HC Deb 25 February 1836 vol 31 cc884-96
Mr. Wakley

wished to ask the hon. and gallant Member for Barnstaple, whether it was his intention to bring forward his motion for the abolition of military flogging, and, if so, whether he would press that motion to a division?

Major Fancourt

replied, that it certainly was his intention to move for the entire abolition of military flogging; and he assured the hon. Member that he would not waste the time of the House by introducing the motion if he did not intend to press for a division.

Mr. Lennard

observed, that as the hon. and gallant Member for Barnstaple (Major Fancourt) had already placed a notice on the Motion-book, with the intention of bringing forward the subject of military flogging when the Mutiny Act should be brought before the House, it was not his intention to trench upon the ground which that hon. and gallant Member, had thus occupied. The only object which he had in view at the present moment in moving for the returns for which he was about to ask was to obtain such information upon the subject as would put the House in possession of the real facts, and without which it would be impossible for them, with due regard to the value of preparatory evidence, to proceed to the consideration of the question as to how far it would be safe and expedient to commute the present disgraceful and shocking punishment into one of a nature as effectual though not so abhorrent to civilised society. It was therefore, he conceived, necessary for them, previous to the introduction of the annual Act for the suppression of mutiny, to have laid before them some returns by which it might be ascertained how far the practice of corporal punishment had decreased in the army, and also how far the application of punishments in general throughout that branch of the service was in accordance with the mild spirit of legislation which had so fortunately and with so much success prevailed of late years in civil society. The House was in possession of no facts nor of any data which could throw a light upon the practice of Courts-martial, until the right hon. Member for Coventry had furnished some information, which was afterwards increased on the occasion of the motion of the hon. Member for Middlesex on the subject of corporal punishment. That information was useful as far as it went, but it was not sufficient fully to elucidate the subject. It was the" opinion of persons of the highest military as well as civil authority, that the practice of flogging was worse than useless, and more so now than it had ever hitherto been. The experience of observant inquirers on this subject made them aware that the man who was once flogged was, in the majority of cases, a lost man; that he constantly fell from one act of disgrace into another; until in many instances the individual became little better than a flogging block in his regiment. It had been stated, by a very high authority, as a proof that milder punishments would be efficacious, that the effect of hard labour and solitary confinement had been tried with the happiest results in lieu of flogging upon the most brutal. On a former occasion he had expressed his intention of moving for returns which would enable him to trace a flogged soldier through his whole career, in order that the effects of this mode of punishment might be made more obvious; but he had, upon consideration, abandoned his intention, as the returns would be too intricate to be furnished, He, therefore, had contented himself with the returns stated in his notice, and he the more readily adopted the limited mo- tion as he looked with some expectations to the result of the labours of the Commission which had been appointed to inquire into this subject. He should, of course, refrain from touching upon the melancholy result of two recent cases of flogging, as they were not sufficiently before the public to enable people to form a correct opinion of the facts; but it could hardly be denied that the practice had again occasioned the loss of life in two instances. In expressing his opinions upon this revolting punishment, he by no means desired or meant to disparage the judgment of those high military authorities who had given their opinions that there was a necessity for its continuance; but he must be allowed to say that those opinions were anything but conclusive, and they must also, in some degree, be attributed to the circumstance that the long-continued practice of flogging had wedded the supporters of the system to it. He did not attribute to any military men the desire, or even the actual fact, of having misused their power, but perhaps they were not so able to judge of its effects, as to abuse or use, as those who were impartial witnesses of the circumstances. It was an extraordinary fact that, at the time of Sir Samuel Romilly's endeavours to lessen the practice of flogging in the army, the Bench of Judges were opposed to its abolition, and the Bench was composed of men not remarkable for their severity. It would now scarcely be believed that humane men of such high characters and standing would have set their faces against an attempt to ameliorate the lot of humanity, but the difficulty was solved when the penal code of that day was compared with the milder application of punishment now so happily and so efficaciously in vogue. He might state as an example of the fallacy of the creed which adopted severity of punishment as its criterion of obedience and due observance of the law, a circumstance which had come to his knowledge, upon the authority of a well informed person. In the colony of New South Wales an Order in Council was issued restricting Magistrates from inflicting more than fifty lashes upon convicts who had misconducted them, selves. The Governor was told, that it would be impossible to restrain those unhappy men in anything like subordinate bounds if this order was acted upon. The Governor, however, followed his own opinion upon the subject, the Order in Council was not rescinded, and most certainly the Government of that colony was not shaken, nor in any way disturbed in consequence. Thus the same results might, he was convinced, be looted for by altering the system in the army. He was willing to admit that military authority upon this point was very much, and deservedly so, looked up to by the community at large. But in the mean time the House ought to collect facts, in order that they might guide the exercise of their judgments by them. There was no difference in opinion as to the practice itself; all admitted it to be dreadful, but the real difference was as to the safety of doing away with it. He trusted, therefore, that the House would no longer sanction the Mutiny Act, without ample and convincing proofs of the necessity of this punishment and whenever the House should be called upon to renew that Act, he trusted it would require an exact statement from the Government of the mode in which the power of inflicting corporal punishment had been exercised during the past year. He hoped that the House would then be satisfied as he was, that the present brutal punishment could be dispensed with in the army, in the same way that violent and shocking punishments had been abolished in civil society; and that the milder and not less efficacious punishments of solitary confinement and hard labour would be subtituted, which would be much more in accordance with the feelings of the country and the spirit of modern legislation. He begged to move for a return of the number of soldiers who have suffered either corporal punishment or imprisonment, and wherever either corporal punishment or imprisonment has been inflicted on the same person more than once, specifying how often it has been so inflicted.

