When John Bellingham, a merchant with a grievance against the government, assassinated prime minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons on 11 May 1812, he committed a crime which left two women as widows and fifteen children without a father. Jane Perceval was left with twelve children aged between four and twenty. Bellingham’s wife Mary would be widowed a week later, when her husband was executed. She was left with three sons: baby Henry and two older boys James and William.
Bellingham’s grievance, which had taken over his life despite Mary’s efforts to persuade him to relinquish it, stemmed from his time as a merchant in Russia. He had been arrested by the Russian authorities, probably unjustly, and felt that the British minister to Russia had not done enough to help him and that he was owed compensation by the government. His petitions were rejected and, when a weary government official told him he could do whatever he thought proper, he plotted to kill a member of the government. Although he refused to plead insanity and was found guilty of murder, the case was widely considered to have been a miscarriage of justice.
In the few days between the assassination and the trial, journalists tried to piece together the details of Bellingham’s life. The son of a portrait miniaturist, he had been born in London and spent part of his childhood in St Neots, the small Huntingdonshire town from which his mother Elizabeth Scarbrow came. He became a merchant and married Mary Nevill(e), who came from a family of Quaker merchants based in Liverpool and Ireland. Their first son, James, was born in Russia. Mary was pregnant with their second son William when she returned alone to Liverpool after her husband’s imprisonment. After giving birth to William at the house of her uncle James Neville in Wigan, she set up a business as a milliner in Liverpool to support herself and her sons until her husband’s eventual release and return to England in late 1809. Mollie Gillen, in her book The Assassination of the prime minister (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972), writes:
“Very well worth reading would be a diary written by this young woman, who at twenty, had made the perilous sea journey to an unknown land, travelled alone (except for a baby son) the five hundred miles from Archangel to St Petersburg, waited in fearful uncertainty for a husband in deep trouble, returned pregnant and unprotected to England, and – even then not more than twenty-six, supported herself and her two children for five full years.”
After her husband’s execution Mary found herself destitute and a subscription was opened for her in Liverpool. Even Lord Granville Leveson Gower, the former ambassador to Russia whom Bellingham blamed for his misfortunes, was prevailed upon to donate £50. Mary wrote to thank him, saying how the future welfare and good conduct of her sons depended upon whatever education she could give them. Mollie Gillen quotes from the letter:
“To a generous public, I am compelled to look for assistance, now that I am deprived of every other resource, and trust that they will have the liberality to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. My most ardent wish is to retire in the Country, there to devote my time and attention to my beloved children.”
That November a notice in the local press announced the liquidation of Mary’s millinery business. With that “sad and defeated” advertisement, Mollie Gillen takes leave of Mary Bellingham (who had reverted to the name of Neville after her husband’s execution):
“Thereafter she disappears, and her three little boys with her. It would be pleasant to know that they grew up and did well, the tragedy of their childhood dimmed by time. If, as seems likely, the Henry Stevens Neville who died in London in 1875, childless but prosperous, and who had married a granddaughter of old James Neville of Wigan, was the baby Henry… it is pleasant to realize that he could successfully survive so unhappy a background. With persistence they could be precisely traced; but they might, perhaps, prefer to vanish from the pages of history.”
A little more persistence confirms that Henry did indeed marry his second cousin Ann Neville and become a successful colonial broker (worth £12,000 when he died in 1875). The 1891 census shows his widow Ann living in Pennington Road in a leafy suburb of Tunbridge Wells with a companion, a cook and a parlour maid. The eldest son James, who had been born in Russia, died in 1872 leaving £5,000. The 1871 census shows him unmarried, living on the Green in Winchmore Hill, North London, with a housekeeper. The middle son, William, has proved harder to find. Could he be the William Bellingham Neville, born in Wigan in 1806, a doctor and the author of a book, On insanity, its nature, causes and cure?
As for Mary, her fortunes took a turn for the better after her bankruptcy. In June 1813 she married James Raymond Barker, a banker and one of the wealthy Raymond Barker family of Fairfield, Gloucestershire. The wedding took place in the Yorkshire village of Thornton-in-Craven. One of the witnesses was the faithful Ann Billet, a Scarbrow cousin of John Bellingham’s, who had grown up with him in St Neots, and who had come forward at his trial to try and convince the court of his insanity. Mary and James settled in Highbury Grove in London, where Mary died aged 72 in 1853, having been widowed for a second time 21 years earlier.
The second marriages of both Mary Bellingham and Jane Perceval brought them connections to important churchmen. Jane’s brother-in-law Robert Carr was bishop of Chichester and later Worcester, while Mary’s sister-in-law Maria Raymond Barker became the wife of Edward Bouverie Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement.