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The boys' training ship HMS "Impregnable" at Devonport. (Illustrated London News)
A Victorian misunderstanding
In a 19th-century standard work on corporal punishment, the Rev. Wm. M. Cooper wrote:
-- W.M. Cooper, A History of the Rod in all Countries from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, London, William Reeves, 1877
This paragraph is very misleading. Some -- including Ian Gibson in The English Vice -- have wrongly taken it to mean that the Navy made a wholesale changeover to the birch for all boys in 1858. Cooper may not have understood that "naval cadets" were a tiny elite, the boys who were destined to become naval officers. (Gibson clearly doesn't -- he uses the word 'cadet' consistently to refer to ordinary boy seamen.) We have not been able to trace the 1858 regulations to which Cooper refers, but any regulations for cadets (see glossary) would have had no relevance to ordinary boys in the Royal Navy, and, as we shall see below, the situation is a good deal more complicated than this.
Background to the Ryder report
In Part I (1780-1860) of the present series, we saw how Navy punishments started to become more standardised in the early 19th century.
We also noted that, by the middle of that century, the Admiralty realised that in order to get enough men for the fleets they would have to improve the conditions of service, and enlist more boys for training. The first training ship for boys, HMS Illustrious, duly opened in 1854. Others quickly followed. From the outset, these institutions -- which were not covered by the ordinary punishment provisions of the Queen's Regulations, but had separate regulations of their own -- used the birch as their principal summary serious punishment for the trainees.
But the Royal Navy as a whole still had an "image problem". The earlier press gangs, the privations on board and the excesses of flogging had earned the Navy a dismal reputation amongst the working class, from which the majority of its seamen came.
Such excesses were partly the result of inadequate enforcement of the rules, in an era when a great deal of autonomy had been left to individual Captains:
'The cat was King and the captain was God. He was frequently called God. ... Each shipborne god could do whatever he wished, whatever a distant Admiralty might decree.'
-- Stanley Bonnett, The Price of Admiralty: An Indictment of the Royal Navy 1805-1966, London, Robert Hale, 1968, SBN 7091 0406 5
But by mid-century that era was coming to end, and a spirit of reform was beginning to sweep through British government and society generally.
Occasionally the consequences of this lingering laxity were a matter for some humour. On one ship, apparently, all the boys were caned every morning in scenes which could have come straight out of Jimmy Edwards' "Whacko" TV comedy series a century later:
-- "Shaking Down in a New Ship" (reference temporarily mislaid)
A much more serious example was the Trident scandal in 1861. This involved canings of boys that were brutally excessive in terms of the number of strokes given. To its credit, the Admiralty in that case did court-martial the officer in charge, Commander Nicolas, for punishments which plainly went way beyond the rules. He was found guilty of cruelty and sentenced to be discharged from the service with disgrace.
Cdr Ryder investigates
In 1862, perhaps in an attempt to tackle the "image problem" caused by bad publicity of that kind, the Admiralty appointed Commander Ryder to investigate discipline in the Service and suggest reforms. It is important to note that this inquiry, which took three years, covered the Navy as a whole, and only a small part of Ryder's report relates to the punishment of boys.
Ryder began by asking Captains for their views on discipline. Whereas politicians and local administrators in civilian life tended to be nervous of open discussion about the whipping of juvenile offenders, naval officers and older seamen had no hesitation in advocating the advantages of corporal punishment for boys under training.
Officers' attitudes to the punishment of boy seamen were influenced principally by expediency and altruism. The chastisement of boys needed to be as quick and effective on a ship as it was in a school. As practised in the Navy it constituted transparent and, as a rule, regulated punishment.
Their Lordships at the Admiralty would also have been aware that birching had long been a standard punishment for boys not only at many ordinary schools but, particularly, at the Royal Hospital School in Greenwich, a naval establishment for which they were responsible. We shall be looking at this in more detail in a future chapter of this series.
The cane was already considered an essential piece of equipment in the gunroom (see glossary) to keep midshipmen (see glossary) in order, as well as to inculcate pluck, and there was no reason to deprive ordinary boy seamen under training of similar discipline. On the majority of seagoing ships the corporal's "stonnacky" or bosun's cane had, since time immemorial, been used on the spot to sharpen up skulking boys, but this was an "informal" or "unofficial" instant penalty, too minor to be recorded.
