Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Porteous Riot

by Stuart Laing

Edinburgh has over the centuries seen many a grim affair darken its famous old streets and had reason to be thankful for the forces of Law and Order being on hand to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty. Just occasionally, however, the roles were reversed, and it was the defenders of the innocent who were the guilty. One such man, who was to earn the abiding hatred of Edinburgh, was Captain John Porteous of the Town Guard. When it seemed his crimes against the people of the city were to go unpunished, it was the people who delivered justice. The story begins on a dark night, not in Edinburgh, but on the other side of the Firth of Forth in the Kingdom of Fife...

The Original Crime

On the night of 9th January, 1736, Collector of Excise James Stark rested at an inn in the fishing village of Pittenweem, Fife, but no sooner had he settled down for the night than he was shaken from his slumber by loud banging on his room door. The noise was caused by a smuggler, Andrew Wilson, and a compatriot attempting to force entry, intent on robbing him. Wilson's other partner in crime, a fellow smuggler named George Robertson waited downstairs acting as lookout.

Realising what was happening, Stark managed to grab one bag of excise money before he jumped from a window and hid in a nearby stable where he spent the cold winter night buried under a heap of straw.

Wilson and his fellow thieves, having finally broken the door down, made off with £200 Stark had left behind along with some personal items such as his Bible. Wilson, Roberston and the third man, Hall, then made their way east but were quickly apprehended in the nearby village of Anstruther only a few miles along the coast, where Stark's £200 and other belongings were recovered. The three men were speedily shipped over to Edinburgh, where they were thrown into the city's notorious Tolbooth Prison to await trial. The Tolbooth Prison stood on the Royal Mile in front of St Giles Cathedral. Hated and feared by the people of the city, the Tolbooth was well known for the terrible conditions and cruelty which happened within its grim walls.

When the trial came, the men claimed that the robbery had been a spur-of-the-moment affair. The magistrates, however, were not fooled by this, and Hall quickly pointed the finger of blame at his comrades and admitted their crimes. Wilson, Robertson and Hall were all found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Hall later had his sentence revoked in return for turning King's Evidence against Wilson and Robertson. Sentence was set for Wednesday, 14th April 1736.

On Friday, 9th April 1736, Wilson and Robertson attempted to escape the Tolbooth. The two smugglers had been provided with saws by visiting friends, which they used to cut through the window bars. Friends of Wilson and Robertson dressed up as women and sang psalms loudly in the Royal Mile to cover the noise of the thieves escape. Wilson insisted on going first but got stuck in the window and was still lodged firmly halfway in, halfway out when the guards arrived.

Events Preceding the Execution

On the Monday, 12th April, Wilson and Robertson were taken to the Tolbooth Kirk for the customary sermon for the condemned. Two guards sat either side of them on one pew with two more guards sitting behind. Robertson suddenly sprang up, broke free of the guards and made for the door while Wilson held back the guards. Others in the kirk moved out of his way, and Robertson quickly escaped. Wilson tried to follow but was brought down by the guards. Some citizens believed Wilson did this purposely to allow Robertson the chance to escape, and he was admired for his actions. Smugglers were already popular characters with the common people as they provided goods which ordinarily were out of their price range.

The City Guard, largely despised by most townfolk and nicknamed the 'Toun Rats' under the command of Captain John Porteous, was called upon to put down any likely disturbances which may occur at the execution. Unusually the Guard were provided with a special provision of powder and shot on the direct orders of the Lord Provost who must have been aware of partisan feelings towards Wilson. A party of 150 soldiers of the Welsh Fusiliers were also ordered into the city to provide extra security if needed, a move which was likely to anger Porteous who probably saw it as an insult to him and his men.

Porteous, it was later claimed, was a man renowned for his arrogance and hated for his cruel treatment of prisoners. He was also branded a drunkard, and the execution of Wilson only went ahead once he had eaten his midday meal and was supposedly half drunk on wine.

The execution itself took place on the appointed day, Wednesday, 14th April 1736, in the Grassmarket. Wilson's demise was achieved in the end without any incident or trouble. Afterwards however, as the hangman began to remove the body small stones and filth started to be thrown. Porteous had the Town Guard surround the scaffold, and they and he soon also came under a hail of these missiles. The Town Guard retaliated by firing a volley into the crowd. Porteous, it was claimed, shot the first victim himself before giving the order to fire, and it was later claimed that he had been heard making angry threats to members of the Town Guard who refused to fire into the crowd. Some guardsmen decided to fire above the crowds heads. Unfortunately, one of their bullets hit a young man watching from a tenement window, killing him instantly. Four more in the crowd were killed by further volleys, making six deaths in all. Along with these deaths, several dozen others were wounded by gunfire.

