HC Deb 23 July 1834 vol 25 cc367-77

The Debate upon a Petition presented on Monday against Military Flogging was resumed.

Mr. Henry Grattan

said, he had always been opposed to the principle of flogging. He thought a more horrible and inhuman instance of the exercise of this practice had never occurred than that, which had recently taken place in St. George's Barracks, in the very heart of the metropolis. If the accounts which he had seen were true, before the offender had received twenty lashes he cried out most loudly for mercy, and his cries were of the most heart-rending description. It was said, the young man was a very old offender. So he might have been; but that very circumstance would have suggested the question, whether it would not have been advisable to take different steps. His opinion upon the principle was very well known; it had been recorded in the glorious minority upon the Motion of one of the present candidates for Nottingham, deprecating the barbarous practice. He sincerely hoped the electors of Nottingham would put this question to his right hon. friend, and he hoped his answer would be such as would secure to him his election and the confidence of the people on this important question. He perfectly concurred with the right hon. Secretary, that the march of public opinion had progressed to such a point, that something must be speedily done to satisfy the general wishes that were entertained on the subject. He was present on an occasion in Holland, where a British soldier was flogged in the presence of Dutch and French soldiers, and he never should forget the expressions of abhorrence used by the French soldiers at this disgusting practice. He considered the subject required the immediate interposition of the House, and that a single day ought not to be suffered to pass without some declaration against it. The right hon. Secretary had told them one-fifth of the British army had passed through the common gaols. He did not consider the declaration a very prudent one, but certainly a more lamentable proof of the state of the army could not have been given. But he would ask, whether this barbarous practice of corporal punishment was not the real cause, and whether it was not to be attributed to the same cause that no recruits could be obtained either in Ireland or Scotland? He hoped his hon. friend would submit a distinct Motion to the House on this case, for it was evident great blame must attach somewhere, and it was most desirable that the true facts of the case should be immediately laid before the public.

Sir Matthew White Ridley

said, it was not his intention to have addressed the House on this subject, but owing to the absence of his right hon. friend the Secretary at War, he thought it was of the greatest consequence no time should be lost in making the public acquainted with the real facts of a case, which had been made the ground of accusations as calumnious, false, and libellous, as ever had been circulated against the gallant and high-minded officer, whose duty obliged him to superintend the punishment inflicted on the soldier in question. He would not condescend to notice the foul and slanderous attack that had been made in one of the lowest Sunday papers upon the character of his gallant relative; but he would content himself with simply laying before the House the facts of the case. In the first place, the sentence upon the individual in question was passed by a district court-martial, and not by a regimental court-martial; and every member who was connected with the service knew that it was not in the power of the commanding officer to correct or mitigate the sentence of a district court-martial, except under particular circumstances, such as the presence of the surgeon, and his stating that the individual was not capable of bearing further punishment. The sentence upon the individual in question was, that he should receive 300 lashes; and this punishment was ordered in consequence of his getting drunk when stationed as sentinel over the canteen. The House must at once see the danger of passing over such a crime in an individual, whose duty it was to prevent drunkenness amongst others. But this was not all; the individual had also been guilty of mutinous misconduct, in having attempted to strike his sergeant. This individual had already been punished forty times; he would not say, that he had been subjected to the lash forty times, but he had been tried that number of times for as many different offences; therefore the House must perceive that there was good reason for a district court-martial inflicting the severest punishment upon an individual who had been before so often tried and punished for military offences. He confined himself to the facts of the case, and trusted the public would judge of them as they deserved, for he pledged himself to the accuracy of every one of them. He denied, that the man was of a delicate frame of body; on the contrary, he possessed great muscular power, and it was with great difficulty the halberts to which he was tied could be supported. The House would observe, this was not from the effect of the punishment, for he nearly pulled down the triangles before a single lash was inflicted. He admitted that the man cried out for mercy after he had received about forty lashes, but it was not in the power of the commanding officer to mitigate the punishment, the surgeon not having declared the punishment to be greater than the man was able to endure. He recollected an instance, in which an officer had taken upon himself the responsibility to mitigate the punishment directed by the sentence of a district court-martial, and the consequence was, that he received a very severe reprimand from the Horse Guards. He begged to state, that, in this instance, the surgeon was present, and did not interfere by declaring the punishment more than could be borne. He denied the statement made in the petition, that the drums were specially directed to be beaten, in order to drown the man's cries, it being well known to every military man, that it was the custom for the drums to roll on every such occasion, and they were accordingly rolled on the present. He did not mean to uphold the system of flogging in the army—he merely rose to defend the character of a gallant officer which had been most unjustly aspersed. It was said, that several soldiers fainted; that was not true; one or two soldiers and one officer fell out of the ranks during the time that the sentence was read, not, therefore, on account of the punishment, but of their exposure to the sun. He stated these facts in justice to a most excellent and humane officer, who had been most unjustly accused of tyranny and oppression. The gallant officer felt as much pain as any man could do at the infliction of punishment, but he was bound to see such punishments carried into effect as a necessary part of his military duty. He regretted exceedingly that advantage should be taken of the privileges of the House to calumniate an individual, by ascribing to him cruelty and inhumanity, merely because he had performed a necessary, however painful duty. That gallant officer had done nothing more than he was obliged to do; and, however much inclined he might have been, it was not in his power to mitigate the sentence: his duty, and the only duty he could perform was, to see that the sentence was carried into execution. He could assure the House, that the performance of this duty excited feelings of the most painful and distressing kind in his gallant relative, Colonel Bowater; and he could not but deprecate the attacks which had been levelled at an individual, as honourable and humane as any Member of that House. If inquiry were instituted into the facts of the case, no person would be more ready to promote it than his gallant relative.

