The Minister's Fate, A Sketch of the Past by H. T.

Now that the session of parliament is fairly set in, and occupying public attention, sketches and recollections of public orators, with touches at the gallery M.P.'s, or "gentlemen of the fourth estate," as the reporters have been termed, will of course become redundant; but for scribblers who have known St. Stephen's only a session or two to attempt a thing of this sort, so as to satisfy those who take a real interest in the doings of the senate, is out of the question. To deal with such matters properly, a man, as Pierce Egan says of the important mysteries of boxing and slang, "must be brought up to the business from a young 'un."

It is not my purpose to deal with matters of the day. My sketches might go a quarter, or probably half a century back: Graham's celestial bed, Mr. Dodd's execution, and Lord George Gordon's riots, will scarcely be out of my reach. Though I set off with what relates to the House of Commons, from having known many of the distinguished writers who have at various periods laboured there, other scenes will occasionally recur to me, which it may be worth while to bring, with the details none but an eyewitness can give, before the reader.

I did not, however, know, but from reading of them in the newspapers, the parliamentary orators of my time, till after the opening of the present century. The last stars of a galaxy admitted to be of more than ordinary splendour, had not yet faded when I made my debut in the gallery of St. Stephen's Chapel: Pitt and Fox, Lord North and Burke, had "shuffled off this mortal coil;" but Wyndham, and Sheridan, and Tierney remained. Of them and of their latter contemporaries I have many recollections; some of which, as they are connected with matters of historical interest, it may be entertaining at least, to recall. It will not be important to observe strict chronological order, so each scene is kept by itself, the colouring not exaggerated and every fact related with a scrupulous regard to sacred truth.

Shades of the departed, how ye rise to "my mind's eye" as I prepare to enter on my task! On the right, as we looked from the gallery of the old House, that is, to the left of the Speaker's chair, I see Ponsonby, with his portly form, white hair, and red chubby countenance; Wyndham, a tall, spare figure, and a head partially bald; Tierney, with his lowering brow, apparently waiting to spring on his ministerial victim; Sheridan, exhibiting an aspect but too indicative of the thoughtless career he pursued; Romilly, maintaining an air of solemn dignity, with an appearance of exhaustion from severe mental toil; Whitbread, robust, shrewd, and never weary; his deportment might have passed for that of a blunt, resolute farmer. Always at his post; during the session, the House of Commons was his home. Opposed to these I see the keen, sarcastic, and animated Perceval. He had a bright penetrating eye, and a nose rather inclining upwards, which the H. B.'s of 1807 converted into a most ludicrous pug nose; his figure was small, and he had little hair on the crown of his head;  but he wore a long thin queue behind, which in debate, from the vivacity of his manner, was continually showing itself over one or other shoulder. Near him sat Castlereagh. He boasted an elegant figure and handsome countenance, and often carried the polish of the drawing-room into the tumult of political warfare, but sometimes abruptly dropped it, to strike the table or the box before him with almost farcical violence. The capacious forehead and fine features of Canning were generally by his side. The well-powdered head of Old George Rose was seldom very distant, and the bald shining skull of "Brother Bragge," as Mr. Bragge Bathurst had been facetiously called by Canning, was one of the group.

Memory now turns to the gentlemen up-stairs in the gallery; nor ought these to be thought beneath some notice, remembering how many have since descended into the House to furnish occupation to their reporting posterity. Woodfall formerly sat at the right hand corner of the front of the gallery, on the seat which was what a goose is for a meal, "too much for one, but too little for two,"—I mean the continuation of the member's bench. He commonly held a gold-headed cane in his hand, which he continually turned round one way when listening to a speech, and then caused it to revolve the other way attending to the reply. The smiling suavity of Hogan, the dry good-humour of Donovan, (these gentlemen went out chief justice and judge advocate to Sierra Leone, where they died,) the severe glance of Keating, the gracious swagger and laugh of Edward Quin, the "amiable obliquity of vision" of Peter Finnerty, the ardent gaiety of Power, and the overflowing merriment of the senior Dowling, all seem to return, with the peculiarities of many others, who, like them, are no more, and those of a much greater number who fortunately survive.