As explained in Part I, boy seamen on the majority of seagoing ships were aware that, for more serious offences, they could be flogged with the "reduced cat" across the naked posterior. This practice was not carried over into the new training ships. From the beginning these used the birch for formal punishments, being able to obtain the twigs from sources ashore, and this punishment was also introduced on the cadet ship "Britannia" as a last resort short of dismissal with disgrace.
The following statistics provide a snapshot of the situation just before Commander Ryder produced his report.
Flogging of Boys: Admiralty Abstract of 1864
(Maximum permitted lashes - 48)
(PRO ADM1 9 September 1866 Pro H 568)
(Note: The entries for the "Britannia" and the four training ships refer to birching. On the ships of the fleet at this time, before Cdr Ryder's recommendations, they still refer to floggings with the "reduced cat".)
The early days of photography: Boys of HMS "St Vincent" in 1868. The scene of 14 birchings in 1864. (from a contemporary postcard)
Cdr Ryder, in the preamble to his report, made the following suggestions and invited comments from ships' captains:
'86-1. First Class men to be liable to corporal punishment for certain serious offences.
86-2. All boys to be liable to corporal punishment for certain serious offences.
86-3. Boys to the punished with birch instead of cat.
- Ryder Report, 1866 (National Maritime Museum)
Most of the report was concerned with adult men and need not detain us here, but Cdr Ryder received the following comments on the subject of punishing boys:
- from Commander Brett, 15 October 1865
Other captains' letters to Ryder included the following remarks:
- PRO ADM1 Pro H 568 -- 9 September 1866
The Ryder Report recommendations formalised discipline for boy seamen in the Navy, establishing caning and birching as the standard forms of corporal punishment for them -- the latter for serious and the former for less serious infractions. This would bring all seagoing ships into line with the situation on the then still fairly new training ships.
The changes are agreed
Ryder's recommendations were accepted. And so the Admiralty instructed that the flogging of boys with the reduced cat be replaced by birching to a maximum of 24 'cuts' (the word 'lashes' was dropped, probably because of its association with the flogging of adult seamen). The punishment was to be awarded by summary warrant and conducted with great ritual, providing a significant experience both for the offender and for the witnessing boys.
Caning was henceforth to be inflicted over the clothed posterior, and the caning of boys' hands was abolished.
Following these changes, the Queen's Regulations -- the laws governing all Navy life -- were amended accordingly. The old section XV of Article 50 ("Minor punishments") was deleted. This had read:
-- Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, 1862
The new Queen's Regulations stated that the corporal punishment of boys was to be administered with a birch over the bare breech, in the presence of all the boys. Use of the cat on boys was now explicitly forbidden, except by order of a Court Martial. Caning was to be given with a "light and ordinary cane" on the breech, over the clothes, with a maximum of 12 strokes. This was defined as a "minor punishment" not requiring the bureaucratic procedure of a formal captain's hearing and signed warrant as with birching.
Extract from Queen's Regulations (Royal Navy), 1885
Although the use of the cane was still deemed a "minor punishment" -- bizarrely, under the strict letter of the law, it did not even count as "corporal punishment" at all -- the fact remains that, under the new regime, the actual infliction of caning now became a much more formal and ceremonial business than it had been thitherto. We shall be looking at this aspect of the matter in more detail in later chapters.
The Ryder reforms did not change anything where the "informal", unrecorded, on-the-spot punishments were concerned. Autobiographical accounts of ex-seamen and cadets refer to a teazer, togey, stonnacky, sennet whip and bimmy, all instruments of flagellation used unofficially to inflict one or two lashes across boys' posteriors and calves to speed their movement. The stonnacky with its large knot at the receiving end (occasionally weighted by being dipped in hot tallow) was aimed at boys' backsides and a 'bull's eye' hit was considered to be one when the knot struck between the buttocks.
Various such instruments were sometimes used in the washrooms of navy and merchant training ships to speed boys into and out of bathtubs and to encourage them to be silent after pipe down on the sleeping decks. One account mentioned that after a boy had dried off from bathing and was discovered with dirt still on him he was required to touch his toes to receive a bare-bottom lash with the duty officer's five-tailed whip before re-entering the tub. All this was clearly contrary to the regulations, but it appears that the authorities continued to turn a blind eye in these cases.
