Jan 162017

Today I am delighted to offer a guest blog-spot to Geri Walton. By way of introduction: Geri has long been interested in history and is fascinated by the stories of people from the 1700 and 1800s. This led her to get a degree in History and resulted in her website,  which offers unique history stories from the 1700 and 1800s. Her first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, looks at the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe.

Today she has chosen to introduce us to a man of many names, someone who attained notoriety in the 1770s:

james-aitken-alias-john-the-painter-x350When the American Revolution broke out, there were some colourful people who decided to join with the Americans in their fight for freedom. One of them was an eighteenth-century terrorist*, a Scotsman born James Aitken, who, while working as a journeyman for a painter in Titchfield, acquired the nickname of “John the Painter.” Otherwise Aitken was known by one of the following aliases: Jack the Painter, James Hind, James Hill, John Aitkin, or James Acksan.

Aitken was born in 1752 in Edinburgh and was one of twelve children born to a whitesmith named David Aitken. After his father’s death, Aitken was educated at charitable school and after graduating he decided to visit America. Because he could not afford passage, he became an indentured servant. That did not last long because soon after setting foot on Virginia soil he absconded, and later when life in America did not work out, he returned to Liverpool in May of 1775.

With no money, Aitken took up a life a crime. This included shoplifting, burglary, theft, robbery, and the rape of a shepherdess tending a flock of sheep. Eventually, however, he landed in London and stayed there for four months before leaving for Cambridge in March of 1776. From there he went to Basingstoke, and while in Basingstoke, a conversation occurred with some companions. According to Aitken, the conversation was about the American Revolution, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Dockyards. “It was with satisfaction I heard every one agree, that the safety, welfare, and even the existence of this nation depended on them.”

Afterwards, the conversation would not leave Aitken’s mind. The idea supposedly ruminated and became more and more enticing partly because while in America he claimed to have been “transported with party-zeal” for the American cause. In the end, Aitken reported that the idea of destroying the Royal Dockyards and crippling the Royal Navy proved irresistible:

“The more I considered it, the more plausible was the undertaking, and the more eager I found myself to become the instrument of it. I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truely heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America; and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world!”

To help put his plan into action, Aitken traveled to Paris, France, where he met with Silas Deane. Deane was an American merchant, politician, and diplomat who served as the first foreign diplomat from the United States to France. At the time, Deane was in Paris attempting to recruit Frenchman to fight in the American Revolutionary War. When Deane heard Aitken’s plan to burn the Royal Docks, he was not enthusiastic. He did, however, give Aitken a small amount of money, and Aitken left excited and enthusiastic believing Americans backed him in his scheme.

containerAfter his return to England, Aitken met with Edward Bancroft, who was an American spy and double-agent. Aitken also began plotting and planning and soon hired a tinman to make “a machine of his contrivance.” This contrivance was similar to a canister. Having worked as a painter, he also used his knowledge of chemicals and solvents to construct crude incendiary devices using the canisters. He then attempted to employ these devices making sure he was far away when they ignited. One newspaper reported on part of his process:

“[H]is mode of making matches was to fold paper double, and cut it into slips; and after grinding charcoal on a painter’s colourstone, quite fine, and breaking gunpowder with a knife, as painters do vermillion, to mix the two in clear water till it came to the consistency of new milk, and then to cover the matches with it: that when so prepared, they would last, according to their length, any given time after they were alight.”

Under the moonlight, Aitken put his plans into effect in Bristol and Portsmouth. The result was minimal damage. However, for a time, the British public was terrified and believed a band of terrorists were carousing throughout England. This was partially because fires that Aitken did not set were being attributed to him. Moreover, with the war in America, the British public became convinced terrorists might strike anywhere, anytime.
Public hysteria about the terrorists became so great that the King ordered the culprits be caught. Sir John Fielding, who helped form the first professional police force known as the Bow Street Runners, obtained a description of the culprit and that is when Aitken came under suspicion. A reward was then offered for Aitken’s capture, which occurred in Andover when he was taken into custody by a Mr. Lowe.

At trial, Aitken had no counsel and pleaded “not guilty,” but his “not guilty” plea was counteracted when witness after witness pointed their finger at him. Moreover, while incarcerated, he incriminated himself by speaking with a police spy. When the jury at last received the case, they found a great number of circumstances were corroborated by testimony or evidence. So, when it came time to determine his guilt or innocence, they asked each other’s ofieldingpinion and then “instantly pronounced the prisoner GUILTY.”