If the crowd were already angry, they were now heading beyond all control. Captain Porteous took the wise decision to withdraw his men and march them back to their quarters in the High Street. As they marched up the West Bow, the mob followed, still throwing missiles. Soldiers at the rear turned to face the crowd and fired again, wounding several more.

The people of the city demanded justice for the outrageous behaviour of the Town Guard. Porteous was arrested and brought before the magistrates, who had no choice but to commit him to the Tolbooth Prison to await trial. He was eventually brought to trial on 5th July 1736 and charged with Murder and Maiming. Captain Porteous claimed in his defence that he had only threatened the crowd in case they had attempted to seize Wilson's body and revive him. Despite his claims he had only acted in self defence once he and his men had come under attack and had never ordered his men to fire, a claim backed by several witnesses, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Several of his friends however petitioned Queen Catherine for a pardon. She granted Porteous a six week reprieve, and it was believed a full pardon would soon follow.

The Death of Captain Porteous

Burning down the Tolbooth door:

As the rumour spread through the town that Porteous was going to go unpunished the Edinburgh Mob began to gather and demand justice. Their ranks quickly swelled into the thousands, and on the night of the 7th of September 1736 they attacked the town Guardhouse where they seized muskets and Lochaber axes. The men of the Town Guard fled to the safety of Edinburgh Castle leaving their captain, John Porteous alone in his cell in the Tolbooth, listening to the mob in the street outside baying for his blood.

With no'one to stop them, the Mob assaulted the stout door to the Tolbooth, but it withstood their best efforts until someone laid a fire against it, and finally it gave way. The Mob surged into the grim prison and snatched the shrieking Captain Porteous from his cell and dragged him over the cobbles of the Royal Mile back to the scene of his massacre. All the while he was beaten, kicked and pelted with filth as his cries for mercy went unheeded.

As the Mob pulled him down the steep slope of the West Bow they broke into a draper's shop for a length of rope, leaving a guinea to pay for it as they left. The vast crowd secured the rope from a dyer's pole close by the shadows of the gallows where he had ordered his men to open fire on the people. Those people now took their vengeance on the unlucky policeman as he was lynched. Even as he struggled for life he was beaten and battered before the crowd dropped him to the ground, then pulling his still living body aloft again. This was done three times before death finally claimed Porteous, and his awful suffering finally ceased under the blows of a Lochaber axe. His corpse was left to dangle for the amusement of the masses who as quickly as they had formed now split asunder to return to their normal tasks as though they had never been part of the lynching.

The Aftermath

The Government in distant London did attempt to find the ringleaders of the riots but were in vain, despite a reward of £200 being offered – a fortune in those days. None would talk, and the few men arrested were soon acquitted due to lack of evidence. No'one had apparently seen or heard anything out of the ordinary that evening in early September! There was talk that the whole affair had been a conspiracy against the unlucky captain with the finger of suspicion being pointed towards the Lord Provost and other members of the City Council, but in the end nothing came of these allegations.

Captain John Porteous was buried in Greyfriar's Churchyard near the Grassmarket and the scene of his cruel death. For many years his grave was only marked by a simple post marked 'P 1736'. Finally in the 1930's, a headstone of Craigleith stone was raised over his grave with the inscription: John Porteous, a captain of the City Guard of Edinburgh, murdered September 7, 1736.
In 1973 the words 'All Passion Spent' were added by a biographer to the original inscription.

The hated Tolbooth Prison was demolished in 1817, but just beside St Giles Kirk there are a set of cobblestones laid out in the shape of a heart – the 'Heart of Midlothian' – at the site of where the prison door once stood. It is today a tradition for the citizens of Edinburgh to spit on the heart as they go by for good luck and as a continuing act of contempt for that reviled institution.

Whether Captain Porteous was a rogue guilty of a massacre or a convenient scapegoat when the authorities lost control of the men they armed with powder and shot, you can judge for yourself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Stuart S. Laing is the author of the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries which are set in 1740's Edinburgh.

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