HC Deb 21 July 1834 vol 25 cc278-84
Mr. Tennyson

held in his hand a petition of very great importance; it was upon a subject which had seriously occupied the attention of the public for several days. The facts to which he was about to call the attention of the House were all detailed in the petition; he should state these facts to the House, not that be knew them to be true of his own personal knowledge, but to afford the right hon. Secretary at War, an opportunity of stating to the House what were the true circumstances of the case. If the statements contained in the petition were true, it would become the duty of the House to take steps to put an immediate end to this most terrific, degrading, horrible, and disgraceful punishment by some legislative act; or, at least, if the House should deem it right that this punishment should continue to disgrace the country, to obtain a solemn assurance from the Government, that it should be administered with some discretion, and with a decent regard to the feelings of humanity. The petition proceeded from some of the most respectable of his constituents, and contained, among others, the signature of a clergyman of the highest character and worth among the parishioners. It complained, that J. Hutchinson, a private in the 1st battalion of the Scotch Fusileer Guards, was most cruelly and barbarously flogged at St. George's Barracks, Charing-cross, upon a charge of being drunk on sentry, and attempting to strike his sergeant when in confinement. The court sentenced him to 300 lashes, and 300 lashes were actually administered. What he complained of was, that after the pledge given by his right hon. friend, that the severity of the punishment of flogging should not be resorted to except in extreme cases, the greatest punishment should be inflicted for a comparatively insignificant offence. The hon. Member proceeded to read the petition, which stated, that the cries of the unfortunate man for mercy were of the most heart-rending and agonizing description, and that several of his fellow-soldiers fainted away, being unable to witness so horrible a scene. For the honour of the British army, he could also state, that two officers were equally overcome, and were compelled to quit such a dreadful spectacle. The petitioners prayed the House to inquire into the facts contained in the petition, with a view to the abolition of this practice, as a disgrace to the service, and an outrage to the feelings of society.

Mr. Hawes

bore testimony to the high character and worth of the clergyman who signed the petition.