The consequences of a war of unexampled length were severely felt in 1812, and much of the distress which then prevailed was affirmed to have been produced by our own "orders in council," issued to meet the decrees of Bonaparte. Earl Grey was their strenuous and persevering opponent. A parliamentary inquiry into their operation was instituted. In the Commons Mr. Whitbread greatly exerted himself in support of the views of his noble friend Earl Grey, and the investigation was entered upon by the whole House in committee. The interminable examinations which followed, exhausted public curiosity to such a pitch, that the gentlemen of the press had instructions not to report them. In consequence of this, when the order of the day was moved for going into the committee, they closed their books, entered into conversation, and sometimes even left the House.

The gallery was at that time on such occasions nearly deserted; two or three reporters indolently reclining on their seats, and from twelve to twenty visitors were all the audience the subject commanded.

Of the last-mentioned individuals, some few, from their own interests being affected by the matter under inquiry, went to the house frequently enough to get in some degree acquainted with the writers; and among them was one gentleman who usually took his place on the back seat, though he was always ready to resign it to those who, as they went there for business, and not for pleasure, considered that they  had a right to claim it as their own. There was something singular in this person's manner; and the eagerness with which he surveyed the members, by means of an opera-glass, often excited the mirth of his waggish neighbours. He asked many questions, but timed them so well, and always deported himself with so much respectful good-humour, that any information he desired was readily given.

One fine summer's afternoon I and some other tired visitors to the House availed ourselves of the leisure which the sitting of the committee afforded, to enjoy a walk on the banks of the river. On our return, near Milbank, a person who had some knowledge of us inquired if we had heard that a duel had taken place between the Earl of Liverpool and Mr. Perceval, in which the latter had fallen. We laughed at the improbability of the story, but were seriously assured that we should find it true. Still incredulous, we said we would soon ascertain the fact, and accordingly advanced to Palace Yard. There the closed gates, the crowd assembled outside, and the information communicated by a thousand tongues, soon placed it beyond all doubt that the minister was no more, having within the last hour been shot, not by his noble colleague, but by a stranger named Bellingham.

Mr. Perceval was in the habit of coming down to the House about five o'clock. On this day it was a quarter past that hour, when, as he entered the lobby, he was shot through the heart. He staggered a few paces, fell against one of the pillars, and almost immediately expired. The assassin was instantly seized and taken to the bar of the House, where a crowd of persons, members and strangers mixed in extreme confusion, assembled round him; and as soon as an attempt at restoring order could be made, the Speaker directed Mr. Whitbread and other members to precede and follow the prisoner to a place of safe custody. This was done, and these facts were generally known to the multitude, which now beset all the avenue leading to the two Houses.

From mouth to mouth the mournful tidings flew with unexampled rapidity. The very prominent situation in which Mr. Perceval stood, the active and important business he was daily seen engaged in, made men almost seem to doubt if it were possible that such a career could so suddenly be closed for ever. The rumours sent forth had the same effect on every one they reached, I might almost say, that it has been shown they had on me and my companions. All who heard that the right honourable gentleman was dead, seemed to determine instantly to verify the fact by repairing to Westminster. It was about a quarter past five in the afternoon of the 11th of May that Mr. Perceval was shot in the lobby of the House, and, by six, countless thousands poured down the Strand and all the streets leading to Charing Cross. Second editions of the evening papers were got out with astonishing expedition; and, by the time I have mentioned, one had been carried so far towards Westminster as the end of Parliament-street, opposite Downing-street. The extreme eagerness of every one to know all that could be known, I remember, instantly got a crowd round the bearer of it. Ownership and ceremony were not thought of: every one who could get hold of the much-coveted broad sheet, considered that he had a right to it. I, among a host of  intruders, saw there, in the manner described, the first connected detail of the catastrophe.

As the night closed in, the crowd became immense, and some discreditable exultation was expressed by the lowest of the mob; but the general feeling created was that of humane commiseration and unmitigated horror.

Admiring the great talents of Mr. Perceval as I did, and impressed with a conviction that he was most amiable in private life, my own sorrow was great; and I rejoiced at the thought that the murderer was in safe custody, and would possibly, (as the sessions were about to commence,) before a single week should have elapsed, suffer the last penalty of the law.

