Porteous, John (DNB00)

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PORTEOUS, JOHN (d. 1736), captain of the Edinburgh city guard, was the son of Stephen Porteous, a tailor in the Canongate, Edinburgh, and was bred to his father's business; but his unsteady habits and violent temper led to serious quarrels with his parents, and he enlisted in the army. After serving for some time in Holland he returned home, and ultimately obtained, or assumed, the management of his father's business, treating his father so badly that he was reduced to poverty, and had to become an inmate of Trinity Hospital.

On account of his military experience, Porteous in 1715 was employed to train the city guard to assist in the defence of the city in view of the expected rising; and as he had married a young woman who had previously been housekeeper to the provost of the city, he was, through the provost's influence, subsequently promoted to be captain of the force. Dr. Alexander Carlyle of Inveresk mentions ‘his skill in manly exercises, particularly the golf’ (Autobiography, p. 35); and in April 1721 he played a match at golf for twenty guineas with an Edinburgh gentleman on Leith links (Chambers, Domestic Annals of Scotland, iii. 566). The stories of his licentious adventures, his profanity, and his inconsiderate severities are probably exaggerated. Dr. Carlyle, however, states that his admission (through his skill in athletics) to ‘the companionship of his superiors’ ‘elated his mind, and added insolence to his native roughness, so that he was hated and feared by the mob of Edinburgh’ (Autobiography, p. 35). This mutual ill-will no doubt in part explains the tragic incidents that occurred in connection with the execution, 14 April 1736, of Andrew Wilson, an Edinburgh merchant, who, in retaliation for the severe measures put in force by the government against smuggling, had, with the assistance of a youth named Robertson, robbed the custom-house of Pittenweem. The sympathy of the bulk of the Edinburgh citizens was with the smugglers; and the remarkable feat of Wilson in accomplishing the escape of his companion, by seizing three of the keepers as he and his fellow-prisoner were leaving the Tolbooth church, excited general admiration. A rumour arose that an attempt would be made to rescue Wilson on the scaffold, and on this account unusual precautions were taken. As the corpse of Wilson was being cut down, the mob ‘threw, as usual, some dirt and stones, which falling among the city guard, Captain Porteous fired, and ordered his men to fire, whereupon 20 persons were wounded, 6 or 7 killed, one shot through the head at a window up two pair of stairs’ (account in Gent. Mag. 1736, p. 230). Dr. Alexander Carlyle, who was a spectator from an upper window, affirms that ‘there was no attempt to break through the guard and cut down the prisoner,’ and that it was ‘generally said that there was very little, if any, more violence than had usually happened on such occasions’ (Autobiography, p. 37).

Porteous was subsequently apprehended and brought to trial. In his indictment it was charged that he had fired himself, and that when, on ordering his men to fire, he saw them hold their pieces so as to fire over the heads of the multitude, he called out to them to ‘level their pieces and be damned to them,’ or words to that effect. This accusation was supported by a large number of witnesses, and is corroborated by Dr. Alexander Carlyle, who states that when ‘the soldiers [city guard] showed reluctance’ to fire, he saw Porteous ‘turn to them with threatening gesture and an inflamed countenance’ (ib.) The defence of Porteous was that he did not fire himself, but that several of his men, without orders from him, ‘unfortunately fired upon the multitude.’ On being found guilty and sentenced to death, he presented a petition to the government for pardon, in which he repeated the plea urged in his defence. When a reprieve was sent the indignation of the community was roused to a high pitch, and certain unknown persons resolved that he should not escape the doom passed upon him. About ten o'clock on the night of 7 Sept. a body of men in disguise entered the city, seized all the firearms, battle-axes, and drums belonging to the city guard, and locked and secured all the city gates. They then proceeded to the prison, and, after attempting in vain to break down the door, set fire to it and burnt it out. On entering the prison they compelled the under-warden to open the double locks of the apartment where Porteous was confined, and, hurrying him away, proceeded with lighted torches to the place where the gallows was usually erected. Having procured a rope from a shop which they opened, they threw one end of it over a signpost about twenty feet high, belonging to a dyer. ‘They then pulled him up in the dress in which they found him—viz. a nightgown and cap. He having his hands loose, fixed them betwixt his neck and the rope, whereupon one with a battle-axe struck towards the hands. They then let him down, and [he] having on two shirts, they wrapped one of them about his face, and held his arms with his night-gown; they pulled him up again, where he hung next morning till daylight’ (Method taken by the Mob, London, 1736). Notwithstanding the most rigorous investigation, no clue was ever found to the perpetrators of the murder. Several persons were seized and imprisoned on suspicion; but of these only two—one of them a coachman to the Countess of Wemyss, who was in a state of hopeless intoxication when he followed the mob—were brought to trial, and they were found not guilty. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe was accustomed to express full belief in statements made to him by ‘very old persons’ that several of high rank were concerned in the affair, many of them disguised as women (Wilson, Memorials of Edinburgh, ed. 1891, i. 144); and Horne Tooke, in defending himself before Lord Mansfield in 1777, significantly asserted that ‘at this moment there are people of reputation, living in credit, making fortunes under the crown, who were concerned in that very fact’ (ib.)

The outrage led to the introduction of a bill in the House of Lords for the punishment of the provost of Edinburgh, the exaction of a fine from the city, the removal of the Netherbow Port—in token of the levelling of its defences as a rebellious city—and the abolition of the city guard; but, as modified by the House of Commons, the bill merely disqualified the provost from holding any other office throughout the empire, and levied a fine of 2,000l. on the city for the widow of Porteous. Another act was also passed denouncing the murderers of Porteous, offering rewards for their capture, and threatening punishment to all who aided or harboured them. It was further decreed that this proclamation should be read from every pulpit in Scotland on the first Sunday of each month for a year. According to Dr. Alexander Carlyle, one half of the clergy declined to read the proclamation (Autobiography, p. 41); but the idea of inflicting a fine on them for the neglect was dropped. Porteous is described as having been ‘of the middle size, broad-shouldered, strong-limbed, short-necked, his face a little pitted with the small-pox, and round; his looks mild and gentle, his face having nothing of the fierce and brutal; his eyes languid, not quick and sprightly, and his complexion upon the brown’ (Life and Death of Captain Porteous, p. 7).

The plot of Sir Walter Scott's ‘Heart of Midlothian’ turns upon the incidents of the Porteous riot, and many interesting particulars were collected by Scott in his notes to that novel.

[Information for her Majesty's Advocate, &c., with a full and particular Account of the Method taken by the Mob, &c., London, 1736; Account of the Cruel Massacre committed by Captain John Porteous, 1736; Genuine Trial of Captain John Porteous, London, 1736; Life and Death of Captain John Porteous, with an Account of the two Bills as they were reasoned on in both Houses of Parliament, and the Speeches of the Great Men on both, London, 1737; Copy of the Porteous Roll sent to the Ministers of Scotland to be read from the Pulpits of each of them, 1738. These and various other pamphlets on the Porteous occurrences are bound together in two volumes in the library of the British Museum. Gent. Mag. for 1736 and 1737, passim; Mahon's History of England; State Trials, vol. xvii.; Criminal Trials illustrative of Scott's novel, ‘The Heart of Midlothan;’ Dr. Alexander Carlyle's Autobiography; Memoirs of Duncan Forbes of Culloden; Wilson's Memorials of Edinburgh.]

T. F. H.