HC Deb 21 April 1847 vol 91 cc1141-9

House in Committee on the Naval Prisons Bill.

On Clause 1 being put,


complained that the House had resolved itself into Committee without his knowledge. The Motion had been made in so low a tone of voice by the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Admiralty, that near as he was to him he had not heard him. He objected to the principle of this Bill. His first objection was grounded upon the fact, that instead of ameliorating the condition of the sailor, the present Board of Admiralty had not fulfilled the expectations to which it had given rise. He had expected from the Secretary to the present Board of Admiralty some measure for the amelioration of the condition of that most oppressed and worst treated body of Her Majesty's subjects, the sailors in the Royal Navy; but that Bill placed the sailor upon a worse footing than he had held before, and upon a much worse footing than any other class of Her Majesty's subjects. They were, in fact, treated with a degree of cruelty unequalled in any other country in the world. There was a most extraordinary difference made between the treatment of the Army and the Navy in this country. He would illustrate it by two cases which had occurred within the last three weeks. A private of marines, at Portsmouth, was charged with having first spilled his grog. A dispute arose about it, which led to some excitement and a quarrel, in the course of which he struck his sergeant. He was tried by court-martial, at the head of which was Admiral Parker. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged until he was dead from the yard-arm of one of Her Majesty's ships. A drummer of one of the regiments of guards was also tried for striking his commanding officer, the drum-major, who he believed ranked higher than a sergeant of the marines. He was found guilty, and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. The Admiralty, indeed, showed their mercy to the marine, by remitting the sentence of death, and commuting it to transportation for seven years. But he asked, how could such a disproportioned system be countenanced by any Legislature? Another case had occurred at Portsmouth, where a man of excellent previous character was tried for desertion. He was found guilty, and sentenced to receive fifty lashes, which was worse than a sentence of two hundred in the Army, and to be imprisoned for twelve months. In that case again, the Admiralty remitted the lashes, but the man was sent to gaol for the twelve months. Now, the Secretary to the Admiralty knew right well that men could not be procured for Her Majesty's ships, because they would not subject themselves to have the flesh torn from their backs by the lash; yet what did that Bill do? In the preamble it recited that the practice of flogging men by the simple will and command of the commanding officer of the ship, without trial by courtmartial, was admitted in Her Majesty's Navy; and it declared in one of the clauses, at the very end, that it gave power to the commanding officers of Her Majesty's ships to inflict such punishments as were customary in the Navy. So that it started by legalizing flogging without trial, and concluded by giving power to commanding officers to inflict it. But the chief feature in it was the power of inflicting the punishment of solitary confinement for twenty-eight days, which it gave to the commanding officers, without compelling them to bring the men to trial by court-martial. Another severe feature in it was, that if the father or brother of a man so confined were to offer him any assistance in effecting his escape, that father or brother would be liable to be transported for fourteen years. He concluded, by calling upon the House, not to allow the sailor to be sent to solitary confinement for twenty-eight days, without being previously brought to court-martial.