Major Beauclerk

was not prepared to say whether all the facts contained in the petition were true or not, but he thought it was of great importance for the House to consider the result that was to be drawn from it—namely, that a commanding officer, by the rules of the army, did not possess the power, under any circumstances, in the presence of the surgeon, to remit any portion of the sentence passed by a court-martial. It was a principle which he thought should not be suffered to continue any longer. There could be no question but a surgeon should be always on the spot, and he could not suppose there was a surgeon in the British army who would suffer a single lash to be inflicted above what the offender was able to bear; but, nevertheless, he did not agree that the power to mitigate the punishment in every case should rest with them. The system of flogging tended much to the degradation of the British army. He had witnessed too often the execution of this barbarous practice with a great deal of pain, and no one was more sensible of its injurious effects than he was. He was of opinion, that the army would be as well disciplined, if, instead of resorting to flogging, the Horse Guards would allow bad men to be turned out of the army altogether. But what was the fact? He knew there were many bad men in the army, with whom none of the soldiers would assort, and yet the Horse Guards refused to turn them out. He felt convinced, if those persons in the army who committed a crime, by which they were subjected to flogging, were to be expelled, the army would soon have a sufficient number of good men, and thus the obnoxious and inhuman practice might be entirely done away with. He much regretted the absence of the right hon. Secretary at War, being convinced he was ready to do everything that lay in his power to accede to the general wishes of the country on this subject. He much regretted to say flogging had greatly increased in the marine service of late years, for he was informed, that, at Portsmouth alone, thirty-six persons had undergone the infliction of the lash in the course of the last year. He felt satisfied the character of the army would stand much higher in the estimation of the soldiers themselves, and those who might wish to enlist in it, by the practice of flogging being abolished; he, therefore, thought the sooner this end was effected the better.

Major Fancourt

confessed he did not think any blame attached to Colonel Bowater, or any of the officers in the regiment to which this man belonged. His opinion was, the blame rested entirely with that House, who had come to a decision, by a majority of 227 to 94, to give the Horse Guards the power to inflict the punishment. He would, on an early day in the next Session, renew the motion he had brought under the notice of the House during the present Session without success, for the entire abolition of flogging in the army.

Mr. Wilks

observed, that the statement of the hon. Baronet opposite, that this man had been punished forty times, proved that the practice of flogging did not answer the end intended.

Sir Matthew White Ridley

said, he stated the man had forty times suffered punishment; he did not say he had been flogged so often.

Mr. Wilks

said, it was nevertheless very obvious that flogging had not produced the intended effect. He trusted the day was not far distant when it would be entirely done away with. He was glad to hear that a commission was about to be appointed, and that the right hon. Secretary was so far willing to meet the general wishes of the people.

Mr. Sinclair

remarked, that whatever might have been the influence of military flogging on the discipline of the army, there could be no doubt that it had produced a very powerful and general disgust in the public mind. It would be a much better plan to discharge incorrigible men from the service at once, than to resort to a system of torture and disgrace, which had evidently failed to produce the effect intended.

