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United Kingdom: Caning in the Royal Navy, 1920s: Internal government report

Admiralty Papers, Public Record Office

ADM 178/74

Extract from Board Minutes.

Monday, 6th July, 1931.

Caning in the Royal Navy.

2835. The First Lord informed the Board that he viewed with considerable concern the amount of caning of boys that took place in the Navy, and that it appeared from a paper which had been prepared, that the extent to which this punishment was resorted to varied very considerably between ship and ship and between the two Training Establishments. He therefore wished the Board to consider the whole question, and for this purpose a memorandum would be circulated prior to a fuller discussion by the Board.


Caning of Boys in the Navy: Note by Naval Law Branch, 10th July, 1931

The rules at present governing caning as a summary punishment in the Royal Navy are as follows:- (Art. 585, Clause 2, K.R. & A.I.)


2. CANING on the breech with clothes on is limited to boys rated as such and to Boy Buglers and Band Boys when embarked and is to be inflicted with a light and ordinary cane. The number of cuts or blows is not to exceed 12, and the punishment is not to be carried out in public. Caning is intended for the serious offences of theft, immorality, drunkenness, desertion (in special cases as an act of leniency), insubordination and deliberate or continued disobedience of orders. In the absence of the Captain, the Commanding Officer is not to order caning to be inflicted, unless the Captain shall be absent from duty by permission of superior authority for more than 48 hours."

In the boys training establishments, there is a further limitation that not less than 6 cuts must be awarded, the object being to emphasise the fact that the award of caning as a punishment is restricted to the more serious offences.

The regulations in their present form date back to 1912, when the question of caning was considered very fully by the Board on the report of the Brock Committee on Naval Discipline. That Committee reported as follows:-

"150. The Committee have devoted much attention to the question of the punishment of boys who misconduct themselves. In their opinion it is necessary that there shall be some means of correction which, while not having any bad results or interfering with their course of training, will act as a deterrent.

"151. The number of appropriate punishments which can be inflicted on boys is very limited, and, apart from caning, almost the only means of dealing with the troublesome boys is by treating them as men and giving them punishments which in many cases involve their association with the bad characters in the ship; this invariably leads to boys so treated considering themselves as heroes, and does more harm than good. Most of these other punishments are protracted and are likely to cause the boys to brood, and for this reason they are objectionable. Statistics which have been compiled show that there has been no increase in the ratio of punishments to numbers borne for the Navy generally since 1902, and though the ratio in the case of boys remained practically the same until 1906 (in which year the restrictions on caning were introduced), since that year it has increased by over 40 per cent. It is thus evident that the other punishments adopted in lieu of caning were quite ineffective.

"152. It appears to be the opinion of the petty officers that the behaviour of the boys in the service has deteriorated considerably since the restrictions on caning have been in force, that boys are not so amenable to discipline, and that they do not treat their superiors with the same respect as formerly. No doubt this is partly due to the fact that discipline in all grades of life ashore is more lax than it was, and that boys consequently enter the service with very little idea of obedience or deference to those in authority over them; but as far as the Navy is concerned in the present day, when men are distributed in small parties in different compartments in many cases without constant control by a superior, strict discipline and unfailing obedience are more essential than ever.

"153. The Committee have diligently sought for any convincing reason for the objections which have been raised to this form of punishment, but have been unable to discover one. They have, however, received from all classes in the Navy practically unanimous testimony as to the value of caning as a deterrent, and the manner in which this testimony was given was in their opinion sufficient to convince any unprejudiced person that there was nothing about the punishment to which objection could be taken, and that, while it left no bad results, it was sufficiently unpleasant to induce those who received it to hesitate before committing themselves again. The Committee have received direct evidence to this effect and also to the fact that other punishments may be inflicted on boys again and again without good results.

"154. They, therefore, have arrived at the conclusion that caning is by far the most suitable punishment for boys. They recommend that the order directing the punishment to be inflicted in private should remain in force, but there is an anomaly in regard to caning which in the opinion of the Committee should be remedied: they allude to the fact that the regulations at present direct that caning is only to be inflicted under the actual order of the Captain, though the Commanding Officer in the absence of the Captain has full powers with regard to the award of all other punishments, and they submit that this restriction should be removed. It has been recommended by some officers that the executive officer, if of the rank of Commander, should be authorised to inflict this punishment up to six cuts without the necessity of obtaining the Captain's approval in each case, and the Committee see no objection to this proposal. They further recommend that all boy ratings under the age of 18, including marines, should be eligible to be caned."

The attention of the Board has previously been drawn to the large increase in the percentage of the total number of punishments awarded to boys in the years prior to 1912, referred to in paragraph 151 of the Committee's report.

The Board, however, were unable to accept the view of the Committee that there should be power to delegate the award of this punishment to the Commander whenever the Captain was absent, but they agreed that in the absence of the Captain from duty by permission of superior authority for more than 48 hours, the officer in command might order the punishment to be inflicted. They also decided to make general the rule (previously applied only to the Training Service) that caning should only be awarded for the more serious offences enumerated in Art. 585(2).

Statistics have been prepared showing the percentages of canings awarded in the last few years in the boys' training establishments, and the total number of punishments awarded to boys, to the average number of boys borne. Figures for the training squadron for 1926, 1929 and 1930 have also been obtained, as well as for typical ships of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets

These figures, which are given in Table A attached, do not enable any very definite conclusions to be drawn, though they show that, while canings and punishments generally have increased in the Training Establishments between 1926 and 1929, the canings fell considerably last year, but the total punishments increased. In the Training Squadron both canings and punishments have decreased. The number of boys in ships other than the training squadron is so small that much importance should not be attached to the figures in their case. Figures of canings worked out for typical ships before the war showed an average of 67% for a period of 4 years, so that the present day percentages, which only in one case exceed 50%, are considerably lower.

