Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Jack the Painter: Britain’s first Terrorist? In Portsmouth Dockyard?!

Very few people know is 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?

James Daly, Guest Blogger

Monday, 4 January 2010

Introducing our latest guest blogger James Daly: The Dockyard: ‘like the writing on a stick of rock’

James Daly: Historian, researcher and writer from Portsmouth, England. He specialises in Military, Maritime, Naval, Local and Family History.

The Dockyard: ‘like the writing on a stick of rock’

There’s something about Portsmouth – the clue is in the name, I guess – that has made it a place where people come to and go from, for hundreds of years of its history. Think about it, how many Portsmouth families can trace back their history in the city to past 1800? Not many, I suspect. Because people come and go so much.

Take my own family for instance. In 1900, my various ancestors were living in Lancashire, Sussex, Ireland and London! Yet by 1914 all of my great-grandparents had somehow found their way to Portsmouth – and for most of them, it was the sea that brought them here.

Two of my great-grandparents came to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy – both of them became Stokers, in fact. My great-granddad on my Dads side served in Battleships and Submarines for over 20 years, and my great-granddad on my Mum’s side fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

And in the Second World War my great-uncle joined up as a Stoker, serving on the Cruiser HMS Enterprise. Sadly, he died of illness after being torpedoed in the South Atlantic on his way home on the SS Laconia. One Granddad worked for Vospers Shipbuilders in Old Portsmouth before joining the Army in 1942, and my other Granddad worked in the Dockyard as a painter and labourer.

Even after the war the trend carries on. Two of my uncles were shipwrights, and one uncle and my Dad were both electrical fitters. One uncle even moved down to Plymouth to work in the Dockyard there.

I’ve heard some fascinating Dockyard stories. Just before the Falklands War in 1982, the Government announced cuts to the Dockyard, including redundancies. The Defence Secretary, John Nott, visited the Dockyard for talks with Union leaders. Most of the workers gathered around the building to hear the outcome. When the Union men and John Nott emerged, the Union leader barely got past “I would just like to say…” before a missile was launched from the crowd and hit John Nott on the head. A full-scale riot ensued and John Nott had to be smuggled out by the back door.

Another thing my Dad remembers is the sometimes lax attitudes in the ‘yard. At the end of one summer two ‘new’ faces emerged on his section. Asking the charge hand who they were and where they had been, he was told “oh, that’s so and so, they’ve been down the beach all summer”. You wonder how anything got done! But in 1982, the Dockyard managed to get the fleet ready to sail to the Falklands in a matter of days. You get the impression that when things had to be done, they were done and done well. But all the same, it sounds like it was a parallel universe all of its own.

My Dad still has many of his old Dockyard tools – one of the things about serving a Dockyard apprenticeship, is that you get to keep your tools, complete with Government broad-arrow mark on them. Many of them have long outlasted their counterparts from B&Q. He even has his coffin-like toolbox in the shed, with P DALY stencilled on the side. My Dad even can remember cutting the grass with one of my uncles old shipwrights adzes that he found in the shed at my grandparents.

When he’s doing DIY around the house, you can see the apprenticeship training. Everything has to be just so, there’s no rushing. But then you wouldn’t expect anything different from someone who had to spend a month shaving a block of brass to within a tenth of a millimetre during his apprenticeship! You can understand why it had to be done properly, because often men’s lives depended on it.

I’ve often heard it said that many of the tools and materials in the Dockyard mysteriously grew legs and managed to walk out of the gate. At one point, Shipwrights even had it written into their contracts that they could keep off-cuts of wood! I wonder how much of Portsmouth would fall down if you took away all of the wood stolen from the Dockyard over the years…

So the Dockyard really does run through Portsmouth, like the writing on a stick or rock. It’s made the city – and its people – what it is. I cannot help but feel that even though few people work in the Dockyard now, its influence will take many years to disappear.

James Daly, Guest Blogger for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Visit his own 'Daly History Blog' at: