Fire in the Dockyard


The Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth was one of the largest industrial concerns of the 18th century. It was a huge site in the heart of the city, where thousands of skilled workers were employed building, repairing and supplying many of the Royal Navy’s ships. One of its most impressive buildings was the ropery, a complex that included workshops a quarter of a mile long where ships’ cables were manufactured. Full of stored hemp and barrels of tar, it was one of the worst places that a fire could break out.


On the evening of Saturday 7th December 1776, a patrolling watchman spotted smoke coming from the building. He quickly raised the alarm and soon the dockyard bell was peeling loudly, summoning workers from across the city to combat the blaze. One of the first on the scene was the Commissioner in charge of the yard, who reported that the fire was “…amazingly violent and quick…” There was considerable danger of it spreading out of control among the packed buildings and storehouses near to the ropery, with potentially disastrous consequences for the city. As well as huge amounts of highly inflammable hemp, tar and seasoned oak; there were over two thousand barrels of gunpowder stored at Portsmouth.


Fortunately for the residents, fire was an obvious hazard in dockyards, and was one that the authorities had prepared for. Reserves of water and plenty of fire-fighting equipment were available throughout the site, and the workers had received regular training. This was just as well because although the ropery was completely destroyed, the fire was contained to that one part of the complex. Nevertheless, it took all night and most of the following day to completely extinguish the blaze, after which an investigation started into the cause. What soon became apparent was this was no accident, but an act of deliberate sabotage.


The blaze had taken place at the height of the American War of Independence, which was a very unpopular conflict in Britain. Some had friends or relatives who had settled in America and opposed the government’s resort to military force to resolve the issue. Former prime minister William Pitt doubted the war could ever be won by military means alone, famously saying that “If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I would never lay down my arms—never, never, never! You cannot conquer America.” Among political radicals there was considerable sympathy for many of the issues of fairness and representation articulated by the colonists. One such American sympathiser was James Aitken, who decided he would strike a blow at the very heart of Britain’s military establishment.


Aitken had briefly emigrated to America a few years earlier, returning to Britain in 1775 under the assumed name of James Hill. Travelling the country as a painter he visited several dockyards, and was surprised by how easy it was to gain entry. A plan began to form in his mind for an arson attack on one or more of the Royal Dockyards. He next visited France, where he received financial support and encouragement for his plan. In 1776 he crossed the Channel to Dover and travelled on to Canterbury. Here he employed a tinsmith to make a number of canisters to a design he specified. These were ten-inch-long cylinders with small holes punched in them. He filled them with a mixture of brimstone matches, hemp and turpentine, turning them into firebombs that once set, would burn relatively slowly, allowing him time to get clear of the crime scene before the fire was spotted.


Aitken’s first attempted arson attack was against the dockyard at Plymouth in November 1776, but was thwarted when he was spotted climbing the wall by a night watchkeeper who chased him off. Although this incident was reported to the authorities, it was assumed he was probably just a thief, pilfering being a common problem. The following month he tried again, this time at Portsmouth. He timed his entry to coincide with the end of the working day, when most of the workers had gone home. Dodging his way passed the patrolling watchmen on duty, he broke into the ropery and used his bombs to start two fires. One of his devices failed, only creating a small conflagration, which subsequently burnt out, but the other, as we have seen, was much more successful.


Initially the authorities thought the fire had probably been started by accident, but soon evidence came to light that something more sinister had occurred. The tin cylinder from the failed fire was discovered, along with a number of spent matches lying nearby. Furthermore, a Mrs Broxall, who ran a lodging house close to the dockyard, reported that a resident calling himself James Hill had vanished on the night of the fire. A few days previously she had been attracted to a strong smell of turpentine coming from his room and had entered to discover him making adjustments to one of the canisters. She gave an excellent description of Aitken which was circulated widely. This prompted a boatman to come forward, reporting that he had ferried a man matching that description from Portsmouth to Gosport on the night of the fire who urged him “…to make haste.” The hunt for Aitken was on.


In December he was spotted in Bristol, running from a major fire started in a warehouse. Later he was seen in London, trying (unsuccessfully) to get help from known sympathisers for American Independence. He was finally arrested in January, when he was caught trying to steal a horse. When a search was made of his possession’s bottles of turpentine and a large store of brimstone matches were discovered, along with a French passport. Arrested, he was subsequently identified by all those who had seen him in Portsmouth and Bristol, as well as the tinsmith from Canterbury who had made the fire-bombs. James Aitken went to trial, faced with overwhelming evidence against him. He was tried and convicted of the fire, and condemned to death. The judge further ruled that he should be taken back to Portsmouth to be hanged within sight of his crimes. This was carried out on 10th of March. James Aitken gave a long speech from the scaffold in which he confessed to starting the fire and asked for forgiveness from his fellow citizens, after which the sentence was carried out.

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