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
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
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
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.