Mr. Herbert B. Curteis

had long been convinced that the practice of flogging the army ought to be abolished, at least during the time of peace: with respect to its infliction during a war, and its absolute necessity to preserve discipline when the troops were on foreign service, he would offer no opinion; but as far as regarded its abolition whilst the peace continued he was the determined and constant advocate of that alteration in the Mutiny Act, and had on all occasions voted for it. He strongly approved of the motion, to which he would beg to add an amendment, which the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had said he did not object to— [No, no.] He begged pardon, he had understood the right hon. Gentleman so but he would not hold him to the words of a private conversation. The amendment which he proposed was to add the following words:—"What the sentence was, and in what manner it was carried into execution."

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

was sorry his hon. Friend had entered so much at large upon the question to which the returns moved for referred, as he had been led to believe such was not his intention, but that he merely meant to move for the returns specified, and which he had intimated to him his noble Friend the Secretary-at-War, was ready to grant. The present was not fit time to enter upon the consideration of the great question of military flogging, and he wished very much that his hon. Friend had waited until the proper opportunity had developed itself. He had no objection to furnish the returns required. There would be some difficulty in obtaining the details required by the hon. Member as to the number of times the same man bad been, punished; but he would take such means as were within his power to obtain the returns correctly from each regiment, in order that the object of his hon. Friend might be answered. With respect to the observations which had escaped his hon. Friend as to the fatal result of the recent cases of punishment, he must say that there was nothing at present before the House to warrant them in believing that death had ensued from the actual flogging; and it was incumbent on them to be in possession of the facts before any judgment was pronounced upon them.

Mr. Robinson

expressed his utter abhorrence of the practice of military flogging; and he never could be persuaded by any returns showing its diminution, either that it ought to be continued, or that the House, relying upon the humanity of the officers of the army, ought to be satisfied so long as the slightest vestige of so dreadful a practice remained on the statute-book. Two dreadful examples of its fatal inefficiency had recently occurred at Woolwich; they certainly could not at present be made a subject of consideration by the House, because the case was now undergoing investigation, but when the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. C. Fergusson) declared that the facts were not sufficiently before the House for them to form a judgment upon them, he must take the liberty of telling him that if those men had not been flogged, their deaths would not have ensued in such a manner and at this time. The whole array system was defective and re- quired revision. So long as the present mode of recruiting was persevered in, by which all the worst subjects in the kingdom were made soldiers of, so long no proper state of discipline could be maintained. Let the authorities endeavour to heighten the character of the service by rejecting disorderly and improper characters, and let them also put into practice the method enforced in the Continental troops, of degrading and dismissing the man who acts disgracefully, and that would be found as effectual in the English array as it was on the Continent, and would also enable them to dispense with the brutal infliction of flogging, which, the public, he was now convinced, were all of opinion was as repugnant to true policy as it was abhorrent to every principle of humanity and justice.