Never shall I forget the spectacle which the House of Commons presented on the following day. Those who have been in the habit of going there, must have noticed with some annoyance the ceaseless murmur which prevails for the first hour, or hour and a half, after the Speaker has taken the chair, while private bills and petitions of little interest, are being disposed of, and papers presented at the bar. The monotonous repetition by the Speaker of the words, "So many as are of that opinion say 'aye,' those who are of a contrary opinion say 'no;' the ayes have it," on putting questions which are unopposed,—the ceaseless slamming of doors,—the creaking of shoes of some of those members who seem to delight in displaying their elegance by marching, or I might almost say by skating, up and down the body of the House, as if to let their friends, the strangers in and under the gallery, see how very grand it is possible for them to look,—and the frequent cry of "Order! order!" "Bar! bar!" from the Chair, given forth, as was then the case, with full-toned dignity of Mr. Speaker Abbot (the late Lord Colchester), altogether gave the idea of a careless, irregular assembly,—of anything but a place where the most important business of a great nation was to be transacted. Such was its usual aspect in those days; but on the 12th of May 1812, most widely different I found the scene. The attendance was unusually full, but solemn funereal stillness marked the approach of each member to assist in the proceedings growing out of the recent and melancholy fate of the minister.

"How silent did his old companions tread"

on that floor over which they had so long been accustomed to pass with him whose fall they now lamented! Party feeling was annihilated; all mourned, and many wept, for the deceased, as if he had been their nearest, dearest friend or relative. A place on the ministerial bench was pointed at from the gallery as that which Mr. Perceval had been used to fill. I am not aware, though he generally sat nearly in the same place, that any precise spot was particularly reserved for him; and on the occasion which it is my object to recall, certainly no such theatrical effort at effect was made. The vacant seat was soon occupied by one of the late right honourable gentleman's colleagues.

Not only was there the abstinence from conversation, which I have noted, but action—the common ordinary motions of gentlemen meeting in assembly were suspended. The benches were filled with unwonted regularity; and their occupants, scarcely venturing on a whisper,  and hardly changing their position, seemed almost like breathing statues, while they awaited with awful interest the announcement of what steps the government proposed to take, and what information had been obtained by them respecting the event which had deprived the administration of its chief.

The silence which prevailed was at length broken by the Speaker, who, with an effort at firmness, but in a tone somewhat subdued, pronounced the name of Lord Castlereagh, (the Late Marquis of Londonderry,) who had at that moment presented himself at the bar.

His lordship, in a faltering voice, stated that he was the bearer of a message from the Prince Regent.

"Please to bring it up," was the matter-of-course reply, and his lordship handed the paper to the Chair. It was forthwith read. The Regent expressed his deep regret for the event, which he could never cease to deplore, and recommended to the House to make a provision for the family of Mr. Perceval.

It was then moved that the House should resolve itself into a committee, to take into consideration the message; and that being done, Lord Castlereagh took upon himself the task of addressing the members on the painful subject which they were then to entertain. His lordship spoke with great feeling. A more than official attachment seemed to connect his lordship with the late premier. On an occasion then recent, when the conduct of his lordship had been the subject of grave accusation respecting the disposal of certain seats in that House, Mr. Perceval had defended him with great earnestness and success; and, doing so, his declaration was, "I raise my voice for the man I esteem, and the friend I love."

In the course of his statement, the noble lord had, in connexion with the awful event of the preceding day, to make known the conviction of the ministry, from all the inquiries that had down to that hour been instituted, that the act of Bellingham was perfectly unconnected with any general scheme or conspiracy. Proceeding to speak of the domestic distress it had caused, he said, the children left by Mr. Perceval were twelve in number. "For the widow," he added, "her happiness in this world is closed;" and the painful feelings by which he was oppressed so overpowered him, that he was unable to proceed. He burst into tears, and with strong emotions raised a handkerchief to his eyes, and concealed his face for some moments.

With a knowledge of subsequent events, I cannot but recall this passage of Lord Castlereagh's address, though perfectly appropriate at the time, with a cynical glance,—a something between mirth and sorrow. Looking at the picture drawn of Mrs. Perceval, and remembering that horror at learning the fate of her husband was said to have almost petrified her; that, wild and unconscious, the most fatal effects were anticipated from her excessive woe, till, by the advice of her medical attendants, she was led into the room where the corpse of her lord was lying, when that ghastly spectacle caused her tears to flow, and thus afforded the bursting heart some relief; I cannot recall these things, without connecting with them the news which the fashionable world were destined at no very distant period to receive, that this afflicted and heart-broken lady, the mother of twelve children, had been again led to the altar by a gallant officer  much younger than herself. Of the matrimonial discord that followed, I will not speak.

