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United Kingdom - Naval Discipline for Boys

Part II: The 1860s Ryder reforms

By "Newjack" and C. Farrell

Additional research by "Diogenes"

Picture of ship
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:

In 1858 special regulations were issued for the punishment of naval cadets. They were not to be flogged according to the Mutiny Act, but simply with a birch rod, such as is used in public schools. Four cadets of the "Illustrious" having been guilty of such gross misconduct as would justify their dismissal from the service, the admiral in command suggested that they should be flogged with a birch rod, as a milder alternative, and the Admiralty sanctioned that course. In the circular issued from Whitehall to all commanders-in-chief, captains, and other commanding officers, it was enjoined that boys should not be flogged as formerly with a cat, but that in all cases where the offences could not be lightly passed over they should be punished in a similar manner to that which is in use at our large public schools -- viz., by birching -- and that in no case should more than twenty-four cuts be inflicted.

-- 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:

'Discipline afloat in those days was very strict, but in the immense majority of ships it was not harsh nor even particularly severe. In my first ship, our captain, who was strict enough and undoubtedly sometimes harsh especially to the officers, never ordered a man to be flogged, an immunity which, as regards the cane, he did not extend to the second class, that is, the younger boys. These he ordered to be caned every morning, usually finding something that may have seemed to him a reason in each case. Once I was present at the following scene. All the boys but one had, on some pretext, been caned. When the captain came to the last boy he evidently could not concoct a reason for having him caned, and he began to explain why, for once, the boy was to go free. Unhappily for himself, this boy, not quite understanding the situation, began as usual to make excuse, saying, "Please, sir -." Before he could get any further the captain found what he wanted. He interrupted promptly, saying, "If you hadn't said 'Please, sir,' I shouldn't have ordered you to be caned. Ship's corporal, give him six!" And six he received, being sent away blubbering.'

-- "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.

blob Read extracts from the official report of the Court Martial in which evidence was given of the excessive punishment of the boys.

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. 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.

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)

Floggings Total lashes Average per boy
Cadet training ships
Britannia   2  36 18.0
Boys training ships
Boscawen   9 192 21.3
Implacable   8 186 23.2
Impregnable 12 253 21.1
St Vincent 14 309 22.1
Ships of the Fleets
Harrier  2  96 48.0
Leander  1  48 48.0
Plover  4 180 45.0
Seringapatam  7 288 41.0
Liffey  4 144 36.0
Resistance  6 204 34.0
Phoebe  5 168 33.6
Revenge  9 288 32.0
Edgar  9 282 31.3
Phaeton 10 312 31.2
Galatea 4 120 30.0
Majestic 4 120 30.0
Orlando 8 204 25.5
Meanee 9 228 25.3
Wellesley 7 138 19.7
Severn 7 133 19.0
Gibraltar 5  90 18.0

Fleets Boys flogged Total lashes Average per boy
Australia 12 504 42.0
Pacific 5 204 40.8
SE Coast America 5 180 36.0
China 22 738 33.5
North America 42 1,383 33.0
West Coast Africa 16 522 32.6
Cape of Good Hope 11 354 32.2
Channel 17 520 30.5
Mediterranean 61 1,843 30.2
Coast Guard 7 180 25.7
East Indies 11 253 23.0
Home 70 1,571 22.4
Total 279 8,252 31.0

(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".)

Boy seamen in 1868

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:

To commence with the punishment of boys. A Captain has scarcely any alternative now between ordering a boy to be punished with "six strokes with a cane," or to be flogged to the extent of forty-eight lashes, if he pleases, with a cat; the minor punishments of stoppage of grog, stoppage of leave, blacklisting, &c., being nugatory in their instance, as they have no grog and get leave only at stated intervals; while "blacklisting" them only, gives them an importance in themselves by being placed on an equality with the men. It is a fact, therefore, that boys are the only persons in a ship who are almost exempt from punishment, for few boys care much for "six strokes with a cane," while Captains do not like to fill up their returns of corporal punishment by the constant flogging of boys; and the boys themselves are aware of their almost exemption from punishment, and deport themselves accordingly. I would therefore suggest, that a Captain should be empowered to order a boy to be caned or birched over the breech (not on the hand) at a gun, - the number of strokes to be limited to twenty-four.'

- from Commander Brett, 15 October 1865

Other captains' letters to Ryder included the following remarks:

'It appears advisable to establish a different warrant for the corporal punishment of boys, to that used for men - the former are not punished with the same cat, in the same manner, or with the same ceremony ......'

'The want of control over the Boys, is also a great mistake. I have been obliged to obtain the discharge of several fine bold boys because the petty caning, to which alone they were subjected, was not sufficient check on them. Flogging could only be awarded for very few offences, and even the new system of birching [on the training ships, presumably], accompanied as it is by the circumlocution of warrants, etc. is too slow in its operation, and surrounds the culprit with too much eclat. I cannot see why ship's boys should not be caned over the breech outside their trousers,with as little fuss as an Eton or Westminster boy is flogged ....... The "very good" boys don't make the best seamen, it requires a character who has a deal of devil in him, but is kept in good order.'

