HC Deb 08 August 1834 vol 25 cc1102-11
Colonel Evans

presented a petition from the churchwardens, overseers, and parishioners of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, against military flogging. He was of opinion that military flogging was not necessary to maintain the discipline of the army. He was not one of those philanthropists who viewed the question merely as a matter of cruelty inflicted on the offender, but he looked at it as a dishonour and degradation to the British army; and even granting the punishment to be abstractedly good, he contended that, in the present state of the public mind, it ought not to be continued. The French army was one of the most efficient in the world, and yet the practice of military flogging was not known in it. He had been told it was unwise to set up the French army as an example to those by whom they had been vanquished, but he would remind the House that the Roman army, which was the best disciplined that ever existed, carefully studied the custom and discipline of the various armies they overcame. Our troops were certainly much more civilized than the Russian boors, but even in that army the practice of flogging was much less frequently resorted to than it was in our own. It was well known that no soldiers were more attached to the service than the Russians, and that desertion was rarely known to occur. He was of opinion a substitute might be found, but that substitute must be a severe one to maintain the discipline of the army. He would not say, that in very severe cases corporal punishment should not be adopted, but he thought, it would be much better that, in the most depraved instances, for the sake of example, capital punishment should be inflicted, than a repetition of what had proved worse than useless. In the course of last year 9,000 Courts-martial had taken place, and 5,000 soldiers had passed through the public gaols. The principle crime was that of drunkenness; but what did it show? Did it prove that flogging, which was now used, should be more frequently resorted to, or that it should be abolished? It was a maxim in punishment, that whatever mode of punishment excited the sympathy of the spectator in favour of the criminal was injurious. This alone he considered a sufficient objection to the continuance of corporal punishment, for whenever a flogging took place, the offender was considered an object of pity, and the offence of which he was guilty entirely overlooked. The difficulty was, to suggest a substitute, and what he proposed was, that some of the measures of the French minister Marshal Soult, which had been published, should be adopted in the British army. He proposed, that the power of the commanding officer to punish should be increased; that the power to imprison, which was at present for only thirty-eight hours, should be greatly extended, that the offender should be fed on bread and water, mulcted of his pay, kept to hard labour, with a weight tied to his leg if necessary, and that those who had been frequently flogged should be discharged the army and sent to the colonies. He thought the system of granting discharges in the British army was erroneous; the good man who possessed the means was allowed to purchase his discharge, while it was not in the power of the commanding officer to take any step to rid the army of the bad men. Whatever view the House might take of the question, this degrading punishment, he trusted, would not be suffered much longer to continue.

Mr. Tennyson

said, he had been intrusted with a similar petition from some of the inhabitants of Westminster, and he would take that opportunity to present it, that both petitions might be disposed of at the same time. The hon. Member expressed the deep abhorrence the petitioners entertained of the practice of military flogging, and their disgust at the scene which had lately taken place at St. George's barracks, and earnestly hoped the system would be entirely put an end to. He considered the degradation of corporal punishment calculated to destroy that high sense of moral feeling and honour which should always animate the British army, and hoped to see it speedily abolished. He was happy to hear that a commission was about to be issued, but trusted it would not be composed entirely of officers.

Sir John Byng

said, nothing was more calculated to insure a fair consideration of the question, and the hope of an entire abolition of the practice of flogging, than the temperate tone in which the subject had been discussed. He was far from finding fault with those individuals who petitioned the House on this subject, feeling satisfied that they were actuated by the most humane and generous motives; he was only desirous to observe that those were much mistaken, and knew very little of the character of British officers, who supposed they were opposed to the abolition of this punishment from any other motive than a wish to uphold the discipline of the army. He was free to admit, that public opinion had now advanced to that stage that some alteration must take place. Nothing was more difficult, in his opinion, than to find a substitute for flogging. He believed, that no substitute would be so good as that of solitary confinement, but even that was liable to many objections. It could not be adopted when the army was on active service or on march. Then with respect to mulcting a soldier of his pay, he thought, such a mode of punishment likely to lead to the most serious consequences, as there was no question on which a soldier looked with greater delicacy. Every substitute was liable to many objections, and, therefore, the wisest course would be to let the question be fairly and fully investigated by the commission which was about to issue. He suggested that, if the commission should be composed of any individuals who were not military men, the present and the late right hon. Secretaries at War should be among the number. He knew there was no Member of that House more averse to military flogging than the right hon. member for Nottingham (Sir J. Hobhouse), and that, whether in office or out of office he had done all in his power to put an end to it. For his own part he believed, from the feeling that was entertained by the present Ministry, the practice would be shortly done away with; but his recommendation was, that it should not be done hastily nor without the most mature consideration.

