HC Deb 25 July 1859 vol 155 cc363-8

said, he rose to ask a question on a matter which he believed and hoped had been much exaggerated. He wished to ask the noble Lord the Secretary to the Admiralty whether the report which had appeared in the public papers, with reference to certain occurrences alleged to have taken place on board Her Majesty's ships the Liffey, the Cœzar, and the Hero, was true, and if so what steps the Admiralty had adopted in reference thereto. In putting this question he wished to disclaim all intention of cavilling at the conduct of the officers on board any of Her Majesty's ships. He apprehended that that House would feel it to be its duty at all times to support the officers of the navy in the discharge of the very onerous functions which devolved on them. Much less was he there to apologise for crews who, through misapprehension or error of judgment, might have been led into any acts of insubordination: but owing, perhaps, to exaggerated statements which had appeared in public journals a great deal of misapprehension and some degree of alarm had been created in the public mind, and he was most anxious that an authoritative statement from his noble and gallant Friend should put the public in possession of the real facts of occurrences which had taken place on board the three ships to which his question referred. The first case to which he would refer was that of the Liffey. That ship had sailed from Devon-port to Liverpool and back from Liverpool to Devonport. She was commanded by a gallant officer, Captain Preedy, and though not actually under orders to proceed to sea she was expecting them from day to day. The crew asked for leave to go on shore, which the captain did not feel himself justified in giving. On his refusal some mutinous conduct was exhibited on board. With regard to the Cœzar he need only say one word; because, if his information was correct, the disturbance was originated amongst and confined to the men employed in the dockyard, and the crew of the Gœzar were not implicated in it. With regard to the Hero he felt more interested, because the commanding officer of that ship was a relative of his own, and a gallant officer who had always shown himself to be up to his duty, and had on two or three occasions conducted himself with great credit and honour. The disturbance on board that ship had, he believed, arisen from an error on the part of the crew, in thinking that the crew of the Liffey had obtained then-end by the exhibition of insubordination. He believed that the crew of the Hero was a very raw one, and that the number of officers on board were smaller than that which was generally considered to be sufficient for the purposes of discipline. It was important that the public was fully informed on the subject, and he therefore hoped his noble and gallant Friend would make a short statement on the subject.


said, the Admiralty felt indebted to the hon. Gentleman for the temperate tone of his question, as it would be for the public advantage that the truth should be known, instead of exaggerated reports. With respect to the particular cases referred to, he would say a few words upon each. The Liffey was commanded by an officer well known as having commanded the Agamemnon during the successful attempt to lay the Atlantic cable, and who upon that occasion exhibited such remarkable seamanship—Captain Preedy. That officer had made a report to the Admiralty, which was as follows:— Her Majesty's ship Liffey, Plymouth Sound, July 7. I have the honour to communicate that on Saturday last, at about 9.30 p.m. (Her Majesty's ship under my command having recently arrived from Liverpool) it was made known to me that a noise had taken place on the lower deck, caused by a few shots having been rolled about the deck. Immediately on its discovery I assembled the ship's company at quarters, and sent for the petty officers on the quarter-deck, with the view to arrive at the cause of the circumstance, but notwithstanding my questioning them collectively and individually they expressed ignorance of the transaction, and on closely being questioned as to whether they or the ship's company had any complaint to offer, they said they had none whatever; on the contrary, they were very happy and comfortable, but supposed it was owing alone to there being no liberty granted them to go on shore. This was out of my power to accede to, seeing that the ship was under orders for foreign service. On reflection, notwithstanding the crew had been recently granted leave at Liverpool, I thought fit to submit for your consideration their being allowed liberty here for the purpose of taking leave of their friends prior to quitting England, which you were pleased to permit. I beg to observe that I do not at all conceive that these disturbances are to be attributed to the ship's company in general, who are well-conducted, but confined to a few bad characters, who I regret to the present moment I have not been able to discover for the sake of example. As to the case of the Hero, lying at Portland, the following report had been sent in by Captain Seymour: — Her Majesty's ship Hero, Portland, July 19. I regret to have to report a show of insubordination on board Her Majesty's ship under my command. Yesterday evening, at 8 p.m. considerable noise and the rolling of shot about the lower deck took place. Mr. Strickland, the first lieutenant and commanding officer, immediately turned the hands up to muster. A large part of the men (among whom were all the petty officers) had already separated themselves from the disturbers, and fell in at once. Mr. Strickland very judiciously passed the word that the well-disposed men should immediately give their names in to certain officers that he had instructed to take a list of the men who wished to separate themselves from those who were trying to make a foolish disturbance. This had the desired effect, and everybody came up and put their names down. Before this was accomplished I returned on board by a boat that had been sent to me to Her Majesty's ship Emerald, where I was dining. I addressed the petty officers and asked the cause of discontent; they replied that they had nothing to do with the disturbance, but believed it was in consequence of general leave being refused on Sunday. I then told the men I must repeat what I had said on Sunday last,—namely, that I was not authorized to give general leave, and that the admiral in command had now authorized me to repeat this to them, if I found that want of leave was the cause of the disturbance. I pointed out to the men that they had been but two months and ten days out of Sheerness harbour, that they had received all indulgences of advance, bounty, clothes, Ac., granted to them, and that they would not gain their object or receive any support from anybody by an insubordinate act; that I would bring any one I could trace as ringleader to a court-martial, and that the law would be enforced against such evildoers. I then desired the men to retire, which order was obeyed, and the duties of the ship have since gone on as usual. I beg to bring to your notice that the judicious steps taken at the commencement of the disturbance by Lieutenant Walter Strickland probably prevented a more serious outbreak. The other case, that of the Cœsar, was, as had been stated by the hon. Member, simply a disturbance caused by dockyard men, with which the crew of the ship had nothing to do. Those were all the facts, and he thought such occurrences were inseparable from a large fleet, in which 10,000 men had been lately introduced, as it were, at railroad speed, who were unacquainted with each other and their officers. Indeed, it was marvellous that there had been so few difficulties of that kind, and the fact reflected no small credit upon the zeal, assiduity, and firmness of the officers in command. Now, one word with respect to corporal punishment and the Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth (Mr. W. Williams). Every one abominated corporal punishment. No officer ever directed the infliction of that punishment without deep regret and anxiety; but if we desired to maintain the efficiency of our fleet with its ancient renown, it was necessary to maintain its discipline. They could not all at once put an end to corporal punishment; it would die out, but it must die a natural death, and could not be strangled. The hon. Member for Lambeth had asked him a question on Friday last which, according to the rules of the House, he was unable to answer at that time—viz., what was the name of the captain of the Princess Royal, on board of which ship there appeared to have been an undue amount of corporal punishment. He (Lord C. Paget) hoped the hon. Member would not press his inquiry, considering that to drag an old and meritorious officer thus before the public would be most injurious to that officer. Besides, it would be unjust to give the name of the officer without also stating the grounds upon which the undue punishment complained of had been inflicted. He knew nothing whatever about the merits of the matter; but for the reasons he had stated, he hoped his hon. Friend would not press his inquiry.


