In 1880 the principled opposition of Arthur Otway, MP for Rochester, brings flogging in the British Army to an end.

Arthur Otway was the MP for Rochester from 1878 to 1885, and before that Chatham from 1865 to 1874. He was extremely popular and fought a long and at times a seemingly hopeless battle, to abolish the use of the lash in the British army. The ending of flogging did not result in the collapse of military discipline – rather the opposite as within two years of flogging being abolished the army was able to close the Fort Clarence military prison!

What follows is perhaps a moralistic tale that demonstrates how the ‘carrot’ was more effective that the ‘stick’ (lash) when it comes to expecting and realising the best of people.

Although considerably ‘sanitised’ compared with the detail conveyed in the press at the time, some readers my find some aspects of the following upsetting.

Soldiers and sailors could be sentenced to be flogged with a Cat o’ Nine tails in front of their peers for minor ‘crimes’ – even misdemeanours that would be overlooked or only attract a reprimand if committed by an officer.

The ‘Cat’ was an awful device designed and used in a way to cause maximum pain. Not only was flogging brutal, the whole process was designed to be as degrading and humiliating as possible. Punishment was not over quickly as the lash was applied at about one stroke every 12 seconds. A man sentenced to receive 150 stokes, which was not unusual pre-1846, would have been stripped and tied to the halberts for over 30 mins and would have received over 1,000 lacerations that would have left his back in a mangled condition. A combination of pain, shock, and being secured naked or semi-naked, in the cold, to the halbert for a long period often left the man in a ‘frozen condition’ unable to move at the end of his punishment. It is little wonder that a man had to serve a prison sentence after being flogged because it would have been weeks before he would be fit for duty. A similar punishment in the Navy was regarded as being worse, due to the design of the ‘Cat’ and the way it could be ‘delivered’; some reports saying one Naval lash was the equivalent of five in the military.

This punishment was not only despised by the men that received it but also by those who had to deliver it and those who were required to witness it.[1]

From the early 19th century public opinion was growing against the use of flogging – a means of discipline that the armies of Europe and America ended long before the British. I would not be surprised if Medway’s population with its close association with the military would have been very familiar with the implications for a man sentenced to be flogged and would have opposed it. This could be one of the reasons that Arthur Otway who had serviced Chatham and Rochester as an MP, decided to lead on its abolition.

Every year from 1689 Parliament needed to pass a Mutiny Act. This legislation determined what punishments could be applied to miscreant soldiers. Early attempts to end the use of the lash failed to gain Parliamentary support. This may have been due to a predominance of MPs who had been or were associated with the military, and men who had been educated at boarding school. The military men held that corporal punishment was essential to retaining discipline and the ‘public schoolboys’ believed that the flogging they received at school had made them better people! [2] The fact that this latter group compared a school beating with a military flogging suggests they didn’t understand what it really involved.

In 1846 sensing a growing antipathy to the use of the lash the Duke of Wellington reduced the maximum number of lashes that could be inflicted from 200 to 50.[3] At this time advertisements were also being placed in newspapers to recruit military school masters with the purpose of raising the character of the solider. The press though noted the contradiction – on one hand the army wished raise the dignity of the soldier but on the other to continue to “flog him like a beast”.[4]

The following news report of a punishment, carried out at Chatham, suggests that some of the changes ordered by the Duke of Wellington were being implemented locally. This is one of a number of reports carried in the press – many carried considerable harrowing details.

1848: The sentence of the court martial of Private Wm. Gosh was carried out on the parade ground of the barracks in front of his regiment. He was found guilty of absenting himself from tattoo [parade] and for escaping and assaulting other soldiers. He was sentenced to 50 lashes and to be imprisoned for 12 months with hard labour; the Commander-in-chief commuted the 50 lashes to 25. The regiment was marched to the Spur Battery, attended by the band and drums and fifes, to witness the punishment. On being released from the halberts Private Gosh was taken to the hospital, from thence he will be taken to Fort Clarence military prison. It was noted that assaults on NCOs had increased, and that sergeants were finding it impossible to enforce the regulations of the service, since the decision was taken to avoid corporal punishment.[5]

The changes introduced by Wellington did not satisfy opponents to flogging but supporters were probably emboldened by the claim that assaults of NCOs had increased. The opponents pointed out that not only was the punishment degrading and humiliating, the effectiveness of armies that no longer used the lash had not been compromised. It was also argued that the use of corporal punishment was deterring good men from enlisting and until they did discipline was unlikely to improve. To deal with the consequence of use of the lash being limited and ‘crime’ increasing the army needed extra prison accommodation and a new approach to maintaining discipline.

