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


Oct 312016



harriette-wilsonA guest post today from those prolific writers Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, fresh from having published “An Infamous Mistress The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott”. The post concerns one of my favourite courtesans of the Regency era, Harriette Wilson. For those of you unfamiliar with the lady, she was one of five daughters of a Swiss watch-maker who had settled in London. Of the five, only one (known derisively as ‘The Paragon’) failed to take up harlotry. The others were highly successful in their chosen profession, but none scaled the heights like Harriette….  Over to Joanne and Sarah:

“A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History” charts the successive unions of two generations of the ducal Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II. Both shocked their family and society, but for very different reasons; the first marriage was the result of an elopement, just weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington’s married niece ran off with the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck, brother to the Duke of Portland.
Today we have decided to write a little about the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, who is mentioned often during the first half of “A Right Royal Scandal” as she was embroiled in the antics of a fair few of the main players in our book.
Lord Charles Bentinck, and his younger brother Frederick, were frequent visitors to her rooms and both were mentioned in the “Memoirs of Harriette Wilson”, written by herself, as was the Duke of Wellington, another of Harriette’s admirers. Harriette offered the men to be named in her memoirs the chance to buy themselves out of its pages, an opportunistic form of blackmail with which she even approached the Prince Regent; the two Bentinck brothers, perpetually financially embarrassed, probably didn’t have the means to do this even if the chance was given to them, and had to suffer the ignominy of seeing their names in print within its pages. But, as Lord Charles said:
We are in for it… my brother Frederick and I are in the book, up to our necks; but we shall only make bad worse by contending against it; for it is not only true, every word of it, but is excellently written and very amusing.
The Duke of Wellington supposedly, and famously, replied to Harriette that she should ‘publish and be damned!’, and he too appeared within. Harriett described him as “having no small talk, and looking like a rat- catcher”, giving rise to this caricature:
Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell


Lord Frederick Bentinck was Harriette’s ‘constant and steady admirer’ but she mocked him mercilessly, as did another visitor to Harriette’s house, the dandy Beau Brummell. On one occasion Fred was admiring his new leather breeches in Harriett’s mirror when he was rebuked for his bad fashion choice by Brummell.

‘They only came home this morning,’ proceeded Fred, ‘and I thought they were rather neat.’
‘Bad knees, my good fellow! bad knees!’ said Brummell, shrugging up his shoulders.
Lord Charles was a widowed man when he danced attendance on Harriette, and it was Harriette who introduced him to a young prostitute, known as Little Ann, who Charles took ‘into his keeping’. Lord Charles parked his mistress in rooms above an umbrella shop in Knightsbridge and his relationship with Little Ann continued until he fell for the charms of the bored, but married, Lady Abdy, and persuaded the lady to elope with him. The cuckolded Sir William Abdy paid a visit to Harriette in the immediate aftermath of the elopement, to pour out his heart to her. He received scant sympathy from the knowing courtesan.
‘That Charles Bentinck,’ said he, half angry, ‘is the greatest fool in the world; and in Paris we always used to laugh at him.’
‘But,’ said [Harriette], ‘why did you suffer his lordship to be eternally at your house?’
‘Why, dear me!’ answered Abdy, peevishly, ‘I told him in a letter I did not like it and I thought it wrong, and he told me it was no such thing.’
‘And therefore,’ [Harriette] remarked, ‘you suffered him to continue his visits as usual?’
‘Why, good gracious, what could I do! Charles Bentinck told me, upon his honour, he meant nothing wrong.’
A Criminal Conversation case and a divorce were the result of the elopement, and the scandal kept the ton in Regency London occupied for many months. You can find out more about this and the second marriage of the title in “A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History”, available from Pen and Sword Books and all good bookshops.
Almost two books in one, “A Right Royal Scandal” recounts the fascinating history of the irregular love matches contracted by two successive generations of the Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of the British Royal Family. The first part of this intriguing book looks at the scandal that erupted in Regency London, just months after the Battle of Waterloo, when the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck eloped with the Duke of Wellington’s married niece. A messy divorce and a swift marriage followed, complicated by an unseemly tug-of-war over Lord Charles’ infant daughter from his first union. Over two decades later and while at Oxford University, Lord Charles’ eldest son, known to his family as Charley, fell in love with a beautiful gypsy girl, and secretly married her. He kept this union hidden from his family, in particular his uncle, William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland, upon whose patronage he relied. When his alliance was discovered, Charley was cast adrift by his family, with devastating consequences.
A love story as well as a brilliantly researched historical biography, this is a continuation of Joanne and Sarah’s first biography, An Infamous Mistress, about the eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose daughter was the first wife of Lord Charles Bentinck. The book ends by showing how, if not for a young gypsy and her tragic life, the British monarchy would look very different today
* * *
Credits for images:
Harriette Wilson, 1806. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Flat Catcher, and the Rat Catcher. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Harriette Wilson’s last letter, or a new method of raising the wind!! © The Trustees of the British Museum
George ‘Beau’ Brummell, from a print by Robert Dighton, 1805. Wikimedia