HC Deb 20 February 1906 vol 152 cc307-12

said that an Amendment appeared on the Paper in his name in regard to the abolition of flogging in the Navy. He thought that they ought not to begin the discussion of an Amendment of such magnitude at that time of night. He had not expected that his Amendment would have been reached that night. Therefore, he begged to move the adjournment of the House.


I think my hon. and learned friend does not bear in mind the fact that the reason for an early adjournment on the first night of the session is that hon. Members are anxious to know what has been going on outside the House, and to hear the comments of other people on the contents of the King's Speech. That practice has never been extended to the second right, and I think it would be an evil example to depart from the rigid Parliamentary virtue which always distinguishes my hon. and learned friend. Therefore, I cannot assent to the Motion.

Question, "That the House do now adjourn," put, and negatived.


said that if he did not speak now he supposed he would forfeit his chance of bringing forward his Amendment.


Quite strictly the hon. and learned Member has already forfeited his chance; but I am sure that the House will indulge him if he is prepared to make his speech now.


said that he had really come to an arrangement to suit the convenience of the Secretary to the Admiralty that this debate should not be taken to-night. However, seeing that they had been discussing for two days, off and on, the servile condition of the Chinese on the Rand, he felt himself pretty well justified in asking the House to look a little nearer home, and to consider what was going on in our ships of war every day. As he did not expect his Motion to come on to-night, he had neither the Amendment nor the notes of his speech in his hand, but, in those circumstances, he believed he would speak much more from his heart than from his head. Although flogging in the Army had been abolished for twenty-six years the practice still existed in the Navy. At the present moment every British ship-of-war had, as a part of its necessary equipment, a cat-o'-nine-tails. Since 1881 the law gave full permission to the captain of a man-of-war to inflict twenty-five lashes on a man, just as, in the same way, every man in Ireland was subject to illegal trial by coercion magistrates. The possibility of every man who entered the Navy being subjected to the lash carried with it a degrading element. Since he had taken this matter up he had been flooded with correspondence from fathers and mothers of seamen of the Royal Navy. A boy in the Navy for enlisting purposes was only sixteen-and-a-half years of age, but for flogging purposes he was eighteen years of age. According to the King's regulations, Article 759, every boy in the Navy was liable to birching or punishment with the cane, and that punishment could be inflicted either summarily or by sentence of a court-martial. The birching was done on the bare breech, with a birch rod nine ounces in weight, which was twice as heavy as a juvenile birch. But the birch-rod was made more formidable by being steeped in salt water, and then steamed for twenty-four hours before the operation was performed. A boy after sentence was immediately put into confinement, and kept in a bunk below water-mark for twenty-four hours. Then after he was birched he was removed to the sick bay where he was kept a close prisoner. Was there any wonder that some boys had committed suicide as the result of this punishment? The cane used in flogging was half-an-inch thick and three feet long. The underclothing was taken away, so that only thin white pants were left on, and then the cane came into full operation. The reason why the pants were kept on was that the doctors were afraid of blood-poisoning setting in if the cane came in contact with the body. He would now tell the House some of the offences for which these boys in the Navy had been caned and birched. Although the pain caused by flogging was very great the moral degradation was greater, and he pitied young lads upon whom came this awful loss of self-respect. It was demoralising to everybody concerned, and it was demoralising to the honour of this country. He had heard this kind of flogging compared with that inflicted by the headmasters in our public schools, but there was all the difference in the world between the two. No comparison could be made between flogging in the Navy and flogging by headmasters in public schools. The two systems of punishment were entirely different in their moral and bodily effects, as well as in the way in which they were viewed by the boys. Under the King's regulations, all the boys on board ship must be present and must witness the flogging. The effects upon the other boys of seeing the infliction of this punishment were simply terrible. There was one case where a boy was flogged on board a first-class cruiser, and one of the boy's comrades saw the blood slashing about. He happened to be a man of excitable temperament, and he was so enraged at seeing his comrade treated in this way that he went for the commanding officer. But what afterwards