There are, however, considerable differences as between ship and ship and establishment and establishment for which there seems to be no very satisfactory reason, even allowing for the human element. Thus, both canings and punishments in the ST. VINCENT for 1927-29 years were appreciably higher than in the GANGES, and particularly so in 1929, when it would be expected that the former establishment would have settled down. In 1930, although canings in the ST. VINCENT have fallen to about the same level as in the GANGES, total punishments are still much heavier. In the Training Squadron in 1929, there were in the MARLBOROUGH only 17 canings during the year for an average total of 306 boys (5.5%) and in the EMPEROR OF INDIA 150 canings for an average total of 337 boys (44.5%). In 1930 there were 20 canings in the MARLBOROUGH for 290 boys (6.8%) and 100 in the EMPEROR OF INDIA for 310 boys (32%), although the EMPEROR OF INDIA had given total punishments. The FISGARD figures are considerably below those of the other establishments, but this would be expected in view of the different type of boy entered.

There can be no doubt that, for the great majority of boys (there are of course exceptions), caning is the most suitable punishment for the more serious offences and generally speaking, caning is preferable to such alternative punishments as imprisonment, detention or cells, which are unsuitable for boys if they can be avoided. The Commanding Officers of the Training Establishments are unanimous on this point. As regards the medical aspect of the question, the M.D.G. states no permanent physical injury is inflicted by caning as at present carried out and that the type of boy entering the Navy is not likely to be affected from the mental point of view.

One might go further and say that punishments of the "extra work" type or confinement to quarters would be likely, for growing boys undergoing instruction, to be more harmful. The Captain of the GANGES states that, although caning is severe, it is soon over and does not weigh on a boy's mind to the same extent as a long period of 8a,** which is very apt to affect the boy's school and general work. He adds that an intensified form of 8a would be necessary to replace caning, if the latter were abolished or restricted.


** 8a punishment consists of having meals at defaulters table, standing on deck for half an hour during the dinner hour, half an hour's drill during recreation time, turning out half an hour earlier and standing on deck, leave and pocket money stopped.

If it is agreed that caning is generally the most suitable punishment for the more serious offences, two questions arise: (i) whether the offences at present named in Art. 585(2) ought to be restricted further, and (ii) whether Commanding Officers do, in practice, restrict the punishment to the more serious offences, in accordance with the spirit of the regulation, as much as they might. Table B shows the percentage of canings to the total punishments awarded to boys and although the percentage varies to some extent in different establishments, there is not sufficient evidence to show that it is being awarded for a wider range of offences than was the case in 1926. The Captain of the GANGES states, however, that over 50% of the canings each year have been awarded for the offence of smoking, which is direct disobedience of orders, and probably, the same occurs in other establishments. It may be that only the very bad cases are so dealt with, but there appears to be a loophole here in the working of Art. 585 -- deliberate or continued disobedience of orders -- in that small offences against standing orders or regulations can be regarded as deliberate disobedience of orders. The regulation might be strengthened by substituting, "or gross and continued disobedience of orders" for the present wording -- this would secure that a first offence is not so punished -- but the other offences mentioned, "theft, immorality, drunkenness, desertion and insubordination", hardly call for any disqualification.

Apart from this, the differences in the number of canings awarded in different ships or establishments might be pointed out confidentially and Commanding Officers instructed to use every endeavour to keep down the number as much as possible; also Commanders-in-Chief could be told when examining the punishment returns to draw attention to any cases where the numbers seem to be abnormally high or where the punishment has been awarded for offences not specified in the regulations.


Extract from Board Minutes.

Wednesday, 29th July, 1931.

Caning of Boys in the Royal Navy.

2844. In accordance with Board Minute 2835 a Memorandum on the subject of the caning of Boys in the Navy had been circulated to the Board, which summarised the present Regulations on the subject and contained statistics as to the punishments inflicted in the Boys' Training Establishments and in one or two typical ships.

The Board considered two alternative courses of action:-

(1) To suspend the punishment of caning entirely for a period, at the same time informing the Fleet that this was done as an experiment and that the results were to be carefully watched, Their Lordships' hope being that experience would show that discipline amongst Boys could be maintained without recourse to this punishment;

(2) To retain the punishment but to restrict it even more stringently than it is at present restricted by Article 585, at the same time informing the Fleet of the Board's intention that it should not be resorted to except for the punishment of very serious offences, and strongly impressing on Commanders-in-Chief the necessity for watching the matter carefully and investigating any cases in which the number of canings in an individual ship or establishment was high.

After discussion it was agreed --

(a) that the latter alternative should, in the first instance, be adopted and that the results should be carefully watched;

(b) that Article 585 should be amended as proposed in the Memorandum before the Board;

(c) that Commanding Officers should have their attention drawn confidentially to the fact that the numbers of canings in different ships and establishments vary in a manner that suggests that some Commanding Officers have recourse to this punishment too freely, and should be informed that caning should not be resorted to except for the punishment of very serious offences as laid down in Article 585, which has been amended to make it clear that ordinary offences against standing orders or regulations should not be punished by caning unless persisted in despite direct orders and warnings;

(d) that returns as to caning should, for the present, be rendered monthly through the Commanders-in-Chief, who should investigate any cases where the numbers of canings seem to be unduly high or where the punishment appears to have been awarded for offences of insufficient gravity, having regard to the amended wording of Article 585.

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