John The Painter AKA Jack The Painter

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Subjects: Radical Bristol
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Taken from Bristol Past and Present by J. F. Nicholls and John Taylor, published in 1882

On the same day an attempt was made to fire the warehouse of .Mr. Morgan, druggist, Corn Street. Climbing a wall ten feet in height the incendiary had wrenched off three iron bars from a window, and having thus forced an entrance he Med a large box that had contained Glauber’s Salts with combustibles, including tar, spirits of wine, and turpentine, which he placed against the oil casks. Providentially, the elm wood of the box being damp the fire was confined to it. On Sunday morning just be-fore daybreak the warehouses of Messrs. Lawsley, Partridge & Co., Bell lane, were found to be in flames, and although ten engines were at work with plenty of water from the river they were soon entirely consumed. One of the clerks found in one of the rooms a large torch, with a lot of matches and other inflammable material. The sacks of grain and bales Spanish wool that were saved were conveyed to the Exchange and the area of Queen square, and were guarded day and night by the military. The “Bell” inn at the bottom of Broad street caught seven or eight times, but fortunately the fire vas extinguished, or in all probability the buildings in the area between Broad, Small and Corn streets would have been burnt to the ground. There was no wind, the tide was high, and the fire, after eating its way eastward as far as the dead wall of St. John’s arch, was conquered. Between seven and eight o’clock the same day two other attempts at arson were made in Lewin’s mead, one being at the sugar-house of Mr. Alderman Barnes. In divers other parts of the city large torches of a peculiar make, with long handles for use through cellar and other windows, were discovered, which had failed in the object intended by the villainous incendiary.

The alarm excited in the city by these attempts was very great. The citizens enrolled themselves in bands and patrolled the streets night and day. The king offered a reward of 21,000 from his privy purse, to which the inhabitants and the chamber added 500 guineas, for the discovery of the offender. For some weeks every effort at discovery failed. At last suspicion fell on a Scotchman named James Aitken, alias Jack the Painter, who lodged in the Pithay. He was apprehended, but for some days kept his own counsel. A Welsh painter named Baldwin, who had long resided in America, pre-tended friendship with and visited him, to whom Aitken confessed that he had not only caused these fires, but that it was he who had burned Portsmouth rope-house on December 7th, and that he had attempted to fire the dockyards at Chatham and Plymouth, but had failed, his design being to weaken or destroy the flourishing navy of this country; that he had made drawings of every dockyard in the kingdom, and knew the number of ships, their weight of metal and the number of their guns, and that his employer was Mr. Silas Deane, a member of the American congress who was then in Paris.

The machine he employed was a box of wood and perforated tin, in which he placed certain combustibles and a lighted candle, which would ignite them after burning a fixed number of hours. One of these ma- chines which had failed, being found in one of the warehouses at Portsmouth, was produced at his trial at Winchester, on the 6th March, 1777.

Aitken was found guilty, and was hanged at Portsmouth on a gibbet 67 feet high, being the mizen mast of the Arethusa frigate. Before his execution he confessed his guilt not only of the fire at Portsmouth but also of those at Bristol, stating that he had placed combustibles in at least a dozen warehouses in that ‘city, choosing those that were the most ruinous and built chiefly of wood. Having fired these he left for Sodbury, but turned back when he saw the conflagration thinking the greater part of the city had been consumed. The same night he made other attempts on the shipping, but was prevented by the vigilance of the patrol. He then tried to ignite certain barrels of oil, pitch and tar on the quay, hoping that the fire would float on the water and burn the shipping, but he failed in all his attempts except that in Quay Street. He was barely 21 years of age at the time of his execution.

It is still believed by some that the head of Jack the Painter was built into the upper part of the front wall of the warehouse which in Quay Street adjoined the offices in which this work is printed. The head was plainly to be seen from the street. The house was demolished to make room for the present building in 1863. It is hardly necessary to refute this absurd story, which arose from the fact that the builder, Mr .Rosser, purchased in 1776 the materials of Chandos House and the ruins of Keynsham Abbey, from which latter place he had removed a lot of corbel heads, some of which were employed in the erection of the building‚s course stones. The building committee of the Philosophical Institution tried to purchase them before they were so used, but the owner of the premises in Quay street refused: Rosser stuck one of them fronting the quay.

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