steventon, where her husband, James was rector. And in themselves these domestic entries are fascinating, giving us some glimpses of their life at home, detailing visits made , visitors received. The entries have been transcribed by Deirdre le Faye into her fantastic book, The Chronology of Jane Austen, and so if you cannot visit the Hampshire Record Office to see the real thing, you can read its interesting entries by purchasing a copy of this book. This picture of the entry in Mary Austen’s pocket-book concerning Jane Austen’s death on 17th July, 1817 comes from the Chronology:
It translates as:
Jane Austen was taken for death about 1/2 past 5 in the evening
I like to compare Mary’s sometimes terse entries with those of Fanny Knight’s entries for the same day,especially when they are in the same company. For example in her entry for May 4th 1812, Fanny writes:
Sweet Day.We all went to The Vine a beautiful old place of Mr Chute’s & spent the morning in going all over the House & Grounds. Mr Trimmer brought me a letter from At.Cass.
Mary,who was used to intercourse with the Chutes at the Vyne simply wrote:
We all went to the Vine.
So, it really was with some surprise that I noticed that Mary had included a note on the Perceval assassination in her pocketbook:
Mr Perceval was shot as he entered the house of Commons, he was the prime minister.
And , further, that this entry was actually made on the 11th May 1812, the very day the murder had taken place. This is, as far as I can see, the only political event Mary Austen ever comments upon in her pocket-book. What does that tell us? That the event was so momentous that even in sleepy Steventon the news had travelled from London the same day.Well, yes. But I think it might also tell us something about Mary and her view of politics. It sounds as if she is recording Perceval’s status (He was the prime minister)almost as if that information was news to her. Perhaps I am doing her an injustice, but it does seems if she is writing a note to herself to explain who exactly had been killed and what his status was.
Respectable Georgian women were not, of course, supposed to entertain political ideas. It was somewhat surprising therefore to find Mary Austen including this item of news, having become aware of it the day it happened, in her pocketbook which was otherwise full of rather more mundane matters.I thought you might be interested to note that this terrible event was in some way, important to Mary Austen living in Steventon in 1812.