Sir Edward Codrington

congratulated the House on the altered tone in which this subject was debated, and that the argument did not proceed upon the supposition that naval and military men felt a pleasure in the exercise of the power of administering the lash. He could only say, when it had been his painful duty to witness a flogging he had nearly fainted, though nothing else had ever caused him to faint in the whole course of his life. Those persons who taunted British officers with a delight in the exercise of the power of flogging knew very little of the subject, or of the character of those who had the command of the navy. When he had the power in his own hands, he should have been very glad to have got rid of it, or to have delegated it to some other person. He should be glad to see the practice abolished, if a substitute could be found to maintain the discipline of the army; but until that substitute could be found, the power should be retained, no less in behalf of the good soldier than the bad. The practice of flogging was continually resorted to by the civil magistrate—it took place under their own eye—and yet no complaint was ever made against the Magistrate for awarding such a punishment. So long, therefore, as it was made use of in one part of the public service, why should it not in another?

Mr. Buckingham

said, the army and the navy, it was well known, contained many inferior men, and what was the reason? Why, when men had been found unfit for anything else, it was said, "Oh, they are quite good enough for the army and navy." It was not to be wondered at, therefore, that so much insubordination and crime prevailed in the army; and so would they continue to prevail as long as the army was supplied with bad men. To render the army effective, and to make punishment unnecessary, an inducement should be supplied for better men to enlist. For his own part he believed, that drunkenness was the principal cause of the crimes and insubordination that existed in the army. He recommended that the higher offices of the army should be open to every man who entered it, and that they should be attained by those who exhibited good con- duct and attention to military duty. We thought by giving men an inducement to behave well by the prospect of rising in the army, the commission of crime would be diminished, and corporal punishment rendered unnecessary.

Colonel Leith Hay

thought it necessary to observe, that steps had been taken to afford the means of increasing the punishment of solitary confinement in the army. A report had been made to the Board of Ordinance in the year 1831, from certain persons appointed to inquire into the extent to which solitary confinement could be adopted in the army. That Report stated, that 102 cells would be equal to all that was required for the whole of the military. In conformity with that Report ninety-eight cells had been completed at the different barracks. With regard to the conduct of Colonel Bowater, he would remark, that it was not in the power of Colonel Bowater to alter the punishment awarded. The offender could not have been taken before any other tribunal, drunkenness and mutiny being cognizable only by a district Court-martial, and not a regimental Court-martial, except under circumstances of a very peculiar nature. As the offence, therefore, was one which could only be tried by a district Court-martial, and as Colonel Bowater did not possess the power to diminish one stroke of the sentence awarded by it, no possible blame could attach to that gallant officer.

Mr. Wilks

said, that when the brave and gallant Admiral had fainted at the sight of a military flogging, there was some foundation for the sympathy of the people of England. He trusted, that the statements which had been made to-day would be satisfactory to the public. The feelings of humanity could not much longer be outraged by the infliction of corporal punishment, the result of which had been rather to increase than diminish crime. He agreed with the hon. member for Sheffield, that they must endeavour to introduce into the army and navy a superior body of men instead of the refuse of the gaol and the workhouse, and encourage good conduct and honourable ambition, by the prospect of rising to the highest station.

Sir Samuel Whalley

contended, that military flogging was not necessary to maintain the discipline of the army, as was proved by the 3rd regiment of guards in which no flogging took place. During the Peninsular war the greatest subordination prevailed in that regiment without having once resorted to the practice. He trusted the commission would not be composed entirely of military and naval men, such persons being no more competent to judge of the propriety of military flogging than a body of schoolmasters to judge of flogging school-boys.

Mr. Craven Berkeley

said, the case of Hutchinson had been much misrepresented, and he thought it much better for those individuals who wished to see the practice abolished to say no more on the subject, as it would only tend to prejudice their case.

Sir Thomas Troubridge

was of opinion that, at least, much good would be done by the discussion. He thought the public would feel assured that the subject was seriously taken up by the Government, while the commission which was about to issue would be productive of general satisfaction.

Mr. Ashley Cooper

stated, as far as his own military experience went, he could say, that corporal punishment was more frequently administered for stealing necessaries, which was the most general offence in the army, than for any other crime.

Captain Gordon

would be glad to see any punishment proposed that would meet his views as a substitute for corporal punishment, but until that was done, he could not consent to the entire abolition of the practice.

Mr. Ruthven

was persuaded, that the crimes which took place in the army were all the consequence of the prevalence of drunkenness. If the soldier were deprived of the means of getting drunk, crime would be diminished, and the punishment of flogging rendered unnecessary.

Sir Edward Barnes

said, if he saw any one system of punishment brought forward as a substitute for military flogging, it should have his support. The suggestions with respect to solitary confinement, and other substitutes, he considered liable to great objections or quite impracticable, and he could not consent to the abolition of corporal punishment until some more effective substitute was suggested.

Colonel Peel

was of opinion, that much delusion prevailed on the subject of solitary confinement. He was persuaded, from fifteen years experience, that it would be inefficacious as a substitute for flogging. He was well acquainted with an instance of a regiment where solitary confinement was adopted, and found quite inadequate to prevent the crime of desertion, which at that time prevailed very much in the regiment. The mere threat, however, of the administration of the lash in the next case of desertion that occurred, had the effect desired by the commanding officer. He, therefore, was of opinion, that military flogging ought not to be abolished without the greatest caution, and the most mature consideration and inquiry, and not until some effective substitute were found.