A new approach to maintaining discipline

To deal with the valid concern that the use of flogging was having a detrimental impact on recruitment, the Duke of Cambridge, in 1859, introduced an arrangement where all men on entering the army were categorised as ‘First Class’. Soldiers so classified would not be liable for corporal punishment in peace time, except for “aggravated mutinous conduct”. For specific crimes a solider could be degraded and therefore become liable to be flogged should they commit a further offence. After one year of uninterrupted good conduct they could be restored to ‘First Class’.[6]

This was another step in the right direction but corporal punishment was still being used in peace time. Of particular concern was the use of the lash in prisons which were beyond public scrutiny. In January 1861 there was a report of a prisoner at Fort Clarence being sentenced to 50 lashes. The report stated that the doctor, who always had to be in attendance at such punishments (after Wellington’s ‘improvements’) needed to intervene after 25 lashes as the prisoner had fainted. Fortunately – if that word can be used in these circumstances – the doctor intervened which was not universal, and the remainder of his punishment was remitted; not so many years previous it would have continued once the prisoner had recovered.[7]

Fort Clarence becomes a ‘new’ military prison.

The fort was built in 1811/1812 as part of the wider fortification of Chatham Dockyard – in anticipation of Napoleon invading. Once the invasion risk had passed the military sought a new use for the forts. Fort Clarence was first used to accommodate “unfortunate persons belonging to the army who were afflicted with insanity”. In June 1819 a number of men with mental health issues were transferred to Clarence from Fort Pitt, Chatham.[8] It would appear that there was medical oversight on the facility as the following year it was announced that “the Lady of Staff-Surgeon Murray” gave birth to a daughter.[9]

In September 1844, in response to a growing need for prison placements the army closed the Fort Clarence asylum – returning some of the patients to Fort Pitt – and made it ready to receive prisoners.[10] In July 1845 it was confirmed that the fort was ready to receive prisoners up to 200. [11],[12] In order to ensure the spiritual needs of the prisoners were met tenders were invited for the building of a chapel at the Fort.[13]By 1852 the army was anticipating that the review of the Mutiny Act would lead to the abolition of corporal punishment so ordered the building of additional cells at Fort Clarence.[14] No requests for tenders to build an ‘extension’ have been found but if building work was needed to accommodate 300 prisoners[15] the work would probably have been undertaken by the prisoners themselves. It’s not clear from the news reports whether the extra cells were built by 1856 but it was reported at this time that the prison was full.[16] But significantly by 1873 it was reported that the prison was to close and it was “almost tenantless”.[17] It would seem that the change in the approach to discipline introduced by the Duke of Cambridge had had a more positive affect on improving discipline that the lash.

The lash is finally abolished through the efforts of Arthur Otway

He killed the cat
Arthur Otway who “Killed the Cat”

The first recorded instance I’ve found in the press of Arthur Otway raising concerns about the use of flogging was in a debate in 1866 that questioned the need to brand soldiers if they deserted (D) or were regarded as being of ‘bad character’ (BC).[18]

The story from here suggests that Arthur Otway was a man of tremendous tenacity and with considerable influencing skills as he turned hardline supporters of the lash, such as his own cousin Capt. Otway, to finally agree to its abolition. An unrelated news report in 1869 described Otway as a “straightforward politician whose political career had been characterised by consistency throughout, and by fidelity to his constituents”.[19]

A majority of one is not a majority says the Government!

In 1867 Otway attempted to have the clause permitting corporal punishment removed during the annual review of the Mutiny Bill.[20] Much to the surprise of many his amendment was passed with a majority of one. His success raised the “liveliest feelings of gratitude in the army at large, and especially in the troops quartered in Chatham” who wished to “present him with a testimonial of their appreciation of his philanthropic labours on their behalf”.[21] However the vote was subsequently overruled by the minority Conservative government that held the view that a majority of one could not be taken as being the will of the house; the Government therefore ruled that the “usual clause would be introduced into the Mutiny Bill authorising the inflection of corporal punishment in certain cases”.[22] The press appears to have accepted this ‘overruling’ and continued to celebrate the fact that the ‘beginning of the end’ of flogging in the army had arrived. The Daily Telegraph rejoiced in Otway’s brief and brilliant campaign against the lash which had ‘doomed’ this “barbarous and disgraceful method of preserving discipline”. The Times recorded its disappointment in the decision of the House of Commons and hoped to soon see the army governed without flogging during peace.[23]