Aitken was hanged on Monday, 10 March 1777, near the Dock-Gates, on a gibbet nearly 65 feet high taken from the HMS Arethusa and placed at the dockyard’s entrance. It was the highest gallows ever constructed and it allowed a concourse of witnesses (some say as many as 20,000) to view his execution. After his execution and after his body hung for the usual amount of time, it was removed. His corpse was then affixed to another gibbet at the beach entrance of the harbour.


*Although the word terrorist was not necessarily in use at the time, the idea of terrorism had long existed. However, it would be the French Revolution and the period known as the “Reign of Terror” that would bring the idea of terror and terrorists to the forefront. Thus, sometime between 1789 and 1795, the French word ‘terroriste’ was used to describe those creating terror and the English would see a sharp rise in its English counterpart (terrorist) beginning in 1799.


“A Circumstantial Account of the Trial of John the Painter,” in Norfolk Chronicle, 15 March 1777
“A Circumstantial Account of the Trail of John the Painter, on Thursday, at Winchester,” in Leeds Intelligencer, 18 March 1777
Aitken, James, The trial of James Hill, alias, John the painter, for wilfully and maliciously setting fire to the rope-house, Portsmouth, taken in short-hand by a gentleman at the trial, Volume 5, 1777
“John the Painter and the Diaboliad,” in The Ipswich Journal, 29 March 1777
Knapp, Andrew, and William Baldwin, The New Newgate Calendar, Volume 3, 1810
“The Following is the Genuine Confession of John the Painter,” in the Hampshire Chronicle, 24 March 1777
Wilkes, John, The Life of James Aitken Commonly Called John the Painter, 1777


Thanks for that, Geri! And I whole-heartedly recommend that you follow Geri whether on Facebook  or on Twitter where she is @18thCand19thC   She is also on Google Plus and on Instagram  and Pinterest

If you want to know more  about Geri’s book, ‘Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe’ : The Princess in question had a unique perspective of the life of Marie Antoinette and the lavishness and daily intrigue at Versailles. It is a is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in Marie Antoinette, the origins of the French Revolution, or life in the late 18th Century. It can be obtained through the publishers (Pen & Sword) and is available on Amazon


Jan 112017


Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Departed this world on 11th January 1753 at the ripe old age of 92: Sir Hans Sloane, one of County Down’s finest sons. In fact he was one of seven sons born to parents who had originally come from Scotland. Enough has already been said elsewhere about his good fortune in buying most of Chelsea, and of giving his name to places like Sloane Square and Hans Crescent, let alone for lending his name to the ubiquitous Sloane Ranger.

He was an avid collector of natural history curiosities, of coins, medals, stuffed animals and historical objects. He had thousands of trays full of exhibits from around the world and bought entire collections from others, to the extent that he could virtually single-handedly fill the British Museum, which opened shortly after he died, as well as the Natural History Museum when it ‘spun off’ in the following century. Prodigious isn’t the half of it. But I remember his passing for another reason, one dear to my heart.

I love surfing down at Polzeath. There is nothing like emerging from the water after several hours, ecstatically happy and barely able to stand from exhaustion, and heading off for an über-calorie-fest of a giant pasty, a thick slice of treacle tart, and a large mug of steaming hot chocolate. If time is tight and I wish to head back to the waves in a hurry, I may dispense with the pasty. I may even go without the treacle tart, but the hot chocolate is not to be missed… which is where Sir Hans comes in, because he introduced to this country the idea of hot chocolate as a drink made from milk.

It all dates back to the Aztecs and the Mayans. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in South America in the sixteenth century they found the native Indians mixing things like maize, chili peppers and aniseed to the frothy cacao drink, which they drank cold, and made with water. The Spanish experimented with a variety of other spices to make it taste more palatable – including cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and black pepper! They hit upon the idea of adding sugar around 1522, and tried making it hot…. the result was swiftly adopted back in Spain as the drink of the Spanish court – indeed no-one apart from the nobility and royal family were allowed to try it, by royal decree. The Spanish introduced cacao plantations in countries like Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Jamaica, and Hispaniola (now Haiti & the Dominican Republic). By 1580 the first processing plant for the beans was opened in mainland Spain and inevitably the secrets of this magic potion (it was recognized for its medicinal properties and as a restorative and aphrodisiac) started to leach out into the rest of Europe.

hans_sloaneHans Sloane had qualified as a physician and gone out to Jamaica, where he was the first person to examine the native plants in detail. Sloane tried chocolate with water and pronounced it nauseous, so he added milk instead…a sublime moment of inspiration. The year was 1689.