Mr. Ellice

would not attempt to say one word in reference to the motives which had induced the petitioners to come forward and represent the case to the House. It did not surprise him that the reverend gentleman who had given his signature to the petition should have been the foremost to express his regret at such an occurrence. Such eases were undoubtedly extremely painful, but it was much to be deplored that when a case of this kind did arise—a case which he was sure had been justified in the opinion of the military authorities, who were responsible for all that had taken place—the complaint should be brought forward in that House. As far as his own opinion on the subject went, he confessed himself an advocate for restraining the practice of flogging in the army within the narrowest possible limits, consistent with the discipline and subordination of the army. With respect to the present case, it certainly came within the order of last year, which restricted the limits of corporal punishment. The charge against this man was for being drunk when a picket sentry on canteen. Now, a soldier was placed as picket sentry on canteen for the purpose of preventing those improper scenes that frequently took place there; it was a situation of peculiar importance, and one in which he was called upon to conduct himself in the strictest accordance with military discipline. In this situation the man was found drunk; and if he were to admit drunkenness as an excuse for all the crimes that were committed under its influence, the Government would have a most difficult duty to perform to restrain the outrages which occurred. The individual in question was guilty of frequently quitting his post and getting drunk, and though it had not been stated to him, that the man was drunk at this time, yet his language was most mutinous towards the sergeant who arrested him. He also threatened to strike the sergeant, and used expressions which were not fit to be repeated, but which amounted to mutiny. He was willing to admit, that if this was the first offence the man had committed, the sentence would have been undoubtedly a very severe one, but within two very short periods Hutchinson had been guilty of making away with his clothes and other regimental necessaries, and of using mutinous language towards the non-commissioned officer, when he had the opportunity of making drunkenness an excuse for his conduct. He was a person of notoriously bad character, had been several times punished for former offences, and the sentence passed upon him was an affirmation of the finding of a Court-martial. With regard to the facts detailed in the petition, not one of them had come to his knowledge. He did not say they were untrue, or that they were correct; he only observed that they had not come to his knowledge. Then, with regard to the infliction of the punishment, under the circumstances of the case, he was certainly of opinion, that if the facts stated by the hon. Member were true,—if some of the officers and several men fainted away at their posts on witnessing the infliction of punishment, —these were circumstances that ought to have induced the commanding officer to consider how far it was proper to proceed in the execution of the whole of the sentence. He had no doubt it would so happen, that some persons of particularly sensitive feelings would have shown themselves strongly affected on the occasion; and, he felt convinced, that he himself should have been deeply affected if he had been present. When it was stated, however, that several soldiers had fainted away, he believed that would turn out to be incorrect; but if those statements should turn out to be true, it fully warranted the warmth of language adopted in the petition. The object of the punishment was, to strike terror into others by the example. He was afraid that those individuals who gave way to their private feelings on these occasions were not always the most correct Judges, and when the Legislature had intrusted the military authorities with the power to punish in all such cases, for the maintenance of that discipline which was necessary for the safety of the country, and held them responsible for the just administration of that power, it was too much to bring every case that occurred of its exercise under the cognizance of that House, and to censure military officers on no better authority than the facts contained in the petition. He would tell the House that they were coming to a pass in military discipline which would require their most sober and serious attention. It was impossible the law could remain as it stood at present; the power in the hands of the chiefs of the army had been so diminished by the continual check of public interference, that the increase of crime had taken a most frightful march. In the last two years, one-fifth of the whole army on English stations had passed through the public gaols. Cases of violent insubordination and outrage were increasing beyond precedent, and therefore he entreated the House, however severe they might consider the infliction of the law, to pause before they interposed between the soldier and his superior, for, under such circumstances, some strong power was necessary to maintain discipline and subordination among men who had arms constantly in their hands. Beyond this statement, it was his duty to observe, as some justification of the military authorities, that the insubordination, which had greatly increased of late, had induced them to be more severe in the execution of the existing laws. He thought, before the House proceeded to condemn others who had a painful duty to perform, it would do well to reflect on the consequences that might result from the want of care and caution in the maintenance of discipline. It was but a fortnight ago, that a private shot a sergeant on parade at Chatham, for which he had been conveyed to Maidstone, and would shortly take his trial. As the facts were not disputed, the House must dread, that a frightful extent of insubordination would speedily prevail, if discipline were not strenuously enforced. And yet, since that period, a report had been made to him of another soldier who had been taken up while loading his gun with an intention of committing the same offence. He did not state these circumstances to defend all the practices winch prevailed in the army at present, but to show that it was absolutely necessary the power of punishment in the army should be maintained. He had been looking back on the floggings which had taken place in the army, and no case came under his notice without the most acute pain. He had the satisfaction however to find, that for a period of thirty years not a single military execution had taken place. Not a single soldier had been shot for an offence against military law during the whole of that period. Let the House take great care how it interfered with that state of things which would render it necessary for the ultimate course of law to be resorted to. What was it supposed would be the consequence of a soldier being brought out for military execution, when such feelings were entertained by the people on the subject of capital punishments? The whole subject had arrived at such a stage, that he felt it quite impossible it could stop where it was. It was therefore his intention to recommend his Majesty to issue a commission, composed of a few persons of great experience, and well acquainted with our military laws, to inquire into the state of the present code, and also into the nature of other military codes, and to embody the whole into a system. He trusted, in the interval between the present and the next Session, he should succeed in obtaining his Majesty's consent to it. The feelings which had induced his right hon. friend to bring this subject before the House were entitled, he readily admitted, to the greatest respect; but he thought, that his right hon. friend had said quite enough to impress on his mind the necessity of paying the greatest attention to the military authorities; though he must add that consistently with the great responsibility which weighed on them of maintaining the discipline of the army, they were not desirous of preserving the system of flogging. It should be remembered that the habits of the people generally were opposed to rigid subordination, which made it the more necessary to maintain a strict discipline among those who had arms in their hands. He hoped that his right hon. friend would believe that in his answer he had stated nothing incompatible with their former agreement on this subject, for he could assure his right hon. friend, that the Government was anxious to limit punishment of all kinds as much as possible, and, was, he could assure his right hon. friend, not deaf to the voice of public opinion on this great and important question. He hoped the House, after this explanation, would see the propriety of not continuing the discussion until the whole facts of the case were before them, and inasmuch as it was very difficult to restrain the public opinion, nothing should be said to inflame it.

Mr. Ewart

was convinced, that other punishments might be found which would be efficient substitutes for flogging, and he trusted that the practice would be abolished.

Colonel Evans

was opposed to military flogging. He was of opinion, it defeated the very object it had in view. It was well known in the army, that a repetition of the punishment hail no effect upon the offender, when once he had become lost to a sense of shame. There was one great difficulty in effecting the object the right hon. Gentleman had in view. He must necessarily attend to the opinion of officers in the army, and however great their experience might be, and however wise and humane their intentions, they would be very reluctant to give up the opinions they had so long entertained, or to alter a system in which they had been brought up. He would not recommend the appointment of a Commission such as the right hon. Gentleman had proposed: but if it should be appointed, he would earnestly advise him, that it should not be exclusively composed of military men, but that there should be some few persons among them who had turned their attention to legislation generally. In his opinion, the only way to remove violation of the military laws was to improve the condition of the soldiery, and that could only be done by abolishing the practice altogether. In time of war, the alteration would be attended with danger, but it might now be tried with safety.

Mr. Feargus O'Connor

trusted, that the right hon. member for Lambeth would not give up the further consideration of the question in consequence of what had fallen from the right hon. Secretary. He had read the account of the sufferings of this poor man, and he thought a more horrible a more appalling account, had never been published. He believed the feelings of the whole country were shocked with the occurrence, and that an investigation was loudly called for. He did not agree with the right hon. Secretary of War, that this was the way to maintain the discipline of the army, which would be better preserved by a remission of the horrible practice.

The debate was adjourned.