Colonel Davies

said, in the present state of the public mind on the question of military flogging, it required some degree of boldness for any Member of that House honestly to state the opinion he entertained, if it were not in strict accordance with popular feeling. He had, however, never been deterred from performing what he conceived to be his duty by any considerations of that kind, and he would fearlessly say, that it would be impossible to preserve the discipline of the British army without corporal punishment. Many Members opposed the practice altogether who were totally ignorant of the subject. It could not be supposed that lawyers had so much knowledge on this as men of military experience, any more than that he understood a question of law as well as some hon. and learned Members who had addressed the House; and he did not hesitate to say, that, with the exception of two or three military men who sat on that side of the House (the Opposition), it would be admitted by every other hon. and gallant Member, that corporal punishment was absolutely necessary to maintain the discipline and subordination of the army. He believed that corporal punishment was never dreamt of by a soldier when he enlisted in the army, and that was the reason so many bad men entered into it. What, he asked, would have been the consequence, if such an offence as this man had been guilty of had been committed in France? Why, he would have been instantly shot; and if such a course had been pursued in this country, let the House consider the effect that would have been produced upon the public mind. He was surprised to hear hon. Members suggest that such men should be discharged from the army instead of being flogged. If such a system were to prevail, a man dissatisfied with the army, or desirous to leave for any other reason would have only to commit a crime to procure his discharge. He must, in conclusion, express his full concurrence in what had been stated on behalf of Colonel Bowater.

Sir Edward Codrington

said, whenever an instance of the infliction of military punishment was brought forward, it was very commonly supposed, that officers took a delight in witnessing it. Now, he would venture to say, there was no officer in the British army who did not perform this disagreeable duty with feelings both of pain and disgust. For his own part, he considered this the most revolting and unpleasant part of his duty. Painful, however, as that duty was, he never flinched from the discharge of it, not simply because it was his duty to the service, but because it was his duty to every officer in the ship. Hon. Members had recommended, that persons acting improperly should be expelled from the army, and an objection was taken that a man had only to commit some offence to procure his discharge; but it was forgotten that a discharge could not be obtained for a less sum than 20l. He was of opinion, that unless some equivalent punishment could be substituted, the discipline of the army would be destroyed if flogging were abolished. A great deal of deception existed on this subject, and a great deal of clamour had been raised; but he thought the House could not confer a greater benefit on officers whose duty it was to see the punishment carried into execution than to substitute some other punishment for one which was so universally obnoxious.

Mr. O'Dwyer

hoped the practice would soon be done away with. The practice was now reduced to a complete science, the first thing a drummer, bugler, or smith, was taught, being to practise flogging. He believed no imputation rested on the commanding officer in this instance.

Mr. Hughes Hughes

denied, that Colonels and Admirals were the only persons capable of forming a correct opinion on this subject. It was the Common cause of humanity, and on that subject he supposed he was as capable of pronouncing as the hon. and gallant Colonel below him (Colonel Davies). He had a petition to present from a member of the University of Oxford, which was well worthy the consideration of the House. It complained, among other things, of the inequality of the punishments inflicted in the army, and observed, that while one class of persons were subject to be flogged, others were entirely exempted from it. This subject was well worth the hon. and gallant Colonel's (Davies) serious attention. He had never heard of a Colonel being flogged for drunkenness, but he had often heard of drunken Colonels. The hon. and gallant Admiral (Sir Edward Codrington) had argued as if no substitution could be found for the barbarous practice, but he forgot that there were such things as solitary confinement and hard labour, and stopping the pay of the offender. He had always protested against this barbarous practice, and would do so as long as he had a seat in that House.

