Jack the Painter and the American Mission to France, 1776-1777

M.J. Sydenham describes how, returning from the Colonies “with a most dreadful antipathy towards the government and nation”, this one-time highwayman conceived the scheme of striking a dramatic blow for America”.

Late in the evening of Thursday December 5th, 1776, a sallow young man walked into the small town of Portsmouth bearing a bundle which contained two screw-barrel pistols, a tinder-box, a quantity of gunpowder and kindling, a gallon of turpentine and a “portable machine”. With these materials James Aitken (otherwise known as James Hill, James Hinde or “Jack the Painter”) intended to destroy the Royal Naval Dockyard and much of the shipping that lay at anchor in the harbour.

Despite all the security measures of war-time, he in fact entered and left the Yard on several occasions, eventually igniting a rope-house full of highly inflammable rigging. Only the energy of the Commissioner, Vice-Admiral Gambier, who mobilised ship-wrights and marines as well as the normal fire-fighting services, saved the whole Dockyard from destruction.

This attack upon Portsmouth was but one part of a greater plan that Aitken had conceived for destroying all the naval dockyards of Great Britain. This may seem no more than the wild dream of an obscure criminal; but Aitken himself later maintained that he had been inspired by the cause of American freedom, and it was this aspect of the affair that interested the Government.1

Although only a few months had elapsed since Lord North’s Ministry had committed this country to war with the colonists in America, considerable strains were already apparent. The American cause was strongly supported by many of the Whigs, and the Royal Navy, responsible among much else for transporting and maintaining a considerable army across the Atlantic, had soon been stretched to the limits of its capacity. In these circumstances the Government was very ready to seize upon Aitken’s activities and to suggest that these were in reality promoted by discreditable American agents, seeking to injure our all-important naval power.

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