Flogging in the Navy, 1859

NOTE: In August 1859 a young sailor, John Knight, committed suicide after being flogged for committing a homosexual offence. A letter about his suicide was published very widely in newspapers across the country in September, raising a public outcry for the abolition of flogging in the armed services. The Duke of Cumberland, the Commander in Chief, issued an order in November severely restricting the punishment of flogging. The issue was debated in Parliament in February 1860, when most speakers were in favour of abolition. However, the Royal Navy never did abolish flogging, though they suspended it in 1879.

26 September 1859

FLOGGING IN THE NAVY. – The following is an extract of a letter from her Majesty's ship Lapwing, dated 40 miles from Malta, 22d August:– "My dear Friend, – This is a very sad thing I am gong to tell you, and likewise others. One of our boys has cut his throat. The boy's name was John Knight. There was to be 20 dozen served out on board the Lapwing, all among boys, and he was to have four dozen over the back, with cane, whipped with wax ends; he had been flogged last month. They kept the body till they got to Malta, and as soon as the anchor dropped they sent a boat to the hospital for a coffin, and buried him without any court of inquiry. The poor boy's back was black and bue from his former lashes. There is another boy that was to have been flogged a second time, but the doctor said he could not stand it." (The Sun; this letter was reprinted in at least fifty newspapers during the following week.)

27 September 1859

SIR. – I have read a disagreeable statement in our paper this day about "flogging boys with cane" on board the Lapwing; but I am glad to observe that this alleged excess of punishment is only "all among the boys." The friends of the degraded John Knight, who "cut his throat," and was quietly carried in a coffin to the hospital at Malta for interment, have betrayed great indiscretion in bringing his name before the public, as he was flogged for an unnatural offence, and afterwards, finding himself in a false position, life became irksome. The Lapwing is always with the Admiral. This unfortunate case was reported to him, and, to avoid a painful exposure, a dirty investigation, from which no kind of advantage could be derived, that officer, with a single eye to the credit of his fleet, permitted the body of John Knight to escape more obloquy. – I am, &c.
                    Greenwich, Sept. 26. (London Daily News)

1 October 1859

To the Editor of the KENTISH MERCURY.
SIR, – I venture to request permission to call the attention of the Members of Parliament of Greenwich to the following paragraph which appeared in the Morning Chronicle of the 27th instant:–
          "FLOGGING IN THE NAVY. – The following is an extract of a letter from H.M.S. Lapwing, dated 40 miles from Malta, 22d August:– 'My dear Friend, – This is a very sad thing I am going to tell you, and likewise to others. One of our boys has cut his throat. The boy's name was John Knight. There was to be twenty dozen served out on board the Lapwing, all among the boys, and he was to have four dozen over the back, with cane, whipped with wax ends; he had been flogged last month. They kept the body till they got to Malta, and as soon as the anchor was dropped they sent a boat to the hospital for a coffin, and buried him without any court of enquiry. The boy's back was black and blue from his former lashes. There is another boy that was to have been flogged a second time, but the doctor said he could not stand it."
          Under ordinary circumstances comment would be as superefluous as the hideos inference is plain; but one would think when we spend upwards of £30,000 as a bounty for seamen to join the navy, and vote £10,000 to form a naval volunteer corps, that it is full time to find some other punishment than flogging, which, while it fails in repressing crime, succeeds only in driving men from the navy, in this instance, into the dread persence of their Creator. John Knight has appealed to a Divine Judge from the justice of a British man-of-war.
          This question intimately concerns us, the men of Greenwich, because our borough is continually desecrated by this brutal lash – because one of our Members maintains that the lash is necessary to discipline, in other words, upholds as necessary a punishment that drove poor Knight from time into eternity, to seek in heaven, at the feet of his Maker, that mercy which was denied to him on earth. Mr. Salomons may move for returns, Mr. Bristow may bring the subject before the House, and Greenwich may again be stultified, but what matter, Mr. Angerstin represents the intelligence, the education, the humanity of Greenwich. France may threaten, England be panic-stricken, seamen be wanted, the British navy rot, and John Knight murdered, but what matter, Mr. Angerstin considers it necessary, and Greenwich by his vote will sanction its continuance.
          But, sir, some great minds are so peculiarly constituted, that they hold most pertinaciously to their old world notions while preparing themselves to the new order of things. They refuse to concede one iota to claimour; they require to be convinced. Of this class the late Sir R. Peel, when dealing with the corn laws, was a conspicuous example. Mr. Angerstin is no less eminent. As candicate for our sufferings he suppoted the continuance of church rates; as M.P., he supported the abolition of them. Let us hope that he will be no less consistent with regard to the lash.
          It is Mr. Bright's opinion that one man must be flogged to death before the punishment will be abolished. The slaughter has taken place – the victim has sacrificed himself – the hgh priest of the lash has been robbed of his due, and John Knight has been committed to the dust in foreign lands as 'our dear brother here departed in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life;' the waves of life close up over this poor boy. H.M.S. Lapwing pursues her mission, and none think of John Knight, for "no inquiry is held," although, mayhap, a widowed mother's heart may break, an Englishman's cheek may blush, and the British navy remain unmanned.
          I am, sir, your obedient servant,
                    29th September, 1859.           AN ELECTOR."
(Before our correspondent undertook to arouse public indignation at the punishment and fate of "poor Knight" it would have been just as well if he had informed himself of the nature of the offence for which "poor Knight" was ordered a sound caning; and of the circumstances which led "poor Knight" to cut his throat. The fact is John Knight had attempted a deplorable crime which, but a few years ago, was punishable with "Death." The matter was refered to the admiral of the station, who, taking into consideration the youth of the offender and the mischief arising from investigatino into such an offence, ordered the young vagabond to be flogged. This, however, was a light punishment to him in comparison with the disgust and indignation excited against him, on part of the crew of the Lapwing, by the nature of the crime he had committed; and he was fairly sent to conventry. In a paroxysm of remorse "poor Knight" cut his throat; which, if our correspondent knew all about the case, he would, we believe, adknowledge was the best thing for society "poor Knight" could do. – ED. K.M.) (Kentish Mercury)