complained of the charge made by the hon. Member for Coventry that the House had been resolved into Committee without proper notice, a charge which was totally undeserved for, far from having attempted to elude discussion, he had come prepared to meet it. The Bill had gone through two stages without any opposition having been offered; and it really was not his fault if, during the confusion occasioned by hon. Members leaving the House, his hon. Friend did not hear his Motion moved, and the question on it put. But, except that his hon. Friend had to address Mr. Greene instead of the Speaker, he did not see what cause his hon. Friend had to complain, for he was ready to debate the subject, and he was prepared to say, most distinctly, that there never was anything more unfounded or un-j fair than to make, as his hon. Friend had made, a general attack upon the mode of administering the law in the Navy, when the Board of Admiralty was taking every method possible to ameliorate the condition of the men. His hon. Friend had mistaken and mis-stated every clause in the Bill. It left the punishments just as it found them; but instead of allowing commanding officers to inflict corporal punishment at will, it only allowed them to inflict twenty-eight days imprisonment without court-martial. That sentence, too, must receive the sanction of the Admiral when in harbour. His hon. Friend was wrong in his condemnation of the whole system of governing the Royal Navy in this country. The mode of managing it had been much unproved by the suggestions of his hon. and gallant Friend near them. But as to dispensing with those punishments altogether, it was a most visionary idea. Where a number of men was congregated together, as in a ship, there should be power given of inflicting punishment for insubordination; and he was sure that his hon. Friend the Member for Montrose would not oppose it, whatever the hon. Member for Coventry might do. Now, with regard to the charge of cruelty in the Navy, he should state that no man stood higher in his character for humanity than Lord Nelson, who had a great, dislike to the infliction of corporal punishment. He had in his hand a list of the punishments inflicted on board the Victory from the 31st of August, 1803, to the 31st of October, 1804, and there were no less than 311 punishments inflicted during those fourteen months on board that ship, the total number of lashes given being 9,390. In the entire Royal Navy in the year 1844, the whole number of punishments inflicted were 1,411, the lashes amounting to 42,000; and in the year 1845, the entire number of punishments was 1,020, and the lashes were 32,000. Those were incontrovertible proofs that the discipline of the Royal Navy had not been increasing in severity, but that every year it had gone on improving, and a great moral improvement had taken place. He only wished to substitute by the Bill before the House one summary mode of punishment for another, without affecting the right of inflicting it; and he had suggested the substitution of imprisonment, with the certainty that the infliction of imprisonment in the Army had been productive of the most beneficial results.


said, in the case of the drummer alluded to by the hon. Member for Coventry, the man had admitted upon his trial the giving of the blow, and had stated that his object in striking the drum-major was to get himself transported — transportation having been the commuted sentence passed upon the sailor who had struck his commanding officer. But the drummer having committed the Act for the purpose of getting transported, it was the considered advisable to pass upon him the sentence of imprisonment, which would, of course, in his case, be more severe. But still the great objection to punishments of that description was, that they were not carried out in the face of the men.


, with reference to the sailor mentioned by the hon. Member for Coventry, said, the man had borne a good character previously, had been rewarded, and had then deserted without the smallest reason or cause.


expressed his satisfaction at seeing the Admiralty evidently anxious to diminish the severity of punishments, and thought hon. Members ought to have confidence in the naval authorities in the House. The Admiralty deserved credit, not only for boldly grappling with the difficulties of the subject, but for giving returns which had been called for very rightly, and which no officer who had conducted his ship properly ought to be ashamed of. But he (Captain Pechell) must say, he wondered how the sailor formerly bore the grievances to which he was subject.


felt convinced that the general desire of the officers in Her Majesty's service was to decrease the severity of punishments. The Admiralty also, both the present and late board, was entitled to credit for an anxiety to raise the moral condition of the men, and make severe sentences needless. But it was very bad encouragement to the Government to be met with hard speeches from an hon. Member, as if they were trying to increase punishments.


felt bound to say, that an hon. Member might do much harm by making unfounded charges upon this subject, because such statements prevented men from entering the service. When two courts-martial were held lately for desertions, their sentences were far more severe than would have been awarded without a court.


hoped the Government would, as soon as the finances permitted, increase the pay of the British seamen; and, by bringing it nearer to an equality with the American pay, remove one of the great temptations to desert.


did not object to the substitution of imprisonment for flogging, but still felt bound to object to the statement in the preamble of this Bill:— Whereas by the laws and customs of Her Majesty's Navy, officers commanding Her Majesty's ships and vessels are empowered to order corporal punishment for various offences without the offenders being tried by court-martial. That would acknowledge and legalize the practice.


could not withdraw the words; they simply stated a fact.


agreed that the sailor was not well paid, but it was not the fault of the Admiralty, but of the Exchequer. For one improvement, however, funds might surely be found, viz., to increase the pay of the petty officers; it would not cost much, and there should be held out to the men a prospect of rising to a more respectable situation. The Admiralty deserved great praise for bringing forward this Bill. A substitute for corporal punishment had long been wanted; there had not been opportunity on board the ship for punishing by imprisonment, and not any place for the purpose. Only the other day an officer was stigmatized as a tyrant, when his only object was to avoid administering corporal punishment; he imprisoned a man in the coalhole, and the man died. Living, as he (Sir C. Napier) did, on the Portsmouth road, he had continually seen deserters passing along boldly in their sailor's dress, not afraid of meeting a policeman or anybody else; but there would now be power to apprehend such persons. There was one very objectionable practice he would mention; if there was found a bad character on board a ship, it was sometimes the practice to put him into a boat, and tell him he had better be off; he went away untouched, and that led sailors to think there was no crime in desertion.