General Sharpe

said, that he was far from being an advocate, abstractedly speaking, for the practice of flogging; but he was afraid, indeed he was certain, that the description of punishment recommended in its stead would go much further to degrade the soldier than the punishment now in practice. He denied that the punishment of flogging so far degraded a soldier that he could never after be respected or respect himself. He would state facts in support of his opinion. As one instance, he could name a case when he commanded a regiment of Dragoons during the war. He happened to be brigaded with another regiment, in which the gallant Member for Bath (General Palmer) then served. In that regiment there was a soldier who had been flogged for drunkenness, but who had afterwards conducted himself so well that he was made a non-commissioned officer, and was subsequently raised to the rank of sergeant-major. In the regiment which he (General Sharpe) commanded, an Adjutant was at that time wanted, and he applied to the noble Earl who commanded the other regiment to know if he could spare his sergeant-major, who appeared to be a most efficent non-commissioned officer. The noble Earl replied that he could; but that he felt it his duty to state that the man had once been flogged for drunkenness. Having regard to the character of the crime for which the man had been punished, and his subsequent good conduct, which had raised him to the rank of sergeant-major, he (General Sharpe) did not hesitate to take him into his regiment as his Adjutant, which rank of course entitled him to associate with the other officers of the regiment on a perfect equality. In this situation he continued to conduct himself with so much, efficiency, propriety and gentlemanly conduct, that he was beloved by his brother officers; and the noble Earl, his old Colonel, having afterwards had an opportunity of seeing how much he was liked in the regiment, and how well he conducted himself, made a special request to have him back again as his own Adjutant—a request which would not have been granted to any one else. He did go back to his old regiment, and soon after rose to the rank of Captain. Did not this case show that flogging did not degrade the man? But, let him ask, if this man had undergone the punishment of the treadmill, would he have been received as their equal by any body of officers in the British army? Most certainly he would not. He never would have been permitted to rank with gentlemen. The gallant General cited another similar instance where flogging a man bad not produced the degrading effects universally attributed to it, and maintained that the continuance of the practice was indispensable to the safety and the discipline of the army.

Mr. Hume

was surprised at the assertion of the hon. and gallant Member, that there was nothing degrading in being flogged; and he could not but regret that the opinion of the gallant General should be formed upon an isolated case, opposed as it was to so many, which should induce him to arrive at quite a different conclusion. However, this was not the time to enter upon the discussion of so wide a subject. He should, however, express his conviction that the time had arrived when that House should interfere to put an end to such a system. If the Government did not interfere to put an end to this abominable practice, that House would be obliged to interfere, and tell both the Government and the officers of his Majesty's service, that the soldiers should no longer be subjected to the infliction of a punishment so degrading. He wished to know from his right hon. Friend below him, when they might expect the Report of the Commissioners.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that his noble Friend, the Secretary of War, was most anxious to forward the Report of the Commission; and in answer to an application made within the last few days to persons connected with that Commission, his noble Friend had been informed that within a week it might be expected the Report would be in the hands of his Majesty's Ministers.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, that the individuals employed on that Commission had been engaged most industriously in the duties assigned to them. Not one moment had been lost, and he believed their labours had been brought to a termination. He could not say how long this Report might be in the hands of the printers, but he had little doubt but it would be in the hands of the Government before the expiration of a week.

Major Fancourt

rose for the purpose of offering only one suggestion. The surgeon of the regiment was always present when these punishments were inflicted, and exercised such humanity in the amount of punishment as the nature of the case might require. This, however, was done only at the moment. Perhaps it would be desirable if, previously to the infliction of the punishment, the surgeon were to inquire into the previous general state of health. This might be the means of preventing the occurrence of death, as happened in some recent cases. This might prevent the infliction of a heavier punishment than was contemplated by the Court-martial.