4 October 1859

THERE is a complaint that the Government, in spite of the "bounty" and other attractions, cannot get a sufficient number of seamen to man the navy. What wonder when such atrocities as the following are known to our maritime population. We take the annexed paragraph from the Weekly Dispitch:–
          FLOGGING IN THE NAVY. – [letter as reprinted above]
          The alleged atrocity calls for instant and rigid inquiry. But as we know what usually comes from Government inquiries, we must add that the safety, as well as the honour of the country demands the immediate and total abolition of the lash. Failing this, able seamen will hesitate to join the navy, and our sailors and others will refuse to encourage their sons to enter a service in which they are liable to the doom of the poor boy KNIGHT.
          We have headed this article the "Cat." The boys, it appears, on board H.M.S. "Lapwing" are flogged with a cane "whipped with wax ends," as brutal an instrument of punishmen for a boy as the "cat" is for a man. Any one, be he Minister, member of Parliament, or officer who, especially under existing circumstances, defends or excuses the atrocious "cat" is an enemy to his country. (Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph)

1 October 1859

FLOGGING IN THE NAVY. – The following is an extract of a letter from her Majesty's ship Lapwing [letter repeated as before].
          A public meeting has been held at Woolwich to denounce flogging in the army and navy. Letters were read from Mr. Salomons, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Bristow, members of Parliament, concurring in the object of the meeting, and from Mr. Angerstein, one of the borough members. – A military court of inquiry has been held at Woolwich, to inquire into the flogging of a gunner of the Royal Artillery Corps, who, it was alleged was in no condition to endure such puishment, his back being partially covered with boils. The Court, we hear, decided that the medical officer was blameable for allowing the punishment to be inflicted, and he was reprimanded accordingly. As a consequence of the publicity given to the case by the press, the commanding officer of the battery to which the man belongs has received several most insulting letters; but he had not the power to set aside the sentence of the court-martial, sanctioned by the highest military authority. On the other hand, when a court-martial passes sentence of flogging, the medical officer of the battery or brigade to which the delinquent belongs is bound to certify that the prisoner is physically in a condition to receive the punishment, or it cannot legally be administered. (Illustrated Times)