became of him? He got twenty-four lashes and three months' imprisonment himself. It had been said that this flogging was done to maintain discipline, but he had ventured upon one occasion to tell the gentleman responsible for inflicting it in one particular case that it was done to produce terrorism. He had in his possession a letter from a seaman describing some of these floggings, and he used very strong language in reference to these cruelties. He declared in his letter that upon one occasion while a boy was being flogged the blood splashed into his face, and he described in detail the horrible effects of birching. After these floggings the deck became a kind of slaughterhouse. The terror and agony was simply awful, for they caused the organs of the body to act involuntarily, and those who have had to witness them declare that they could not possibly see such cruelties again for weeks. Mr. Pretyman told them last session about boys having to be kept in confinement after these floggings had been administered for fear that they should commit suicide. In August last he received a letter from the Mediterranean Fleet which stated that a boy, ordered to be flogged, had committed suicide. He made inquiries, and was informed by Lord Cawdor that the boy had committed suicide, but was not under sentence of flogging. The fact was that the boy knew he was about to be sentenced, and committed suicide in anticipation of it In the "Majestic" two boys had recently tried to kill themselves for the same reason. There was one law in the Navy for the rich and another for the poor. He had been twenty years in Parliament, and if he had been aware of the horrors of this flogging when he first entered the House it would have been abolished fifteen years ago. He had listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil last night, and he saw enormous potentialities of what might occur. He told them of the chasm existing between the rich and the poor which might be widened at any moment. All had to say was that if they wished to enlarge that chasm, and see the people of England take the law into their own hands, all they had to do was to preserve flogging in the Navy. This was the flogging of the children of the poor by the rich. Flogging was not the punishment of the rich, but simply the punishment of the humble boy who went into the Navy in order to economise the household expenses, and who hoped to be able to bring home a few shillings for father, mother, or his sister. He had received a letter from a clergyman in which he said that he hoped the House of Commons would not think for a moment that there was no such thing as flogging in the Navy as a permanent institution. He had seen letters from deserters, from boys and from able-bodied seamen who had been flogged, and they all confirmed his statement, that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. [Cries of "No, no."] One could never contradict or cross-examine the "No, no," but in this matter he wished the Prime Minister to take heart of grace. He did not want to take up the time of the House unnecessarily, but he would not hesitate about keeping the House for five hours if he thought he could prevent even one case of flogging. He agreed that the condition of things had much improved in the Navy during the last sixty years, but he wished it to be clearly understood that he was not now attacking persons but the system of flogging in the Navy. He only wished to see these boys treated as human beings. They should not give all their sympathy to the Chinese in South Africa; they should also think of the boys at home. In the last speech he made upon this question in the House he stated that he relied upon the great Labour Party who were acquainted with the feelings and sufferings and infirmities of the poor, and hoped they would insist upon the hands of the rich being taken off their children for purposes of this kind. The Irish Members procured the abolition of flogging in the Army—a punishment which for generations it was the privilege of the rich to inflict upon the poor. The Irish had, he believed, procured for the English every single popular liberty they had, and he hoped that when the Prime Minister abolished flogging in the Navy he would thank the Irish Party, just as Wilberforce thanked them when slavery was abolished. He begged to move the Amendment standing in his name.

MR. TOMKINSON (Cheshire, Crewe)

said he had much pleasure in seconding this Amendment. This was by no means the first time that this subject had been brought before the House of Commons. These punishments were not merely punitive and corrective, but they were cruelly vindictive, and calculated to inflict as much pain and torture as possible. It was stated in the debate last year that one of these poor boys, after having been flogged, had to be watched by the medical officer for many hours, because he was in a dreadful state of nervous excitement, and they had to watch him very closely in order to prevent him from committing suicide.

And, it being Midnight, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed this day.

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