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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Filed under Dockyard, Local History

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