had no objection to this measure, except that it did not sufficiently assimilate the system of the Navy to that of the Army. The new regulations in regard to corporal punishments, introduced by the Admiralty, ought to have been carried into effect by Order in Council; if any attempt were made to punish a man with forty-eight lashes under that regulation, a question would be raised as to the legality of the sentence. He could not agree with the gallant Officer (Sir C. Napier) on the subject of deserters. The best course would be to give commanders power to send away turbulent fellows when such appeared. Encouragement to good conduct, by holding out the prospect of promotion, would be preferable to an increase of pay. In the Army, rewards were given to the sergeants. Why were no rewards given to sergeants of Marines? No service was more deserving; but, from communications he had received, he knew that the marines felt themselves neglected. Sailors found themselves so little cared for, that they saw nothing before them but misery and the workhouse. The shipowners were anxious to co-operate with the Government in forming a general fund for the relief of that class; and the application of the 40,000l. raised annually in name of light-dues for the benefit of those who had claims on the ground of merit and of service, would have a powerful effect in stimulating them to exertion. Such measures as these would, he thought, be far more likely to exercise a favourable influence on sailors, and tend much more to the improvement of their condition, than the system which had hitherto been pursued.


had already given expression to the desire which existed, that the pay of the petty officers should be raised. Nothing but the exigencies of the Exchequer could have prevented an increase from being granted; and he hoped that in the course of another Session it would be found practicable to bring forward a substantive proposition on the subject. No measure, he believed, could tend more to improve the character of the men, than some addition to the pay, and the introduction of some honorary distinction. It would afford him great gratification to be instrumental in carrying out such a measure. He perfectly concurred in the remarks which had been made as to the sergeants of Marines; some plan was in contemplation on the subject; and no person could be more anxious to encourage a class on whom the preservation of discipline so much depended than the noble Lord at the head of the Admiralty. An objection had been stated with regard to the regulations on the subject of corporal punishments; but the 22nd George II. enacted as to crimes not capital, that punishments should be inflicted according to the laws and customs which had theretofore obtained. One of those customs was for the Crown to make regulations, from time to time, in regard to such punishments. That had then been done by Order in Council; but the terms of the original order, which was now superseded, were such that it was open to dangerous abuse, and the tendency of the recent order was to reduce the amount of punishment. The authority of that order rested upon the power and the right possessed by the Crown of determining, from time to time, what was the punishment which ought to be inflicted.


thought, as 40,000l. or 50,000l. would cover the increased pay of the petty officers, a supplementary grant might have been proposed. The time would come when the articles of war ought to be revised. Officers were as anxious as others to reduce the extent of punishments; but he was afraid he must characterize the last order as imprudent; many young officers in the command of ships would be very loth to bring cases before a commander-in-chief, considering the feeling which at present pervaded the public mind on the subject of corporal punishments, and the influence which, in consequence, might possibly be found to affect their promotion.

In answer to a question from CAPTAIN PECHELL,


said, that power was taken in the first clause to order offenders to be imprisoned in any public prison, gaol, or house of correction, only to enable them to carry the Bill into immediate operation. It was intended to provide naval prisons, either afloat or on shore, as soon as possible.


said, there were two powers in the clause—one to flog, and another to imprison. Now, with reference to flogging, he wished that that punishment should be assimilated in the Army and Navy. In the Navy, owing to the nature of the instrument employed, the punishment of flogging was much more severe than in the Army; and if it was not to be altogether abolished, at least the horrible instrument ought to be made less cruel.

Clause 1 agreed to, as were the succeeding clauses.

House resumed. Bill to be reported.