Colonel Sibthorpe

had served some years in the Scotch Greys, and scarcely ever saw this punishment inflicted in the regiment. Those who were anxious, as all officers must be, to preserve the character of a regiment, would have recourse to it as seldom as possible. With respect to the punishment of solitary confinement and hard labour, there was this objection to it, that it would have the effect of punishing the innocent for the guilty; for the innocent men would have to do the duty of the guilty during their confinement. He would object to the return, as not being full enough. There should be also a return stating the general character of the men, and the circumstances under which the punishment was awarded. It could not be denied, that the fear of this mode of punishment had a great effect upon the soldiers. He feared it would be impossible to do away altogether with military flogging, and at the same time to preserve the discipline of the army. He knew, in the early period of his service, a distinguished officer upon whom it had been inflicted.

Mr. O'Connell

emphatically denied that flogging was either necessary or effectual for the purpose of what the gallant Officer was pleased to call "redeeming" the soldiers. And so the gallant Colonel had discovered that the substitution of solitary confinement for flogging would be punish- ing the remainder of the regiment for the offence of one! Suppose for a moment that it was so, would it not be cheaply purchasing the abolition of that disgraceful and degrading punishment, by obliging a man to occasionally mount an additional guard? But what was really the case? "Solitary confinement;" quoth the gallant Officer, "would take the man from his duty," Well, did flogging send him to it? No; he was flogged till the skin was stripped from his back, and then sent to a hospital to abide the chance of a mortification. But it was necessary, it seemed, to flog, in order to "redeem" the soldiers. Redeem! Oh, it was a word that should not be so desecrated. The army of Napoleon—not a soldier in it was flogged, and yet they were tolerably well fitted for the ordinary duties of military life. It was time that this degrading punishment were totally abolished—that the lash should be no longer applied to the back of a British soldier, when it was discontinued even amongst the black men. The hon. and learned Member concluded by expressing a hope that the hon. Member for Barnstaple would persevere in his motion upon this subject.

Mr. Wakley

said, that without going into the general question, he should merely observe, in reference to the recent cases at Woolwich, that he had himself seen one of the bodies, and he had never seen stronger proofs of death having ensued from bodily injury. Upon examination of the body, no trace of internal disease could be discovered, and the blush of health was still on the cheek of the corpse. He should not advert to this subject at more length, as he should now give notice that he should, on the morrow, move for a return of the finding of the Jury, and the evidence taken before them. There was an account of the proceedings at the Marine-barracks at this place, in a newspaper of great circulation and influence— he meant The Weekly Dispatch. He would read it to the House:—"Early on Monday morning last, a private marine, named William Saundry, was led forth into the open space fronting the barracks at Woolwich, to undergo the christian-like punishment of receiving two hundred lashes. The square having been formed, and the wretched delinquent tied up to the halberts, the drummers commenced, when the screams of the miserable wretch were so loud and heart-piercing, that, notwithstanding the fifes and drums were ordered to drown them, it is positively stated that they could be beard above a mile and a half across the Artillery-ground! After receiving one hundred lashes, or nine hundred cords having been passed over his lacerated back, Saundry was ordered to be taken down, for what reason is not known, nor will we venture to state whether it was a voluntary or forced act by the officer in command. Saundry was led to the infirmary in a fainting state; and whether the same fate awaits him that fell to the lot of the victim Ramsay, time alone will prove. It may be as well here to give a description of the cat used in the marine corps. Similar to others, it has nine thongs made of whipcord, in each of which three over-hand knots are tied, and at the end of each cord there is a hard substance formed about the size of a large pea. On the night previous to the sentence being carried into effect, the drummers received orders to soak the cats in water, after which they were hung up to dry, thus making each cord like a piece of wire. To complete the education of the drummers in this diabolical practice, the figure of a man's back is chalked out in the drummers' room, and they are taught so to administer the lash, as to prevent the cords being clotted together with an offender's blood, as they draw the cat across his shoulders. This is done that each of the knots, thirty-six in number, may take proper effect in jagging the man's flesh." Now this account had not been contradicted. The gallant Member for Dumfries said, that flogging was not degrading to the soldier. Now he would ask whether it was honourable? He would also ask, if it was not degrading to the men, why it was not applied to the officers?