I am not going to copy from the journals of the House the particulars of the grant proposed as a provision for the Perceval family, nor from the papers of the day the debates to which the event gave rise. What I propose to do is, merely to give a few sketches of the attendant circumstances, which may be thought interesting now, but were lost sight of then, from the pressure of matter of greater importance.

Let it then suffice to say that the House cordially approved of the course recommended by the Crown. Mr. Whitbread, who had been one of the most unsparing opponents of the departed premier, was frequently in tears. He bore testimony to the amiable personal character of the late minister. "I never," said he, "carry hostility to those from whom I differ on political questions beyond that door," pointing to the door opening into the lobby: "with that man it was impossible to carry it so far."

It is due to that honourable gentleman to say that this was not a mere post mortem compliment. With the deceased he had often come into collision. Mr. Whitbread was irritable, and was sometimes deeply stung by the sarcasms launched at him by Mr. Perceval. In one debate the latter, having adverted to predictions formerly made by Mr. Whitbread, which had not been borne out by events, and to new ones then hazarded, applied to his assailant the words of Pope,

"Destroyed his web of sophistry in vain, The creature's at his dirty work again."

Mr. Whitbread, nettled at this, spoke to order, and demanded that the words should be taken down. A very brief and simple explanation restored his good humour, and the subject was dropped. On another occasion, not long before Mr. Perceval's death, when some personal altercation had occurred between them, the right honourable gentleman, in explaining away that which had given offence, took occasion to say that among his faults—and he had many—want of respect for the honourable member was not one of them. Mr. Whitbread, in cordially accepting the explanation, replied, that "among all the right honourable gentleman's virtues—and he had many—there was none more to be admired than the promptness with which he could return to friendly conference from the heat of political debate."

There was, indeed, much affability about Mr. Perceval's manner. Many anecdotes of his condescension were published at the time. An instance of his courtesy and good-nature occurs to me which has never appeared in print.

At a grand city feast in Guildhall, the publisher of a fashionable journal having taken wine rather freely, was hoaxed by some mischievous friend with a belief that Mr. Perceval was one of the officers of the hall, and under this impression, wishing to leave for a short time, accosted him with a theatrically pompous air, which the individual (a well-known character at that time among the votaries of the drama,) loved to assume, and said,

"My good fellow, I wish to step into King-street for a moment; you'll take notice of me and let me in again," at the same time offering  to slip half-a-crown into the hands of the prime minister. The gift was declined, and Mr. Perceval replied with a smile, "I am sorry it is not in my power to oblige you; but you had better speak to some of those gentlemen," pointing to the marshalmen; "they may be able to do what you wish."

While the good qualities of the deceased were rehearsed, and the consequences of his fate to the government and to the country were discussed, curiosity naturally turned to the cause of the important change. Great was my surprise to learn that the individual was not wholly unknown to me; I was soon reminded of the singular personage who had attracted notice by his manner and his opera-glass in the gallery. That was no other than Bellingham; and two of the gentlemen who had been in the habit of meeting, and perhaps of conversing with him there, were the first who advanced after the dreadful deed to secure him in the lobby.

The remainder of that unhappy man's story is soon told. In the course of a day or two the coroner's inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder, and the grand jury a true bill against him. On the Friday he stood at the bar of the Old Bailey to take his trial. He made a long rambling defence, and occasionally his agony was so great, not for his impending fate, but from recollection of the sufferings of a wife, whom he described with fondness, that it deeply affected all present. It was attempted to prove him insane; but certainly there were no grounds for considering him in that state which the law requires shall be proved to exempt the murderer from capital punishment. He himself opposed that plea. A verdict of Guilty was returned, and on the succeeding Monday the sentence of death was carried into effect. The case was from the first so clear, the evidence so conclusive, that the prisoner was perhaps the only man in England who expected any other result. He seemed to look for an acquittal. With every one else conviction and death were thought inevitable,—indeed so much matters of course, that the following singular announcement, through some slip of the pen, in the Morning Post of Thursday, "The trial will take place to-morrow, the execution on Monday," was hardly viewed as reprehensible, hazardous, or extraordinary; though certainly such a one, but in that single instance, I have never seen.


H. T.