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Monday 30 November 2009


The year 1812 is best remembered in Britain for the Tchaikovsky overture of the same name, written in 1882 to mark the seventieth anniversary of Napoleon’s humiliating retreat from Moscow. But it is also the date of an event unique in British political history, the assassination of a British Prime Minister.

In 1807 Britain had begun to blockade French ports, and Napoleon responded by attempting to divert French trade through other European ports. The British strategy had been unsuccessful in restricting France, and British trade with Europe was suffering. After violent protests in the streets, the prime minister Spencer Perceval was forced to concede a parliamentary inquiry into the policy.

William Brodie Gurney (1777-1855)
shorthand writer to the House of Commons

Thus it was that my great great great grandfather William Brodie Gurney, official shorthand writer to the House of Commons, found himself in a committee room there at 4.30pm on 11th May 1812, recording evidence being given to the Inquiry. He later wrote in his memoirs:

Mr Perceval … was entering the Lobby when he was shot by Bellingham. I shall never forget the appalling scene. A shot was heard, and one or two members near me had just said, “What is that?” when Sir Charles Burrell rushed into the room, exclaiming, “He is shot! He is shot!” Every one cried out, “Who is shot?” “Perceval.” Every one immediately rushed to the door. … I saw the corpse of Mr Perceval on the table in the Speaker’s room, and then attended in the House to take the evidence of the doorkeeper of the House of Commons, who saw the deed committed.
Having shot Perceval, John Bellingham quietly sat down in the lobby and waited to be arrested. His grievance had been the failure of the British government either to intervene when he was being held in a Siberian prison for four years or to compensate him for those years. His trial began on 13th May. During the proceedings in the Old Bailey, also taken down by W.B. Gurney, the court heard that Bellingham would have preferred to assassinate the British Ambassador to Russia, but had settled for the Prime Minister as the “representative of his oppressor.”

Witnesses argued for a plea of diminished responsibility due to insanity, but Bellingham himself did not, and the judge, Sir James Mayfield, was unmoved. Found guilty, the defendant was hung in public a week to the day after the assassination. A public subscription for his widow and family raised more money than he could ever have hoped for in compensation.

Mary Anne Gurney (1812-1871)

Later the day of Bellingham’s hanging, 18th May, Brodie Gurney’s sixth child and second daughter was born – Mary Anne. Her arrival was naturally greeted with great joy; she looked, Gurney felt, just like her late sister (who had died earlier in the year during a measles epidemic). She was, he wrote, from the start showered with affection and jealously loved.

Later the same year, my great great grandfather William Augustus Salter (1812-1879) was born. He would in time marry Mary Anne’s younger sister Emma (1815-1893). The rest, as they say, is history.

Sunday 29 November 2009


I’m sure I’m not alone amongst family tree nuts in becoming terribly fond of some of the characters that I’ve dug up over the years. I’m not sure why; I suppose it’s just a very intimate process, digging up an ancestor. You spend so much time and effort tracking them down that by the time you’ve found them you’ve already formed quite an attachment. You probably know their parents or children; you may know where they lived and were buried, what they did for a living, something of the times they lived in.

My great great uncle Wull Piper (1860-1937)
of Barshouse, Sorn, Ayrshire

You may be the only person to take the trouble to find out about them, to shine a light on their lives from so far away. Or you may find that they had a hand on the hem of history, some small connection known or forgotten with greater or lesser events. Either way it feels something of a privilege to meet them after all these years.

The assasination of Prime Minister Perceval
House of Commons, 11th May 1812

witnessed by WB Gurney, my great great great grandfather

I’m the family historian amongst our lot. Apart from my mother, the rest of the family all profess not to be much interested in the past. Even my father exploded one day when I was probing him about his family life: “I can’t understand why you waste your time enquiring after people just because they have the same surname as you.” After he died I found a drawerful of carefully preserved archive material going back over 150 years. Much of it illuminated or confirmed stories I’d unearthed for myself without his help.

They’re good stories, and I’ve dined out on some of them. Even my own family sometimes sit up and listen at the telling of them. It seems a shame not to share them, and the people they celebrate, with others who might also enjoy a good tale – and who might, after all, be relatives themselves.
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