Major Beauclerk

had received a letter from Portsmouth, in which it was stated that 4,000 lashes had been inflicted on the men in the corps of marines stationed there, within a twelvemonth. He would, therefore, suggest that the return should be amended so as to include all the marine corps. He knew that it was the opinion of most of the officers in the army that the time had arrived when corporal punishment should be dispensed with. This could only be done satisfactorily in times of peace, and he intreated the Government at least to try the experiment without delay.

Colonel Thompson, on the other hand, observed:—many junior officers having stated their opinion upon this subject, he could not refrain from adding the testimony which an experience of thirty years enabled him to give of the miserable consequences of that brutal and degrading punishment. He believed it was the bane and nuisance of every officer who desired to do his duty. If it was desirable to abolish it in time of peace, it was ten times more desirable to abolish it in time of war, as it prevented the officers raising up those feelings between officer and soldier which, in those moments when nothing but personal attachment had any influence, would stop the soldier from committing the excesses which frequently disgraced war. Did any one believe that if that punishment had not been enforced, those dreadful scenes, at the bare mention of which the whole British army blushed—he referred to the horrors of Badajoz and St. Sebastian —would have occurred. Let the British officer have the opportunity of encouraging his men, when occasion required, with arguments like these, "Did I not shield you from punishment on such an occasion? Did I not bring you up when you were hanging in the rear, with your musket on my shoulder, and would you desert me now?" Would such an appeal not be listened to? The punishment of flogging was not inflicted when a battle was expected, for they said, "We cannot be flogging men before the enemy." Why, then, cultivate a punishment that had this peculiar nature, that it failed before the enemy? Let a man who deserved serious punishment be handcuffed and marched a prisoner in the rear, and if that does not touch his sense of danger or his sense of shame, treat him like a piece of useless baggage—like a cast horse—and on the first opportunity get rid of him for ever.

Mr. Roebuck

said, that as punishments had been successfully mitigated as regarded civilians, he did not see why such severe punishments in the army should be continued. He understood that the punishment in the marine corps was much more severe than that in the army. In the former, the cat which was used in the navy was used, while in the latter one of a different construction was used. It had been stated that during the Peninsular war, when the bodies of English and Spanish, soldiers were stripped and left together, that the French troops when they came up, could always distinguish the bodies of the English by turning them up, as they generally found their backs marked with the cat. He, of course, did not state this on his own authority; but it was asserted in a publication written, he understood, by a person who was formerly a surgeon in the army.

Dr. Bowring

remarked that he visited the town of St. Sebastian soon after it was taken by assault by the English troops, and he had the declarations of the magistrates of the place in his possession, as to the conduct of the soldiers. He had then heard it stated repeatedly, that many officers bad been destroyed in endeavouring to prevent the horrible depredations and crimes which were committed by the English soldiers. He had no doubt that the British officers could have exercised such a control over the soldiers, as to prevent them committing such atrocities, had it not been for the system of flogging. The soldiers of the French army entertained an almost boundless confidence and attachment to their officers, and this chiefly arose from the lightness of the punishment inflicted in that army.

Mr. Harvey

stated, that when the question was brought forward last year, it was postponed at the suggestion of the noble Secretary at War, who stated that Government had appointed a commission to inquire into the system of military punishments, with a view to see whether a change could not be effected, and that it was desirable to wait for its report. From what the House had that night heard, it appeared probable that a long delay would occur. He trusted, therefore, the House would not allow the matter to rest.

Mr. R. C. Fergusson

repeated, that all the witnesses that it was intended to call had been examined, and the report was nearly ready to be laid before the House. The investigation had been carried on, in such a way as to throw the most perfect light on the subject.

Colonel L. Jones Parry

observed, that as one of the oldest officers in the army, he was anxious to trouble the House with a few observations. He believed, that he might quote the authority of Lord Hill, in saying that punishment in the army was declining, and that there was little doubt but that it would within a short time be got rid of altogether. He had served many years in a regiment in a most excellent state of discipline, and during that time he did not recollect a single instance of punishment having been inflicted. As some allusions had been made to the marines—and he begged to observe that he had the honour during a portion of the late war of commanding two battalions of marines—a more excellent or useful body of troops did not exist in the service, and their conduct was so exemplary during that time, that there was no necessity to resort to punishment.

Mr. Lennard's motion was agreed to.

At the suggestion of Mr. Hume a similar return was ordered with respect to the marines.