Years later the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus visited Sloane and named the cacao plant Theobroma cacao.

Chocolate houses had already sprung up in London by the time Sloane made his happy discovery, the first appearing in 1657. The most famous chocolate house was White’s Chocolate House which was founded in 1693. Eventually it became more of a ‘gentlemen’s club’ and from 1783  it was the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party. (The Whigs preferred ‘Brooks’ which was founded in 1764).

In 1698 ‘The Cocoa Tree’ opened at No. 64, St. James’s Street, London. Its clientele were hard-line Tories – as Daniel Defoe says in his Journey through England, “a Whig will no more go to the ‘Cocoa Tree’ … than a Tory will be seen at the coffee-house of St. James’s.” Like the other chocolate houses eventually ‘The Cocoa Tree’ developed into a gaming-house and a club.

It was against this background that Sloane brought back his milky ideas and introduced them to Londoners. Hot chocolate was not easy to produce from the beans, and various attempts were made to crush them mechanically until Walter Churchman came up with a hydraulic grinding press, which he patented in 1720. He was a Quaker pharmacist living in Bristol, and I have blogged about him previously because Richard Hall mentions him by name. When Churchman died, his business was bought by his executor, who had married a local girl called Anna Fry. She outlived her husband and inherited the patent rights, which she later transferred to her sons. Fry’s chocolate was on its way…

All which leads me to say: Bless you Sir Hans, for a life lived long and full. Let some remember you for your trays of dead insects, old shells, and odds and ends; but I remember you for your dedication in bringing chocolate into everyday use. Thanks!

Jan 052017

twelfth-night-2Nowadays there is little to be said for Twelfth Night other than that you should take down your Christmas decorations. But if you live in Spain, 5th January is Three Kings  – an excuse for much celebration, and men on horse-back handing out sweets and other treats.

In Britain in bygone days Twelfth Night was celebrated with parties – much more so than New Year’s Eve. It was an occasion for much merriment, wassailing,  and consumption of cider – and a special cake. The cake would be a rich fruit cake, often made with exotic spices and maybe soaked in rum or brandy and flamed before being served. Nowadays it has been taken over by the Christmas pudding served on Christmas Day – which is a bit of a shame because let’s face it, by then you have already eaten more than enough….

Twelfth Night, by Thomas Tegg, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum: A party of men and women round a table look at caricatures of themselves.

Twelfth Night, by Thomas Tegg, 1807. © The Trustees of the British Museum: A party of men and women round a table look at caricatures of themselves.

Checking through the dairies of ancestor Richard Hall I cannot see any particular celebration for 5th January – 1st January always started with a comment along the lines of “Praise be to the Lord that I have been spared to see another year” and then was followed by a reference to the fact that he was suffering from indigestion and was confined to bed! By the fifth January Richard Hall was usually back to taking tea with neighbours, but nothing in any way celebratory. But then, my ancestor always was a miserable old blighter….

By the time we got to Richard’s great great grand daughter (in other words, my gran) I remember  it was a tradition in the family sixty years ago that we would play parlour games – and none were more typical than The Old Family Coach. I imagine that it was Victorian rather than Georgian in its origin, and I have come across a printed account of the “rules” of the game dating from the 1870s.

old-family-coachI suspect that each family had its own version. My grandmother said that the game very popular when she was a youngster in the latter years of the 19th Century. Each person was allocated a word associated with a trip to the seaside by coach – someone would be ‘the wheels’ another ‘the horses’ another the ‘whip’ ‘the dog’ and so on. A story was then read out by the narrator, along the lines of “The coach set off, the wheels spun round, the horses galloped, the dog barked and the driver spared the whip” and as each word was mentioned that particular person had to get up and turn a circle clockwise. If I remember right the trip to the seaside involved a wheel coming off the ‘old family coach’, so it had to be repaired before the assembled company could complete the journey.

Whenever the words ‘The Old Family Coach’ were mentioned the entire assembled company had to stand up and revolve anti-clockwise. Of course no-one could remember who they were supposed to be, or which way they should be turning, and great fun was had by all….when I tried to reprise this game with my own family they refused to have anything to do with it. I suspect if it had involved karaoke, or money, it might have been better received! As it is, I cannot see the tradition ever being revived, which is a shame. So, on this Twelfth Night, let me raise a toast to the Old Family Coach!