1 October 1859

WE are glad to find that some public movement has taken place upon the above practice, and we hope that public opinion will every day grow in strength till the ferocious practice is put a stop to, and we govern our soldiers in a manner worthy of a civilized people. Surely there should be some expression of public feeling in this town, and every opportunity should be taken to express disgust at the inhuman law which subjects a fellow man to the torture, and makes brutal all the better feelings of our nature. We were, therefore, glad to find that our townsman, Mr. Alderman BRIDGMAN, alluded to this subject at a convivial meeting, and though in a convivial manner, no less effective on that account. Mr. BRIDGMAN extracted from the chairman, Mr. HARDCASTLE, his determination to put a stop to this practice as far as his influence extended in the House of Commons. We trust we have not a member, either of town or county, that would disgrace himself by voting for the continuance of a brutal practice that must be ere long swept away. It is a subject that does not admit of argument, any more than we can defend cruelty or dishonesty, or say any thing in defence of telling lies or getting drunk. It is a matter for simple denunciation, and it depends upon the loudness of the voice we arise how long the hideous law is to disgrace the statute book of England.
          The subjoined paragraph, from the Devenport Independent, is but another illustration of the horrirs of flogging, as practised in the navy:– The following is an extract of a letter from H.M.S. Lapwing, [letter reprinted as before]. (The Bury Free Press)

1 October 1859

SUICIDE OF A FLOGGED MAN-OF-WAR'S BOY OFF MALTA. – The following is an extract of a letter from Her Majesty's ship Lapwing), [letter as reprinted before]. (York Herald)

16 November 1859

                                                                                HORSE GUARDS, S.W., Nov. 9.
          His Royal Highess the General Commanding-in-Chief, having had occasion lately to remark on the unequal estimate of crime and allotment of punishment by Courts-martial, especially as regards corporal punishment, has taken this important subject under his anxious consideration, with a view to amendment and correction. With this object he has decided upon establishing a classification of soldiers, for the purpose of maintaining a distinction between the classes as regards liability to corporal punishment.
          All men on entering the army will be placed in the first class, and will not, except for aggravated mutinous conduct, be liable to corporal punishment. They will continue in the first class unless they should incur degradation into the second class by the commission of certain crimes hereafter specified. For this purpose his Royal Highness has further decided on classifying the offences committed by soldiers under two distinct heads. Crimes under the first head are to be the following:–
          Absence from parade.
          Riotous conduct in the streets.
          Absence without leave from tattoo.
          Preferring frivolous complaints.
          Disrespect to non-commissioned officers.
          Striking a comrade.
          Absence without leave, as defined by 51 Art. of War.
          Escaping from confinement.
          Making away with necessaries.
          Falsely imputing improper conduct to a superior.
          Sleeping on post, depending on the circumstances and nature of the service.
Crimes under the 2d head are to be the following:–
          Mutinous conduct.
          Aggravated cases of insubordination and violence.
          Drunkenness on duty or on line of march.
          Embezzling public money.
          Stealing from a comrade.
          Designedly maiming.
          Repeated acts of making away with necessaries, arms, accoutrements, ammunication, &c.
          Other disgraceful acts showing vicious or unnatural propensities, indecent assaults.
          No man guilty of offences under the 1st head is to be subject to corporal punishment, except during time of war, when the army is in the field.
          Men guilty of offences under the 2d head, being crimes of a very serious description, will, if in the second class, be liable to corporal punishment. If, however, they are in the first class, they will, together with their other punishment, not being corporal punishment, be disrated, and passed into the second class, when they will henceforth, on the repetition of crimes under the 2d head, be liable to corporal punishment, as having degraded themselves by their own bad conduct.
          Uninterrupted good conduct for a year will, however, again restore the soldier from the second to the first class, as proving a desire for reformation and amendment.
          Though thus classified, it does not follow that all men under the second class are to be condemned to corporal punishment.
          Each case is to be decided upon its own merits, and corporal punishment as much avoided as possible; but a man who by his misconduct has placed himself in the second class is liable thereafter to corporal punishment, whereas the man in the first class is not liable to such punishment, except in the case of aggravated mutinous conduct, when severity must at once be resorted to to repress more serious mischief resulting from such conduct.
          His Royal Highness trusts that the above classification will greatly simplify to the officers of the army the method of dealing with crime; will deter the evil-disposed from committing offences, justly subjecting them to severe punishment, which, though necessary to maintain discipline, should be restricted as much as possible; and will give confidence to the good soldier by securing to him, on entering her Majesty's service, an immunity from degrading punishment, which immunity it will be in his power to preserve to the day when his engagement shall expire.
          By command of his Royal Highness
                    the General Commanding-in-Chief,
                              G. A. WETHERALL, Adjutant-General. (The Globe)

