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The real Jack the Painter

12 September 2018

Jack the Painter was a mercenary who committed heinous acts at Portsmouth Dockyard during the American Revolution.

Jack the Painter was a mercenary who committed heinous acts at Portsmouth Dockyard during the American Revolution.

Whilst Jack the Painter will be resurrected for Dockyard Terrors this Halloween, who is he? Did he exist or is he an urban legend? History never remains dead for long as we uncover his story.


A legendary fire
It’s 1776, disease and filth plague Old Portsmouth. The sounds of distant screams can be heard. A fire has broken out inside the Great Double Rope House at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard. The night sky is alight with oranges and yellows as people rush to put the fire out – but to no avail. 

At first, people think it’s an accident, a loose flame from a match – but something far more sinister is at play. The next day a group of dockyard workers report seeing a man acting suspicious around the storehouse – with fingers pointing firmly at one suspect.

The morning after
On the morning of the 5 January, a tin machine and wooden box with combustible materials was discovered behind the storehouse. Investigations soon focused on a Scottish-born man whose desire to see the centre of the Royal Navy go up in flames won out.

Before his despicable act, James went to France to meet with Silas Dean, an American rebel minister to the Court of France, armed with letters of introduction and credit, he returned to England to execute his devious plan.

No information is available about when he hatched the plan or what drove him to such madness – what we know for sure was his disregard for human life resulted in the dockyard’s worst fire in centuries.

The beginning of the end
Upon leaving the crime scene in a hurry, Jack left incriminating evidence that would eventually be his downfall. Authorities located him at Odiham. He was caught with a French passport, bottle of turpentine and information on creating fireworks.

On 6 March 1777, the crime of arson at His Majesty’s Dockyard was sought. He was sentenced to death by hanging on 10 March. To make a statement of his death, it was decided he should be hung in full view of the ruins he created.

In grotesque fashion, rope makers from across the dockyard tailed the rope and ran the jack up the top mast. After a brief struggle, his body hung motionless as it blew in the wind. It was then transported to Pitch House Jetty where he was placed in a cage and suspended at the entrance of the harbour for all to see.

His restless spirit wanders
Resurrected and brought back to life from deep inside our museum archives, Jack the Painter lives again this Halloween as he walks the cobbles in search of his next victim. Take on Dockyard Terrors from 7pm on 31 October for a night you’ll never forget. Hear stories about his exploits, the legend of Rat Island and come face to face with horror itself.

Get a glimpse of true terror this Halloween
Do you dare tread the cobbles and step onboard our own ghost ship? Get set for a brand new horror experience you'll never forget. 

Find out more