said, his only reason for having asked for the name of the captain was because he thought the case which he had cited was one of undue punishment, He would not, however, press his request, understanding that it was now in contemplation by the Admiralty to take the question into their serious consideration. The subject was one of great importance. The Commander-in-Chief at Devonport had attributed the difficulty of getting men for the Navy to the prevalence of corporal punishment. He wished to state that the present commander of the Princess Royal, Captain Bailey, was not the officer who ordered the undue punishment he com- plained of. The leniency of the noble Lord the Secretary for the Admiralty stood out in favourable relief to the harshness of other commanders, as he had commanded the same ship for two years without inflicting corporal punishment at all.


said, that as the statement of the noble and gallant Lord the Secretary for the Admiralty might lead to much misapprehension and possibly mischief, he thought the noble and gallant Lord ought to state distinctly whether the present Board of Admiralty had determined to abolish corporal punishment in the Navy.


replied that he had not intended to convey the idea that the Board of Admiralty intended to abolish corporal punishment. He had only said everybody was anxious it should die out, but that it must die a natural death, and could not be strangled suddenly.


believed the disturbance among the dockyard men that had been referred to was caused by the infliction of corporal punishment upon a sailor within the view of the whole of the dockyard men, which was an unnecessary aggravation of the punishment.


observed that he was desirous that corporal punishment should be done away with, but the greatest possible caution was required in allowing it to die out. After the statement of the noble Lord, the first step which the Admiralty should take would be to deprive all captains of the power of inflicting corporal punishment, and to delegate the trial of all offenders to a court-martial on board the ship. The time was come when, for the sake of discipline as well as for the comfort of the men, they should know that when any one of them committed a crime he would be regularly judged by a court-martial.


said, he understood the noble Lord the Secretary to the Admiralty to imply that coporal punishment would die a natural death from the status of the sailor being so raised as to render it unnecessary. It certainly was most objectionable that a man should be so punished at the fiat of a captain acting under an article of war. In the East India Company's Navy, in which he had served for sixteen years, discipline equal to that of the Royal Navy had been maintained for 200 years by a system of courts of inquiry, consisting of the four superior officers of the ship and the paymaster. All their proceedings were entered in a book for future reference; but although there was no legal power to inflict punishment, there had never been a case in which a jury would have convicted a captain for punishing a man who had been judged by a court of inquiry. It must not be imagined, however, that the introduction of a system of courts-martial on board all ships would lead to a cessation of flogging. At present the Admiralty bore hardly upon an officer who, getting a bad ship's company, was obliged to inflict more than usual punishment, and a bad mark was put against his name. He (Sir James Elphinstone) had heard of a ship in the Black Sea on board of which was a nest of London thieves, who, after a detective had been sent from England, were discovered, and twelve of them punished. The consequence was that the punishment list of the ship appeared to be excessive, and although the captain had only carried out the punishment under the orders of the admiral, he was reprimanded from home. In fact, he believed many captains hesitated to inflict punishment in cases where it was merited solely for fear of giving offence to the Admiralty. At the same time he was assured that there was a great objection among merchant seamen to enter the Royal Navy because the captains had power to inflict corporal punishment under an article of war. He might add that courts of inquiry were in use in the French Navy, and were found to work satisfactorily.

Motion agreed to.

House in Committee.