19 November 1859

The Adjutant General, Sir. G. Augustus Wetherall, has addressed a letter to The Times upon the subject of flogging in the army, in which he points out the new regulations which have just been laid down by the Commander-in-Chief. [Repeats these regulations] . . . The new regulations are to the effect that no one guilty of offences under the first head shall be corporally punishable, except during time of war when the army is in the field. If he belong to the first class, however, he will be disrated and sent into the second class. Of offences under the second head, if a man committing any of them belong to the first class, he will be sent into the second class, with such punishment as may be awarded, excepting that of a corporal character. If he belong to the second class he will be liable to corporal punishment. In order, however, to provide for reformation and amendment, uninterrupted good conduct for a year will restore the soldier from the second to the first class with its immunities and privileges. We should much have liked to learn that the Duke of Cambridge had seen his way clearly to the abolition of flogging, but at all events the step he has taken is one in the right direction. Henceforward a man who brings corporal punishment upon himself will do it deliberately and in spite of forewarning. (Leeds Intelligencer)

DEBATE IN PARLIAMENT, 16 February 1860

MR. W. WILLIAMS, in rising to call the attention of the House to flogging in the Army and Navy, said the system was most injurious to those services because it prevented respectable men from joining them. Upon their soldiers and sailors the country depended for fame, for honour and for security, and yet under the existing pactice our soldiers and sailors were liable, for trivial offences, to receive worse treatment than that given to convicted criinals and felons. By the present law no culprit could be flogged in the public streets except one who had actually threatened the life of the Queen. Yet our soldiers and sailors were placed on the same degraded level as that execrable miscreant . . . . It was not often that descriptions of this punishment appeared in the newspapers, but whenever they did they excited the greatest disgust in the public mind. A short time ago two soldiers were flogged at Woolwich, . . . It was a disgrace to our Christianity and our civilization that such disgusting exhibitions should be allowed. . . . The Duke of Cambridge, much to his honour and credit, had recently issued regulations in restraint of flogging; but he (Mr. Williams) did not anticipate much effect from them, and he hoped his Royal Highness would abolish flogging altogether. . . . The punishment in the army was mercy itself compared with that in the navy. The cat was heavier in the navy; it was wielded in a different manner, and it was admitted that fifty lashes in the navy were equivalent to 150 in the army. . . . He (Mr. Williams) was sorry to say that flogging had also of late increased in the navy. In 1852 the number of men punished was 578, and they received 17,578 lashes; whereas in 1858, 997 men received 32,420 lashes. . . The present Admiralty had followed the example of the Duke of Cambridge with respect to regulations as to flogging, and he trusted that some effect would be experienced in the diminution of the punishment, if it was not, as he trusted it would be, abolished altogether. . . . The principal offences for which sailors were flogged were drunkanness, absence without leave, insubordination, dirtiness, neglect of duty, telling untruths, theft, smoking at a man's post, fighting, &c. Was it right that a brave fellow should have his back flayed and his flesh torn from his bones for such offences? . . . Was it to be endured that men to whom the country owed so much of its greatness should be subjected to such treatment because old gentlemen with high naval titles had no ideas but such as were in vogue fifty years ago, when their ships were manned by means of the press-gang? . . .
MR. BRISTOW, in seconding the Motion, said, that both the War Office and the Admiralty had recently issued excellent regulations on the subject, but he wished to see flogging altogether abolished. It was a cruel punishment and formed one of the most prominent anomalies which existed between our civil and our military jurisprudence. . . . The time was come when this punishment, degrading alike to the person who ordered it, the person who administered it, and the person who received it, should be entirely done away with.