Although unsuccessful at this occasion Otway gave notice that he would renew his opposition in future years.[24]

One year later in the 1868 review of the Mutiny Act, Arthur Otway successfully induced the House of Commons to abolish all floggings in times of peace. Otway’s amendment, that “no court-marital shall for any offence whatever committed under this act during the time of peace within the Queen’s dominions; have power to sentence any solider to corporal punishment”; his amendment was carried, on this occasion, by a substantial majority of 152 to 127.[25]

And here it rested until 1880. There had been a total abolition of flogging during peace time but it remained ‘available’ when the army was on active service. This was not sufficient in the ‘court of public opinion’ and flogging eventually became an issue during the 1880 election.

The abolition of flogging becomes an election issue.

The move to totally abolish corporal punishment went up a notch in 1880 when the Liberals made it an issue in the General Election of that year. I’ve not discovered the case made during the campaign, but Otway had stated in Parliament, just prior to the election, that the Country should “relieve British soldiers from the unnecessary degradation of corporal punishment”. At this time another MP stated that he would be bringing forward a motion that similarly removed the power to flog members of the voluntary corps when employed on active service.[26]

Equally barbaric alternatives to flogging were considered.

The Liberals won the election with a large majority – returning Arthur Otway as one of the members for Rochester. However rather than using their dominance in the House to end flogging the Liberal Government wanted to first explore ‘alternatives’.

The ‘alternatives’ considered included – placing a man in irons, fastening him to a horse or wagon to be dragged on through a day’s march, or to carry a burden for a certain period. The view was though that these punishments were as degrading as the one it aimed to replace – and open to abuse. The point was also made that differing weather conditions would also have differential impact on the severity of the punishment. It soon became clear that the ‘remedies’ being considered could be worse than the ‘disease’ they were seeking to cure. The Liberals prevarication on this matter enabled the Conservatives to claim that they had at least taken steps “to place the practice of flogging more in harmony with decency and enlightenment”.[27]

The lack of an alternative and perhaps the fact that the Conservatives were appearing more humane that the Liberals, Otway was able to finally conclude his campaign when it was announced in May 1880 that the Government would introduce a Bill early in the next session to abolish flogging.

Arthur Otway announced he was perfectly satisfied with the Minister’s announcement and ‘suspended’ his campaign.

And finally

After the total abolition of flogging, Otway at a meeting in Rochester on the Egyptian War, expressed his gratification for the splendid discipline that had been maintained in the army that no longer relied on flogging to maintain discipline.[28]

Sir Arthur John Otway along with others who fought a long, and sometimes seemingly hopeless battle for the abolition of the lash in the army showed that they better understood the British solider than the men who maintained discipline could only be maintained through the use of a degrading and barbaric punishment.

Geoff Rambler – 26 March 2018.


[2] 2 December 1830, Brighton Gazette.

[3] August 1846,

[4] 25 July 1846, Leicester Chronical.

[5] 2 December 1848, West Kent Guardian.

[6] 19 November 1859, Oxford University and City Herald.

[7] 9 January 1861 – Brighton Guardian. 

[8] 11 June 1819, Cambridge Chronicle and Journal.

[9] 16 September 1820, Caledonian Mercury. 

[10] 21 September 1844, Roscommon & Leitrim Gazette – 

[11] 12 July 1845, Kentish Independent.

[12] 8 August 1846, London Daily News.

[13] 12 May 1846, Kentish Gazette.

[14] 24 January 1852, West Kent Guardian.

[15] 2 May 1873, Dover Express.

[16] 4 April 1856, Morning Post.

[17] 2 May 1873, Dover Express.

[18] 9 March 1866, Morning Post.

[19] 21 December 1869, Morning Post.

[20] 29 March 1867, Morning Post.

[21] 20 May 1867, Morning Advertiser

[22] 19 March 1867, Morning Post.

[23] 6 April 1867, Whitby Gazette.

[24] 6 April 1867, Illustrated Weekly News.

[25] 31 March 1868, Liverpool Mercury.

[26] 13 February 1880, Dundee Courier.

[27] 8 April 188, Monmouthshire Merlin.

[28] 31 March 1883, Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph.