Sunday, 9 March 2014

Revolution in Portsmouth

by James Priory

"To learn to read is to light a fire, every syllable that is spelled out is a spark."

Victor Hugo's inflammatory words can be found in the English Department at the bottom of the steps leading to the Library.  They were unveiled by the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, when he opened the refurbished library ten years ago. 

It amused me then, and it still seems ironic, to think of a nineteenth century French intellectual kindling revolutionary flames in a school housed in a nineteenth century British army barracks.

Not many people realise, however, that Portsmouth has quite a history of revolutionary fire-lighting. 

Hidden in the archives of the City Museum, in a nondescript cardboard box, are the tools used by the man some historians have described as the world’s first modern terrorist: a pistol, a stoppered bottle of turpentine, "a bundle of matches dipped in brimstone and a box of exceeding fine tinder made of silk."
They belonged to a man named Jack the Painter and this, in syllables that lit a spark designed to send the whole country into a panic, is a short account of his story.

In 1767, a fourteen year old boy known as James Aitken walked out of Heriot's Hospital, a charitable school for boys in Edinburgh, with a love of reading and a desire to learn the trade of a painter.  Seven years, however, is a long apprenticeship and by the age of twenty one - the gloss of being a painter rapidly wearing thin - the young man left for London where he soon descended into a world of highway robbery and petty crime. 

Seeking escape again, James Aitken sought passage in a ship bound for America.  It is at this point that his trail mysteriously disappears before records show him returning to England in the spring of 1775.  During these few months it seems that Aitken had been radicalised by revolutionary talk on the other side of the Atlantic.   He admitted later to aspiring to become an American hero “and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world.”

Aitken knew that the nation’s military strength lay in its navy, but that the dockyards were also its Achilles heel.  It takes 3000 trees to make a 74 gun warship, according to historian Jessica Warner, and with repairs needed on a five year cycle, dockyards were routinely packed with timber and rope, making them extremely vulnerable to fire.

Aitken saw his chance to strike on America’s behalf.  He travelled to Paris to meet Silas Deane, a Congressman sent to secure aid from France, in October 1776.  The young Scot was warned about the riskiness of his plot, supplied with money and the details of a mystery contact in London.

His next move was to Portsmouth where he smuggled himself into the dockyard.  A five foot seven, thin, young man in a claret and brown coat with his red hair worn long, Aitken became just another John or Jack in a crowd of local craftsmen.  He slipped away to inspect and draw the buildings and, back in his lodgings, developed the design for a lantern which would burn slowly enough to allow him to make his escape.

After a first failed attempt in December 1776 - just five months after Thomas Jefferson wrote the United States Declaration of Independence -Aitken set his lamp in the long rope house and prepared a trail of paper treated with gunpowder.  He lit the sulphurous match, retreated and watched.  Within half an hour the rope house was ablaze. 

Newspapers over the coming days were filled with stories of mayhem and fear.  King George III ordered daily reports on the situation.  The discovery of the lamp confirmed arson and, following a similar fire in Bristol, the search for a man matching the description of the fugitive ‘John the Painter’ began.

It was a robbery in an otherwise sleepy Hampshire village shop which would eventually burn the revolutionary’s fingers. Aitken was apprehended by the irate husband of a shopkeeper, following a daylight robbery. It was only when the materials for lighting a fire were discovered alongside his pistol in the depths of his claret and brown coat pockets that the man realised he had caught the dockyard arsonist. 

Weeks later, those same items were held aloft in a trial in Winchester before twelve jurors.  Witnesses were presented, each one knowing the painter by a different name, but all testifying that this was the man responsible for setting fire to the rope house.

On 10 March, 1767, John the Painter was led to the Hard where he was hoisted sixty feet in the air at the top of the mizzenmast of the Arethusa and hanged.  Twenty thousand people gathered below.  Later, his body was removed, tarred and hung in gibbet irons at the entrance to the Harbour: a grim warning to any would-be terrorists, even if the word for such an act had yet to be invented.

It was a bleak end to the adventure that had taken John Aitken from Edinburgh to London and across the Atlantic to the other side of the world.  Schoolboy turned painter turned highwayman turned revolutionary; like a figure from the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a copy of which he left behind in his Portsmouth lodging, Aitken had hoped in vain to gain immortality through transformation and change. 

Instead, all that remains are the contents of Aitken’s pockets, the pistol and the tools he had adapted from his apprenticeship as a painter.

In a city which has endured the threat of Jack the Painter’s fire and bombing in the Second World War, it is not surprising perhaps that this Pandora’s box lies carefully sealed in the museum store.

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