Navy Estimates.

Ragging” in H.M.S. Kent.

 

MR. MACNEILL (Donegal, S.) asked the Secretary to the Admiralty whether he had any statement to make with reference to the case of a midshipman in H.M.S. Kent, who, having been sentenced by a mock Court-martial to be flogged, defended himself with a revolver; whether the commander of H.M.S. Kent or the other officers on board were aware of the treatment of this midshipman by his associates; and what steps were taken to protect him; who was the president of this mock Court-martial; and whether flogging with the flat of a dirk was the usual penalty inflicted by these mock Court-martials; and whether the Admiralty authorities intended to take steps to put an end to such treatment on the King’s ships.

Mr. PRETYMAN (Suffolk, Woodbridge) — In September, 1903, it came to the knowledge of the Admiralty that in a ship in the Channel Fleet there was a practice of private punishment in the gun-room. Orders were immediately issued that this system must be at once put down, and a circular letter was addressed to all Commanders in Chief forbidding such a practice, and desiring that commanding officers of His Majesty’s ships might have their grave responsibility in the matter impressed upon them. For the intervening eighteen mouths no further case has come to the knowledge of the Admiralty. On the evening of the 2nd inst., however, a midshipman of the Kent, who was about to receive a caning from the senior midshipman, fired a revolver at him. (Nationalist cheers.) The Admiralty, on receiving the report of the Rear-Admiral Commanding the First Cruiser Squadron and that of the Court of Inquiry, decided at once to supersede the captain of the Kent and to place him on half-pay; and the others concerned were suitably dealt with. A further circular letter has now been issued to the Fleet making it perfectly clear that the Admiralty are determined that this practice shall cease.

MR. MACNEILL. — What has become of this boy who saved himself from outrage by firing a revolver? I hope he is not punished.

MR. PRETYMAN. — The boy has been withdrawn from the service. His parents have withdrawn him.

MR. BRIGHT (Shropshire, Oswestry). — In view of the gravity of this matter will the hon. gentleman appoint a committee to inquire into flogging in the Navy?

MR. PRETYMAN. — No, Sir.
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Mr. MACNEILL moved to reduce the vote for the salary of the First Lord of the Admiralty by £100, in order to raise the question of flogging in the Navy. Although this practice had been suspended since 1884 by an Order of the Admiralty, the Lords of the Admiralty could by a stroke of the pen revive it, and to-day in every King’s ship as part of the equipment was a cat-o’-nine-tails. Yet flogging had been abolished in the Army. Moreover, youths in the Navy under 18 were subject to castigation with the birch or cane for the smallest offences, and this was done in presence of all the boys on board ship. These youths could be flogged because they could not swim properly, because their boots were not properly polished, because there was a speck of dirt on their clothes, or because their manner did not seem to be seemly to their superior officers. England was the only nation in the world that retained corporal punishment in the Navy. And now there had occurred the case on board his Majesty’s ship Kent in which a midshipman who had been condemned by a mock Court-martial to be flogged with a scabbard, which was a well-known punishment in the gun-room, declined to submit, and said that he would make it serious work if he was subjected to it. He was alone and surrounded by a gang of gentlemen who were bullying him, and he used his revolver on them. Why had there not been an investigation in that case? Was it because the Admiralty were afraid of the whole of the facts coming out, and because the boy’s conduct in fighting against such a system was praiseworthy? What had become of that boy? They had been told that his parents had removed him. Had they removed him at the suggestion of the Admiralty or not? Did the commanders know that this system of cruelty was practised in the gun-room? The Navy, on which so much money was expended, was fenced round with class influence and from the higher ranks the sons of the poor were excluded. It was the richer classes that ordered this inhuman punishment, and he would lose no opportunity of raising this question.
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Mr. PRETYMAN. — As to the punishment of boys by birching — though corporal punishment was a thing to be avoided — there could be no doubt, and it was an opinion general in the Navy, that properly and judiciously inflicted without undue severity it was a great deal better than detention for growing boys. But it must be properly inflicted and must not be unduly frequent or be inflicted for offences which did not merit it. During the Easter recess he was on board the Irish training ship Emerald and asked an officer who had been on board the ship for a year how many of these birchings had been recently inflicted, and he said there had not been one since he had been in the ship. (Cheers.) He did not think the hon. gentleman served his case by the extreme heat of his language and by his exaggeration. The hon. member referred to cruelty and bullying. This was inconsistent with the fact that in no service in the world could there be found either in commission or in the ranks men more self-respecting and more respected than the officers and the men of the Royal Navy. (Cheers.) His statement that there were no boys in the French Navy was correct, but with our system where the personnel entered as boys this particular form of punishment fell in. With regard to what went on in the gun-room, there should be no sort of informal Court-martial or any severe unauthorised punishment upon midshipmen; and the Admiralty had taken the steps of which he had informed the House in order that any such practice should cease. […]