COLONEL NORTH asked the hon. Member for Lambeth whether he had ascertained the truth of the statement he had made to the house? . . . it was perfectly intolerable that a person should get up and brand an officer with cruelty and discreditable conduct without first ascertaining whether that officer had power to remit the sentence or not. The only person who had power, under ordinary circumstances, to remit the punishment in the absence of the oficer who had confirmed the sentence was the surgeon of the regiment. A more painful duty could not devolve on any officer than to be obliged to superintend a punishment parade; but he should have a mean opinion of one who shirked the duty if it fell to his lot. The hon.Member had year after year complained of flogging in the army and navy. . . . The officers of the army and navy had to curb the natural passions of men. . . . Discipline must e maintained in the army, drunkenness checked, and orderly behaviour enforced; if it were not, the hon. Member for Lambeth would be one of the first to complain.
MR. ALDERMAN SALOMONS. . . . He thought it was not enough to condemn military men for flogging men for slight offences, but this House ought also to bear its share of the blame for having given them authorithy to do so.
LORD CLARENCE PAGET . . . As his hon. and gallant Friend had stated, it was one of the most painful duties that officers could perform to superintend the infliction of that dreadful corporal punishment. But, as the service was at present constituted, it was one that, he was bound to say, could not be immediatley and wholy abolished. During the past year the heads of the two services had endeavoured, by introducing a system of classification, to lessen gradually this disgraceful punishment, and it was proof of the anxiety of the officers to prevent flogging as much as possible, that out of the whole Channel Fleet only three per cent of the men had been put into the second class – that is to say, the class which was liable to corporal punishment wihtout the sentence of a court-martial. . . .
MR. ROEBUCK said, he thought the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel North) had spoken of the Motion in somewhat of an angry tone; but it appeared to him a wise and good thing to bring it forward. It was not directed in a spirit of animosity against the officers of the army and navy, who were acting under necessity. Those who, with himself and the hon. Member for Lambeth, held that the punishment of flogging should be done away with wished an inqiry into the matter. . . . The nobel Lord said he was about to bring in a Bill for a reform of the penal code of the navy, and he (Mr. Roebuck) trusted that in the reformed code there would be found a clause for the abolition of the lash. He was sorry to see the noble Lord shake his head in negation of that hope, but he would tell him that unless there was a diminution of these dreadful punishments, his reform would be no reform at all; because he was sure no man after being flogged was an equal man to what he was before, and he would never believe that a soldier or sailor was the same man in the defence of his country and the honour of his flag after being degraded before hie fellows by this dire punishment. . . .
MR. BUXTON said, that he heartily concurred in the observations of the hon. Member who had just addressed the House. . . . When the new orders were issued from the Horse Guards and the Amiralty last autumn, he thought the matter was put upon a perfectly satisfactory footing; but prolonged inquiry and investigation had made him feel that the reform adopted by the authorities, though an undoubted improvement, yet would be far, indeed, from abolishing this mode of punishment, or getting rid of the serious evils which it engendered. . . . In the navy every man, whether in the first class or in the second, would still be liable to be flogged. The main difference made by the new orders would be this – that while the men in the first class could only be flogged after a trial by a court martial, those in the second could be flogged at the will and pleasure of the captain for any one of eight offences. The only wonder to him was, that these restrictions should not have been adopted long ago, without waiting for an outburst of public opinion. . . . The plain truth was, that flogging was a puishment of so barbarous a character that ere long it must be inevitably sent by the feelings of a Christian and humane country to the same limbo to which had been consigned those ancient instruments of torture, and those horrid penalties for treason, which used to be defended upon the very same ground as the lash is now. . . .
[The House agreed to the final Motion, which was[ "That there be laid before this House, a Return of the number of Persons flogged in the Navy in the year 1859, specifying the name of the ships, and of the commanding officers, the offence, the sentence, and the number of lashes inflicted on each person, stating whether by order of Court Martial or the Commanding Officer". (Hansard, Volume 156, cols. 1162 ff.)
(Flogging was never abolished in the Royal Navy, though it was suspended in 1879; it was abolished in the British Army in 1888.)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Flogging in the Navy, 1859", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 1 November 2020 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1859flog.htm>.

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