The Artist That Painted Britain Orange and Red

(Illustration of Scottish John the Painter circa 1777 [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons)




The 18th century revolutionary arsonist—Jack the Painter

Centuries ago, one man terrorized the streets of Britain. Fearful citizens organized into patrols to keep their cities safe. The King, government councils, and even private citizens, offered monetary rewards for the capture of this particular individual. The alias of this perpetrator was Jack. This was not Jack the Ripper—no, this was Jack the Painter, who went on a rampage of arson in 1776.

Jack the Painter’s real name was James Aitken. Aitken was known to use many aliases—he was also known as John Hill or John the Painter. For simplicity, we will continue to call him James Aitken. He was born in Scotland in 1752 and found his way into the American colonies just as the fever of rebellion was beginning to boil over. Historians are not certain as to his level of involvement with the American revolutionaries: University of Pittsburg history professor, Marcus Rediker, claims that Aitken participated in the 1773 Boston Tea Party.  Jessica Warner, a professor from the University of Toronto, instead argues that James Aitken was busy being an indentured servant while he was in the American colonies and had no interaction with the American revolutionaries. Both historians, however, agree that James Aitken left North America to return to Britain in 1775.

Even if James Aitken never actively aided the restless American colonists while he was in the colonies, he definitely left North America an inspired man. He made his way to Paris and gained an audience with an American congressman named Silas Deane, who was staying in France at the time. In his meeting with Deane, James Aitken pitched to the congressman his ambitious plan to cripple the British war machine—by setting fire to ships, dockyards, ports and warehouses throughout the British Isles. Congressman Silas Deane, seeing a chance to maim the nation at war with his countrymen, assented to Aitken’s plan.

James Aitken was back in Britain by 1776, and was ready to begin his spree of arson attacks. His favorite method of setting fire to his targets was a simple incendiary device—a box of wood and tin filled with flammable materials and tinder, with a fuse, wick or candle to allow him to make an escape before the box ignited.

The first major arson Aitken committed was in Portsmouth on December 7, 1776. He infiltrated the dockyard and slipped into the rope house and the hemp house, leaving his incendiary devices in both locations. A flaw in his device soon became apparent—dampness. The boxes or the fuses of the hemp house devices became wet and did not ignite (these were found later by dockworkers). The rope house, however, did not fare as well. The devices worked as planned, caught fire, and set fire to the surrounding structures. James Aitken was able to flee the scene of the arson without being caught and made his way to his next target: Bristol.


(Portsmouth, England via Google Maps)


His arson-spree in Bristol went similarly to the one he committed in Portsmouth. He had both successes and failures. His attack on the Bristol dockyard was semi-successful. Moving inland from the dockyard, he succeeded in setting fire to a Bell Lane warehouse of Messrs. Lawsley, Partridge and Co., but was less successful in burning a drug warehouse on Corn Street which was, again, foiled by dampness. After leaving his incendiaries, James Aitken once more escaped from the scene of his arson.


(Bristol, England via Google Maps)


Aitken, however, could not run forever. The vigilant patrols and the bounty for his capture were making new arson attacks more and more dangerous for Aitken to attempt.  The British government also passed the Treason Act of 1777, allowing suspected American sympathizers to be arrested with much less red tape. He was eventually caught in Odiham, and he could not have been any more self-incriminating—he reportedly had on his person more flammable materials, a manual for making incendiaries and a French passport.


(Odiham, England via Google Maps)


After Aitken was arrested, tried and convicted, he was brought back to the Portsmouth dockyard to face his capitol punishment. The British prepared for him one of the highest gallows in history—the over sixty-foot mizzenmast of the HMS Arethusa, a ship he had threatened during his arson rampage. After his execution was completed on March 6, 1777, the British justice system was still not done with James Aitken’s body. The remains of the revolutionary arsonist were splattered with tar and then displayed for all to see in the cage of a gibbet, where the body of James Aitken decomposed in the open air for several years.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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