HC Deb 31 July 1846 vol 88 cc271-3

On the Order of the Day for going into Committee of Supply,


wished to call the attention of the House to the manner in which courts martial were constituted and conducted in the British navy. Under the present system, by the Act of George II., it was necessary that a naval court martial should consist of five officers at the least, three of whom must be post-captains. But it was extremely difficult to find that number when a ship was on a foreign station. A case had been stated to him, in which a young officer, of high connexions, had been put under arrest, and because three post-captains could not be found, a ship was sent from this country with a post-captain, in order to hold the court martial. At the same time, it was impossible to prove those facts. [Sir G. COCKBURN: Because they are not true.] In common justice to that young officer, they were bound to do what they did; but he ought not to be kept a single day without having the opportunity of defending himself from the charge against him. The system was upon an erroneous principle, and was liable, necessarily, to place officers in situations of the greatest anxiety. In the army field-officers constituted the court martial; but if there was a deficiency a captain was eligible to supply it, and it should be the same with lieutenants in the navy. Another defect was, that under the Act of George II., the sole and entire power was given to them—there was no appeal to the Crown or the Admiralty—there was no power by law to disallow the sentence of the court martial. The Sovereign might replace an officer, but that was a different matter. Every principle of justice was violated by the present system. The hon. Gentleman, in illustration, referred to the case of Lieutenant Walker of the Alban, who fourteen years ago had been brought to a court martial by Captain Pigott of the Barham. It was true that Captain Pigott was the superior officer; but being the officer of another vessel, the court martial was contrary to one of the orders of the Admiralty, and yet there was no appeal.


wished to ask the hon. Member whether he had given notice of his intention to bring this case forward; for without such notice it was hardly fair to the present Board of Admiralty, who had not been in office a month to refer to a case that had occurred fourteen years ago.


was convinced that he had a correct account of the facts, and he formed his conclusion from those facts; but if they were disputed he was ready to prove them. He brought no charge against anybody, not even against the officers of the courts martial, except that they committed errors. The hon. Member mentioned another case, of Lieutenant Brydges, who on the coast of Africa, had some words with a vice-consul, and offered to meet him on shore. He was tried by a court martial. Leading questions were put to the witnesses, and the result was, that he was sentenced to be dismissed from his ship, contrary, as he (Mr. Williams) contended, to the spirit and letter of the law. All the check he wanted was, that the navy should be placed in the same position as the army.


said, his hon. Friend had mooted at the outset of his speech a general question of importance, but had attempted to ride off upon two cases, one of thirteen years' date, and the other six years ago. He was not prepared to meet him upon these two cases. As to the lieutenants sitting on courts martial, that was a grave question for consideration; but it ought not to turn upon a particular case of a foolish squabble. With regard to the power of revising courts martial, what was to be done where they were held on distant stations? It would be impracticable; there must be a summary jurisdiction in such cases. As to referring courts martial sitting at the extremity of the world to the Admiralty at home, it was out of the question. The whole subject, would, however, receive the earliest consideration of the noble Lord at the head of the Admiralty.


said, the hon. Member (Mr. Williams) had made out the smallest case he had ever heard. He had said that even if courts martial were illegal, there was no redress to be had; whereas, if a court martial was illegal in its constitution, whatever its award, it went for nothing. A court martial was a court of honour as well as a court of law, and although the members were not lawyers, he thought that, generally speaking, their judgments were as good as those of other courts. The court martial upon Lieutenant Bridges was assembled legally; and as to legal questions being put at that court, the object of a court martial was to get at the truth. It turned out that the vice-consul was not "in the fleet," though on board the ship, and the man was restored. With respect to the proposal for placing lieutenants on courts martial, if the hon. Member's object was to give facilities for more courts martial in the fleet than they had already, he would do a great mischief. It was an advantage to the navy that courts martial should be rare. He believed it to be absolutely necessary for the discipline of the service, that the power of flogging should be retained in the hands of the captain, but at the same time he believed that the less flogging there was the better, and the ship in which there was the most flogging was the worst managed. Flogging was occasionally necessary to bring a fresh crew into a state of discipline; but that attained, very little or no corporal punishment was necessary. He warned the House how they trifled with the discipline of the navy, and with the articles of war, by means of which that discipline had been for so many years preserved in a high state of efficiency.


said, the Admiralty had done right in appointing to a ship the gallant lieutenant who had been just named, but they had not so until the case had been brought before the House of Commons. There had been another instance of a court martial held at Bermuda, upon the commander of the Alarm, in which the Admiralty had in a similar manner reversed, or rather cast a slur upon, the proceedings of the court martials by appointing that officer to another ship. The revision of the articles of war was a delicate subject to introduce into that House; but the articles of war did nevertheless require revision, and he was glad that the present Ministers were likely to grapple with the subject.


said, it was always understood that naval court martials were superior to similar tribunals in the army. The proceedings of the latter were open to revision by the Commander-in-Chief, which would not be tolerated for an instant in the navy, where the members comprising it would look upon such interference as an imputation upon the manner in which they had discharged the duties they were sworn to perform.

House in Committee of Supply.

Several Votes were passed. House resumed and adjourned.