Mr. Thomas Duncombe

regretted, that the right hon. Secretary at War was not in his place, but seeing one of his Majesty's Ministers present, he was desirous to know whether it was intended that every member of the proposed Commission should be a military officer of experience. He could assure the Government, if the Commission were composed entirely of military men, it would be very far from satisfactory to the country. He conceived the simple question before the House to be, whether what had taken place was in strict accordance with the circular issued from the Horse Guards last year. By that order, the public were led to believe the practice of flogging, if not entirely abolished, would be so mitigated as to render it quite unobjectionable, If the present instance was in strict accordance with that circular, it only showed that the order was a perfect farce, and the House was misled, and lulled into a sort of foolish confidence in the Government, when the right hon. Secretary at War called on them not to pass an opinion on the system itself. He trusted, however, it would be a lesson to the House not to place reliance on ambiguous pledges and circulars, but at once to come to a resolution to put an end to the practice. The House had been deluded in a similar manner on the subject of the impressment of seamen. The Motion of the hon. member for Sheffield was met by a request from the right hon. Baronet (Sir James Graham) then First Lord of the Admiralty, that the House would suspend its judgment on the question, it being his intention to introduce a measure into the House for the registration of merchant seamen, which he trusted would get rid of the evil complained of. Since that period, the right hon. Baronet had seceded from the Ministry, and had been so occupied with the consideration of the Irish Church, that little time was left him to attend to any other subject. The question of impressment had, however, been completely got rid of for the present Session. He would remind the House that a majority of the members of the present Cabinet stood pledged by their recorded votes and opinions to oppose military flogging, and the House and the public had a right to call on them to give effect to those opinions by introducing a measure for its immediate abolition.

Colonel Evans

remarked, that it was understood from the right hon. Secretary at War on Monday last, that the Commission about to be issued would not be composed entirely of military men.

Mr. Tennyson

observed, that he had not been induced to take up this question as a personal matter, but entirely on public grounds, nor did he impute the slightest blame to Colonel Bowater; on the contrary, he was much gratified at the high character which had been given to him for honour and humanity. He should be one of the last in that House to do anything that might have a tendency to decrease the good discipline of the army; but he felt that he should not discharge his duty if he did not denounce this horrible practice, and call upon the House to abolish it. Notwithstanding what had been said, it still appeared to him that the infliction of so severe a sentence was a great and unnecessary cruelty. If the man had committed forty different offences, and been as frequently punished, he thought the proper course to be pursued was, to eject him from the army, instead of awarding a punishment so unequal and so revolting to human nature. He believed, if the House suffered this punishment to continue harrowing the feelings of the people, it would create a great reaction in the army, subvert the discipline, and increase insubordination. He trusted the House would receive an assurance from his Majesty's Ministers, that the Commission should be speedily issued, and that it should not be exclusively composed of military men.

Mr. Mildmay

defended the conduct of Colonel Bowater, who, he said, was unable to interfere with the sentence of a district Court-martial, but was bound to see it carried into full effect.

Mr. Charles Grant

said, it was not in his power to answer the question which had been put to him with regard to what was the general intention of the Ministry on this subject. He was unprepared to say exactly when the Commission would be issued, but he would say, that whatever his right hon. friend (Mr. Ellice) had pledged himself to do, he would carry into effect to the utmost of his power, as speedily and impartially as possible; and as his right hon. friend had fully stated his sentiments on this subject to the House, it could not be expected that he (Mr. Grant) should offer any further explanation of the views and intentions of the Government. He could not, however, refrain from expressing the repugnance he felt at such a punishment, and his deepest regret that it should be suffered to continue. But he must nevertheless observe, that he had long felt the extreme difficulty which arose from appealing to that House upon every instance that occurred of the exercise of the practice. He believed no man in that House entertained a greater abhorrence of the practice than himself, and the only question that presented itself to him was, whether it could at once be abolished without a serious injury to the discipline of the army. The Commission would lead to the fullest investigation, and it would then be seen whether the continuance of the system was necessary to maintain the discipline of the army. He entertained the highest opinion of the character of Colonel Bowater, and considered him in no way connected with the transaction. He must however, admit, that no one could read the account of the case upon which the petition was founded without shuddering.

Mr. Ruthven

was anxious to know, whether the drummers were changed at every ten lashes, instead of the usual practice of changing them at every twenty-five. He contended, that a man who had shown himself so unfit for the public service ought to have been discharged, and never trusted with fire-arms in his hands.

Mr. Lennard

trusted, that the hon. member for Lambeth would not suffer the House to separate without obtaining a resolution of the House, expressing its condemnation of the practice, and declaring that it should no longer continue, or at any rate that the Session should not close without an expression of the opinion of the House that the practice should be greatly restricted. He considered it a mere waste of time to appoint a Commission, every man's mind being made up with respect to the principle.

Mr. Tennyson

was not disposed to throw any impediment in the way of the Government, and as their opinions had been so strongly expressed against the practice, he did not think it necessary to carry the matter further; but if any delay occurred, he should feel it to be his duty to move an Address to the Crown.

The Petition to lie on the Table.

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