'The boys, I think, are half ruined for the want of some ready punishment; the black list is hardly suitable for them, in fact they are rather proud of being made men of, they come from the training ships with such a good opinion of themselves, that they will hardly take an order from their leading hands. A dozen cuts allowed over the stern for boys in either First or Second Class would save many a one.'

'There is no adequate punishment for boys. Six cuts with a cane on the hand is laughed at by a boy of sixteen. Black list interferes with his school, with the care of his clothes, and with the extra rest, which his growing frame requires.'

'For boys the usual punishment to be caning on the breech over their clothes, and not to exceed eighteen blows. This, and all the punishments below the cells, the Captain should have authority to delegate to the Commanding Officer in case of the seamen and boys, and to the Captain of Marines for the marine.'

'My own experience (as well as that of all Commanding Officers with whom I have conferred on the subject) shows me the great difficulty under the present system of properly punishing boys. I would, therefore, strongly recommend that the Commanding Officer should be allowed to punish all boys on the breech, with not more than twenty-four strokes of a cane over their clothes, as a minor punishment, and to reduce them to the Second Class without a warrant; at present it is very difficult to punish boys. If they receive the same punishment as men, they are made of too much consequence, consequently they frequently escape necessary correction, to the great detriment of their future characters and to the service.'

'There being no Second Class boys [see glossary] at sea, this punishment is a dead letter. The want of some suitable punishment for boys is very much felt, the black list is no check on them. I have known several instances of boys who, from having been a continual source of trouble, have, after receiving a flogging, turned out the smartest and best boys in the ship. I have no doubt that the power to inflict a certain number of stripes, say twelve, over the stern, instead of over the hands, which has the objection of being liable to injure instead of punish, would be found very effective in making the boys more creditable.'

'Under this head of Second Class, I may remark that the means of preserving the discipline of boys, and thereby training up good men, are very limited; Captains should be permitted to use a birch rod (reserving the cat, as now, for very rare occasions, and for offences of the gravest nature), a nice birching over the bare stern of a boy would have an admirable effect, and, to the extent of twenty-four stripes, should be freely administered, and, considered as an encouragement, should not be included in the return of corporal punishments, but be recorded under some simple and appropriate heading.'

'I find these at present to be so multiplied as to entail much unnecessary clerical work. If a boy is idle at school, observe the amount of trouble he gives to decent men. The schoolmaster reports to the chaplain, the chaplain orders him to be taken next day before the Commander, who orders him to be caned. First, the master-at-arms has to write a description of the offence and the punishment in his "rough daily defaulters' book;" secondly, to copy the same into his "fair book;" thirdly, the clerk has to copy it into the "ship's defaulters' book;" fourthly, the same clerk has to make a note in the "record book" of "one minor offence;" fifthly, to copy the same offence and its punishment in its proper sequence in the quarterly return. But this is only half the clerical labour.'

- 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:

XV. Boys second class may be caned in moderation.
As it is necessary to check misconduct on the part of boys, the custom of punishing them on the hand may be resorted to, in moderation, -- but not in any case to exceed 6 stripes or blows, -- with boys rated in the capacity of second-class boys. Boys rated in the capacity of first-class boys [see glossary] are not amenable to this punishment.

-- 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.

blob See the relevant sections of the Queen's Regulations 1879 in full

extract from regulations

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 look at this aspect of the matter in more detail elsewhere.

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 CorrectionEXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window) and the warden was aware of its relative effectiveness, as well as of public opinion, when he compared the instrument to the birch:

'The punishment of flogging boys with the cat-o-nine-tails ought to be abolished not only as being too cruel but as being one which boys do not care about. We have substituted at Middlesex whipping with a birch rod, and boys who laugh at being put into a dungeon, and doubly laugh at flogging with a cat-o-nine-tails are upon their knees blubbering and praying not to be flogged with a birch rod -- it deters them more than anything. I often sentence a boy given a month's imprisonment to be well birched at the end of the first fortnight, so as to keep the terror over his mind.'

- 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.

Cold Bath Fields birching donkey

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 donkey in Nottingham Gaol. Boys under punishment were secured in an angled standing posture. (Galleries of Justice, NottinghamEXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window)

Nottingham birching donkey

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"EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window. 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.

blob Read extracts from HMS Victory's logbooks in 1867 and 1868

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 CP 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 CP.

One example comes from December 1867 in a Court Martial held aboard "HMS Victory" at a time when, as we saw above, summary punishment of boys on "Victory" itself had been by birch for almost a year. The logbook of "HMS Gladiator" records:-

Thursday 5 December 1867 at Portsmouth

8 a.m. Victory fired a gun and hoisted signal for Court Martial for trial of Josh. Barrett B 1st C [Boy first class] of this ship.

1 p.m. Court Martial jack was hauled down.

... Prisoner Joseph [sic] Barrett (B1C) was sentenced to receive 40 lashes with the Cat o Nine Tails on the bare breech and to be imprisoned for two years in Lewis [sic] Gaol with hard labour.


Friday 6 December 1867 at Portsmouth

7.30 a.m. Punished Josh Barrett B1C with 40 Lashes as per sentence of Court Martial.


(PRO ADM 53/9097)

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.

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