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1776 - Jack the Painter

7th December. John The Painter. At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon a fire broke out in the Dockyard by which the whole of the Great Double Rope House was consumed. (It had been restored after the terrible fire of 1770) At first it was thought by accident. But on the 5th January, three men working in the Hemp House discovered a tin machine and nearby a wooden box containing combustible materials.Investigations brought suspicions upon on James Hill, who it was told, had been lurking around the Dockyard. James Hill, alias Hind, alias Atkins, alias John the Painter was of Scottish birth. The son of an Edinburgh White Smith (someone who works in Pewter) born on 28th September 1752. Curiosity led him to America at the age of 21; he became imbued with republican sympathies. With the rebellion in the American Colonies flaring into a war he crossed the Atlantic to England enlisting in the 32 Regiment but after receiving the bounty quickly deserted.

Exactly when he hatched his diabolical plan of destroying the Dockyards and shipping centres of England by arson is not known. Hill crossed to France and it was said sought out and had an interview with Silas Dean, the American rebel minister to the Court of France. Armed with letters of introduction and credit he returned to England. After adventures in other parts of the country he came to Portsmouth bent on destroying the centre of the Royal Navy. On the 6th December he laid combustibles in the Hemp House and Rope House and returned to his lodging at Mrs. Boxalls. He had also hired lodgings at two other establishments hoping to fire these and so engage the fire engines in fires outside the Dockyard at the same time. He returned to the Hemp House the following day and tried to fire the combustibles but his half penny box of matches was damp, and so he made his way to the Rope House where he had hidden other combustibles and matches. After setting the fuses alight he made his escape from Portsmouth in such a great hurry that he left incriminating evidence that would eventually be his downfall. He was caught at Odiham by the village constable and in his possession at the time was a French passport, a bottle of turpentine in a leather bag and a Treatise on making Fireworks and War.

He was tried at Winchester on 6th March 1777 for the crime of Arson in His Majesty’s Dockyard and sentenced to death by hanging on the 10th March. He was brought down to Portsmouth and placed in the White House (prison) under strong guard. It had been decided that he should be hung at the Dockyard Gate in full view of the ruins he had created. The Dockyard Riggers and Rope-makers had erected the 64ft mizzen mast from the frigate Arethusa at the Dockyard Gate. He was place in a cart and paraded around the Dockyard stopping at the Commissioner’s House to confess his crime. At the Gate and at 12.52 pm, 350 rope-makers tailed the rope and ran Jack up to the top of the mast. The body swung in the breeze for an hour and was then taken to Pitch House Jetty where it received a coat of pitch and was placed in a cage, taken to Blockhouse Point and suspended from a gibbet for all who entered the harbour to see.

Arson in His Majesty’s Dockyard is punishable by death. Jack’s body hung there for many a year and was often removed by drunken persons for jokes. It was to have been secretly buried on the beach by the Royal Engineers when they were renovating the battery.

Interestingly there is a report in the Maryland Journey, dated Tuesday, April 8th 1777:

“Captain (Robert) Cochran, in the armed Brigantine Nortre Dame, lately arrived at Charlestown, South-Carolina, with a valuable cargo, from France. “Accounts were received in France, before Captain Cochran’s Departure, of the Arsenal and Dock Yard at Portsmouth having been burnt in the Beginning of December; the loss is computed at Two Million Sterling, but at the present critical Situation of Great Britain, being in all Appearance on the Eve of a French and Spanish War, and the Supplies of Naval Stores from America being discontinued, it will be hard to determine what the loss may be estimated.”