Captain John Porteous of the City Guard of Edinburgh was dragged from prison and lynched by an angry mob on the 7th of September, 1736.
The ‘Porteous Riots’ erupted on the 14th of April, 1736, when Andrew Wilson, one of three men convicted of robbing a customs officer, was publicly hanged in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. Earlier in the year, Wilson and his two accomplices, George Robertson and William Hall were sentenced to death by hanging. Hall had his sentence altered to life transportation to the colonies; Robertson escaped, with Wilson’s help, while being brought to church, as was the custom, on the Sunday before the date set for his execution; but Wilson was not so fortunate. On the appointed day, Wilson finished his devotions, ascended the ladder and was ‘turned off’ (a quaint, 18th Century expression for being hanged). When the hangman went to cut him down, the already wildly agitated crowd started to throw stones and a riot ensued. Enter John Porteous, stage left, as Captain of the Guard.
Porteous first ordered shots to be fired above the head of the crowd. That had no effect on the riotous mob, but it did result in some collateral damage amongst the tenants above at the windows. Porteous then ordered the Guard to “Fire and be damned”. Nine rioters were killed and perhaps as many as twenty were wounded. That very same afternoon, the Lord Provost, no doubt angry at so many deaths, but also miffed that procedures hadn’t been followed, ordered the arrest of Porteous for firing on the crowd without reading ‘The Riot Act’. Porteous was later convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. However, he was later reprieved, which infuriated the Lynch Mob, who had been waiting for more fun at his public hanging. A mob of around four thousand stormed the Tolbooth in outraged fury, escorted Porteous to the Grassmarket, did some nasty things to him and finally lynched him from a dyer's pole on the 7th of September, 1736. The magistrates of Edinburgh were fined £2,000 for neglect of duty and removed from office. A Royal Proclamation was issued, in which a reward of £200 was offered for information leading to the arrest of the ringleaders. Porteous was unpopular; there were no takers and no one was ever brought to justice.
John Porteous was born in 1695 at The Glen, Quair Water, near Traquair. He was the son of Stephen Porteous, who established a business as a tailor in Edinburgh’s Canongate. Little is known of his early life, except that he was bound apprentice to his father, but soon found he was not suited to that calling. There is a story that a former Lord Provost of Edinburgh paid Porteous to marry his mistress, of whom he had grown tired. The sweetener for the lady was the tidy sum of five hundred pounds, but Porteous seemingly squandered the major part and eventually Mrs Porteous returned to her old acquaintance, the by now compromised ex-Provost, for help. The result of that plea was that Porteous filled a vacancy as Captain of a Company of the City Guard on an annual salary of £80, together with a resplendent scarlet uniform. Prior to those events, Porteous had done military service and served with the Scots Dutch Brigade in Flanders. Something of his character may be assumed from the rumour that during that time, he cut the throat of a Captain in a revenge attack. In any case, by 1718, Porteous had indeed become an Ensign of one of the three companies in the Town Guard, after having seemingly served as Drill Master for two years. By 1726 he was certainly Captain of the City Guard.
Porteous had a reputation for harshness and brutality, and was known for stepping outside the decent bounds of his commission. It is reputed that the treated prisoners with cruelty, knocking them about with the stock of his musket and frequently breaking limbs. Once, he was sent to keep the peace in a dispute over who should lecture in a church. Not an event over which you would expect much of barney, but those Presbyterians were staunch folk. Anyway, Porteous pitched up and discovered the disappointed candidate had taken possession of the pulpit. Without as much as a “by your leave”, Porteous dragged him down so violently that he died a few weeks later from his injuries. The other poor fellow was set upon by the friends of the first chappie and received such a beating, that he too died. Several others were injured in the fray, including innocent women and children, and all because the Captain liked an affray. It certainly seems that he was a man with an inflated sense of his own importance. He was very officious and widely disliked, even despised, throughout the City – but mainly by the underclass, it has to be said. I dunno, give a man a uniform…
Porteous’ trial lasted four days (the 5th, 16th, 19th and 20th of July); he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged by the neck on the 8th of September until dead. However, he was granted a reprieve through the intervention of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. On the evening of the 7th of September, 1736, a large body of men, incensed by such leniency, took to the streets calling for reinforcements and yelling, “All those who dare avenge innocent blood, let them come here.” Then the mob, taking the law into its own plentiful hands, marched to the Tollbooth and after setting the gates alight, brought out Porteous, protesting in vain. They dragged him to the Grassmarket, found a rope, fixed it round his neck, threw the other end over a Dyer’s pole and hoisted him skywards. Endeavouring to save his life, the put his hands between the rope and his neck, but one of the lynch party struck at him with and axe, whereupon he quit his hold on his neck and soon after, his very life.
Captain John Porteous was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard the following day with a small headstone simply inscribed ‘P. 1736’ (‘P’ for perished). However, more recently, his headstone was replaced by one inscribed ‘John Porteous, a Captain of the City Guard of Edinburgh, murdered 7 September 1736. All Passion Spent, 1973’. As a postscript, George Robertson, who escaped to Holland, was still living in the year 1756 and kept a public-house with great credit in Rotterdam.