A Very British Killing

Nick Hilton
Aug 3, 2020 · 3 min read
“I am murdered!”

It was fairly late into the research process when I discovered that Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated, had been secretly married in the ruins of East Grinstead’s Anglican church, St Swithun’s.

In and of itself, that’s quite a slight story — a footnote that was mentioned by a couple of locals but didn’t have much more substance that a minor elopement — but the story of Perceval is more interesting. It’s interesting because, you know, it’s a PM being assassinated, but it’s also interesting in the way its faded from public memory almost totally in the 200 years since it happened. It was striking to me just how difficult it was to find an historian or other writer who had specialised in Perceval’s life and death — indeed there’s no single canonical book on the assassination (there is one knocking about from a couple of decades ago, but the author is now deceased). Which is why I turned to Nick Hall, a comedian who had performed a one-man show as Spencer Perceval.

That was the germ of the opening of the episode, where the other major storyline I wanted to include was the 1996 murder of Richard Watson. Because I couldn’t do a proper true crime investigatory podcast about the Watson murder, I wanted to use these two murders as bookends for how we tell stories of violent death; two pieces of bread to an episode with quite luxuriant filling. Of all the episodes of The Town That Didn’t Stare, I think ‘A Very British Killing’ is in many ways the one that is most adventurous, most typifies the ethos I wanted to bring to the project.

Hammerwood Park

The link between 1812 (Perceval’s assassination) and the War of 1812 in which the White House was razed allowed me to segue into discussion of East Grinstead’s Hammerwood Park (sharing an architect, Latrobe, with the White House). And then, more relatedly, the discussions of murder opened up the discussions about ghosts and paranormal activity.

Barry Depp was actually a rare interviewee on this show who reached out to me when he heard that I was making a podcast about East Grinstead. I don’t share Barry’s belief in ghosts but I wanted to take seriously this idea of the paranormal as a form of remembrance (I also brought in Prof Christopher French to dissect how so many people think they’ve seen ghosts or UFOs or whatever). And the segment with Keith Hagenbach was equally organic — I was interviewing him about the People’s Republic of Ashurst Wood Nation State when he mentioned being guided to the area by spirits. That made it a logical piece to add to this episode.

So the loose theme — indeed the name that my project file bore throughout the production process — was ‘Ghosts’. Ghosts as a phenomenon, ghosts as a form of remembrance, ghosts as a way of writing history.

Here are some relevant links if you want to do some extra reading:

Nick Hall writes about the assassination of Spencer Perceval

More info on Perceval from Parliament’s website

The Hammerwood Park website

Paranormal Hunters UK Facebook page

Prof French’s Royal Institution lecture on the paranormal

BBC report on Ashurst Wood’s independence

Kim Sengupta’s contemporary reporting on the Watson murder

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