Mr. Ellice

came down to the House on the present occasion rather to hear the observations that might be offered on this most important question than to offer any of his own, and he felt pleasure in saying, that nothing could more conduce to promote a satisfactory adjustment of the subject, difficult and embarrassing as it was, than the tone and temper with which it had been treated by every Member who had addressed the House. He was desirous, in the first instance, to correct a misstatement he had made to the House on a former occasion, not from any fault of his own, but arising out of the error of others, who misunderstood the nature of the return to which he referred. When he last addressed the House on this question, he stated, that the officers who made out the return for the last year, had informed him, that one-fifth of the British army had passed through the different gaols of the country. The officers by whom the return was made, calculated the proportion only upon the number of persons serving in the army in England, without including the garrisons in Ireland. When the proportion, therefore, was computed upon the whole army, both in England and Ireland, it was found not to amount to more than half the amount of what he originally stated. But even that result showed a frightful increase of crime. With respect to the gallant officer (Colonel Bowater) whose conduct had been the subject of so much animadversion, he felt it was only doing justice to that gallant Officer to say, that he had no more power to diminish or mitigate the sentence passed upon private Hutchinson, than any Member of that house; it was only his duty to see it carried into full effect. He had been asked by several hon. Members of what class of individuals the commission would be composed. When he stated that a commission should be appointed, he only mentioned it as his own view of the case, after a very full and mature consideration of the subject. He then stated, that the subject would undergo a very serious consideration by his Majesty's Government, and that a commission of experienced and competent individuals would be appointed for that purpose; but he had not yet decided upon the precise form of the commission, or the individuals of whom it ought to be composed. Nothing further had yet been done than collecting together the documents and all the evidence bearing upon the question that could be obtained, which it was the intention of Government to refer to the consideration of the commission; but of what individuals that commission was to be composed, had not yet been decided. It was of the greatest importance that in forming the commission two great principles should not be lost sight of, namely, that such a selection should be made as to obtain the confidence of the public, and hold out an assurance that the result of the inquiry would set the matter at rest, and at the same time to be extremely cautious that it was placed in the hands of persons who would, from their experience in military matters, give the country a pledge that military discipline and the effective force of the army would not be in the slightest degree impaired by any alteration which might be recommended. He thought it would be much better to leave the formation of the commission entirely in the hands of Government. He could assure the House that he paid the greatest attention to the suggestions that had proceeded from hon. Members, as well as those which he had received from all parts of the country. He was well aware of the importance of a speedy determination of the question, and agreed perfectly in the doctrine that the moral condition and improvement of the army could only be considered in time of peace; but he, nevertheless, would not consent to an alteration of the present law without the most mature consideration, wd the fullest evidence being gone into. The intoxication which had increased in the army to such an alarming extent, and was undoubtedly the cause of a great deal of the crime that took place, should be most specially considered, and an attempt made, if possible, to put a restraint upon it. This subject was one which ought to occupy the most serious consideration of the commission, as a great deal of insubordination arose from the effect of example alone. It was impossible the House could be aware of the difficulty with which the question of a substitution of punishment was surrounded. Not one of the suggestions of the hon. and gallant member for Westminster had been overlooked, but there was found to be an objection to each that was almost insurmountable. He would, however, remark, that every hope that could be grasped at, let it be ever so small, should not be suffered to slip in the endeavour to strangle the habit of drunkenness in the army. It would also be with the greatest care and caution that any diminution in the pay of the soldier should take place. It would be better to disband the army altogether than run the risk, by rousing a spirit of insubordination, to compromise the interests of the army both at home and abroad. If the practice of flogging was to be done away with—and he sincerely hoped it would—some sufficient means should be adopted to assure the officers of the army and navy that such a substitute would be provided as would ensure and maintain the discipline of the British service. He could assure the House that from the communications he had received from the officers in the army in every part of the country, an opinion was entertained by military men in perfect conformity with the public feeling, and was entirely in favour of an improvement in the mode of punishment resorted to in the army. He would only add, that if it were upon the ground of the sympathy which had been manifested in the case of private Hutchinson, it was the duty of Government to conform, as far as possible, to the wishes of the public, as no punishment was so bad as that which excited sympathy for the offender, and feelings of indignation toward those whose painful duty it was to administer it. He thought such a commission should be appointed as would not shrink from declaring that it was necessary for the discipline of the army the punishment should be continued if the evidence justified that conclusion. He also trusted, however the commission might be composed, that they would receive evidence from civilians as well as from military men, and that every man who had stated his opinion in that House would not only be afforded an opportunity to declare his sentiments before the commission, but would undergo examination, if he pleased, in order that the fullest and most perfect evidence on the subject might be obtained.

Colonel Williams

said, so far as his experience, which was nearly half a century old, went, he would say that it was impossible to do away with flogging altogether, although he had always deprecated the frequent use of the practice. It was a punishment which ought always to hang over the heads of incorrigible villains. He was satisfied, moreover, it was rendered necessary by the prevalence of drunkenness, which was the principal cause of the crimes which were committed, and that it could not be abolished until intoxication was put an end to.

Colonel Evans

was perfectly satisfied with the speech of the right hon. Secretary at War, and stated, that separate Acts of Parliament for war and peace might be passed if necessary.

Petitions laid on the Table.

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