Daily Archives: 13 January, 2010

Jack the Painter: Burning Portsmouth Dockyard

Very few people know that perhaps the first ever terrorist act on British soil took place in Portsmouth Dockyard. In December 1776 James Aitken, a British sympathiser for the American colonies in the war of independence, tried to burn down Portsmouth Dockyard.

A petty criminal, Aitken had travelled to America. After developing sympathy for the American struggle for independence, he travelled to France to suggest a scheme to the American agent in Paris. Aitken had gone to very one of the six Royal Dockyards in England, and had even developed an incendiary device to use. He had even managed to slip into the Dockyard, undetected, and inspect storehouses and make sketches.

On 7 December 1776 Aitken entered the Ropehouse, which ran the width of the yard. After trouble lighting his fuse he rushed out, and made his escape on a cart and then on foot, before looking back and seeing flames.

Hundreds of men fought the blaze, including marines, yard workers and even sailors. The fire was put out with little damage, but near panic reigned. Newspapers across the country reported the fire. Even King George III followed developments closely. The authorities were soon on the trail of Aitken, who had been spotted lurking around the Dockyard.

Aitken had made his way to London, but the contact he had been told to meet by the agent in France was in fact a double agent. After un-successfully trying to burn the Dockyard at Plymouth Aitken was arrested for housebreaking at Odiham in North Hampshire. He was charged with the Dockyard fire and then tried, convicted and hanged in March 1777. His trial at Winchester was a huge public spectacle, and dominated Newspapers and Magazines. Even his execution was a spectacle, Aitken having been hung from the mizzenmast of the Frigate Arethusa. After death his body was hung in irons at Fort Blockhouse, across the Harbour entrance at Gosport.

That ‘Jack the Painter’ chose to target Portsmouth Dockyard shows just what an important site it was in the late 18th Century, during the wars with Revolutionary America and later France. The Yard would have been bustling with the ‘wooden walls’ of the Royal Navy’s warships. Not only was it important militarily, but the Dockyard was also a very public symbol of British power.

But what is also interesting about ‘Jack the Painter’ is that his acts instilled fear much greater than their actual consequences, and in this sense he was the first Terrorist. And it happened here, in Portsmouth Dockyard. What more evidence is needed about just how important the Dockyard was?

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Is it illegal to wear un-earned medals?

The recent case of Roger Day, the bogus war hero who turned up at a Remembrance Day parade wearing an unlikely 17 medals, has brought the protocol for wearing medals and other awards into question.

The Army Act (1955) makes it illegal to impersonate a member of the armed forces. The act makes wearing any military decoration, badge or other insignia without authority a criminal offence. The idea is, that by wearing them, you are deceiving people into thinking you are someone that you are not. This has been done by people trying to collect for bogus charities, or to get sympathy.

The Army act also makes it illegal for servicemen to sell their medals whilst they are still serving. They are still Government property all the time their bearer is serving, only upon their discharge or death do they become theirs or their kins property. There is a thriving trade in military memorabilia, but it is one thing to buy medals to mount in a display case, but quite another to wear them as if you earnt them. Day’s medals were purchased for him by his younger wife, after he claimed that his original medals had been lost in action or sold.

But it is more than a legal issue, respect comes into it too. Surely anyone with any sense will feel that to wear something that you haven’t earned is disrespectful to the people who have earnt it. The same goes for things such as Parachute Wings and Commando Daggers – if you didn’t earn them, don’t wear them. If you feel the need to lie to people and pretend to be something that you’re not, then maybe it might be an idea to go and have a chat with your doctor and see if they can refer you for professional help.

I must admit I feel pretty disheartened when I see celebrities wearing military style costumes: Michael Jackson had a knack for doing that, at one court appearance he turned up wearing a Royal Corps of Transport badge on his jacket. Illegal: no, disrespectful: probably not intentionally, but disappointing: sadly, yes. I cannot help but feel that it trivialises the men and women who serve and die wearing those badges.

It is difficult to know where to draw the line, however. I have in the past wondered whether it is acceptable to wear a maroon ‘Arnhem 60th anniversary’ t-shirt when visiting Arnhem. I know that some Airborne guys can be very protective of anything maroon. But the way I think is, my Grandad was a para: hes no longer around to wear it, so I wear it on his behalf. Its not a Paras t-shirt per se, its clearly about the 60th Anniversary, that I went to. I’m obviously not a Para or trying to impersonate one. If anyone were to mention that they think it is inappropriate, I would take it off without hesitation.

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