Reasons for the changes
Turning back to the official punishments, what was the real justification for the changeover from cat to birch for the punishment of boys? It seems fairly clear that one of the underlying justifications for the change was that the cat carried a stigma of criminality, whereas the birch was a familiar instrument of punishment in "public" and grammar schools, often referred to in boys' school stories.
In addition, there is reason to suppose that, contrary to popular belief, the birch was actually the more effective instrument. A cat had been used for boys at Cold Bath Fields prison in Clerkenwell, London (also known as the Middlesex House of Correction) and the warden was aware of its relative effectiveness, as well as of public opinion, when he compared the instrument to the birch:
- Sergeant Adams, Warden of Cold Bath Fields Prison, a witness for the Report of the Reformatory Schools Committee, 1856
Sgt Adams described the cat as being too cruel, but he was in no doubt that the birch rod was the severer instrument, an opinion evidently shared by his young inmates. Presumably the cat was thought more cruel because although boys had been whipped across their naked buttocks they were tied up to a triangle similar to that used in men's prisons. This was probably thought to add an unwelcome aura of brutality to the proceedings, and Adams would have been mindful of visiting magistrates' sentiments regarding such matters. (It was quite usual then for magistrates to attend the flogging of men and boys.) At Cold Bath Fields, according to some sources, boys were birched during the daily exercise hour so that their yells from the window of the punishment cell on an upper floor were audible to those in the yard below -- pour encourager les autres, no doubt.
Other civilian prisons were following Cold Bath Fields in introducing the birch, and devising various kinds of apparatus for its administration which were supposed to render the process more akin to a school punishment than a brutal prison flogging.
The irony here is that this very adoption of the birch by the judicial authorities was, over time, to impart to it exactly that stigma of criminality from which the Navy was attempting to distance itself. And meanwhile many schools themselves would shortly be abandoning the birch for the simpler, less messy and more decorous cane. But the Admiralty had no reason to know that at the time.
Above: The birching donkey at Cold Bath Fields Prison on which an offender was secured in the schoolboy posture and with his head close to the window overlooking the exercise yard.
Below: The birching frame in Nottingham Gaol. Boys under punishment were secured in an angled standing posture. (Galleries of Justice, Nottingham)
Birching gets under way
The exact moment when the birch replaced the cat on non-training ships can be tracked via the logbooks of, for example, "HMS Victory". In 1865 and throughout 1866 the cat was still being used for summary punishments. Victory's first floggings with a birch took place on the morning of 31 January 1867, when John Mitchell and James Monala, both Boys First Class, were awarded 24 cuts each for desertion and for being absent 59 hours, respectively.
Naval birchings were at their most frequent shortly after their introduction: there were 660 in 1870, 535 in 1874, and 401 in 1876. By the 1880s the figure had levelled out at 360 per year, where it roughly stayed: there were 315 birchings in 1900. The decline appears to be due to a nearly 50% fall in the number of boys in the Navy -- to 4,813 in 1879 for example.
But pro rata to the total of boys in the fleet, this frequency of formal c.p. is about twice what it had been with the 'cat' in the 1850s.
(Parliamentary Papers Nos. 101 and 114 of 1811, Cmd 3652 of 1883, 4083 of 1884, 4880 of 1886 and 5117 of 1887.)
Floggings by Court Martial
Finally, it is interesting to note that the flogging of boys by Court Martial, as distinct from summarily by the Captain, did occur occasionally - and continued to be by 'cat' for some time after the birch had taken over for all summary formal c.p.
One example comes from December 1867 in a Court Martial held aboard "HMS Victory" at a time when, as we saw above, summary c.p. of boys on "Victory" itself had been by birch for almost a year. The logbook of "HMS Gladiator" records:-
There were three more such cases in 1869, four in 1871 and one in 1873. Not until 1875 did the birch make its appearance at a Court Martial. In that year two boys were sentenced to birching plus imprisonment for "disgraceful conduct". The next case was in 1878 when one boy was sentenced to birching: when the case was referred to higher authority it was decided that he must be dismissed the service - but only after he had still been birched as well.
In Part III, The Bending of Twigs (not yet ready), we shall examine in more detail the practical consequences of the introduction of the birch.
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