Saturday, November 3, 2012

'Let the Cat out of the bag...'

By Jonathan Hopkins

 Flogging - the very word conjures images of backs scarred for life by the instrument of this largely military form of torture - the cat o’ nine tails.

The British army and navy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries comprised huge numbers of ‘volunteers’. Whether these men took ‘the King’s shilling’, were made offers they could not refuse by magistrates or were legally ‘impressed’ to serve by navy shore-parties, many proved unsuited to military life and its harsh discipline. Theft and insubordination, even violence and desertion, were commonplace.

To maintain order a simple to administer punishment was needed, the severity of which could be varied to fit the crime. Not only that but it had to be enough of a deterrent to plant fear in the hearts of potential offenders. Flogging was such a punishment. And the preferred instrument of martial law was the Cat O’ Nine Tails.

Widely used by the end of the 17th century, the cat was a whip made from heavy cable (rope).  A four-foot length was split into its three component strands to produce a two-and-a-half foot tail, each strand being separated again into three to produce the requisite nine ‘tails’. These were knotted at the free ends to prevent fraying and the handle part then back-spliced both to provide a good handgrip and stop it unravelling, though in later examples the nine lashes were bound to wooden handles. Once made the cat was stored in a canvas or baize bag ready for use, from whence the title of this post comes.

Methods of punishment was roughly similar in army and navy. The guilty man would be tied hand and foot to some suitable structure: in the navy a ship’s grating (hold cover) tied upright, in the army a triangle made of three sergeant’s halberds lashed together. Apparently cavalry regiments, which had no halberds, habitually used a vertical ladder. The ship’s crew or soldier’s regiment were formed up and made to watch, presumably to remind them of the consequences of rule-breaking.

A drum-major, cavalry farrier-major or boatswain administered the punishment, the number of strokes having been previously agreed at the victim’s trial. Men chosen for this task needed to practice: the whip had to be applied only across shoulders and upper back , avoiding the more vulnerable neck and kidney areas. 25 lashes was considered a minimum number of strokes in the army, with 1200 the maximum allowed. The latter was almost a death sentence, to be administered only to the most serious offenders. And to ensure the prisoner was fit to take his punishment, a surgeon had to be present. He could step in at any time to stop the flogging if the condemned man lost consciousness, or too much blood, but if the punishment was curtailed for medical reasons that might not be the end of it. The man was allowed to recover, for days or weeks, before whatever remained of his sentence was carried out.

In the navy a seaman might be flogged ‘around the fleet’ as an example to others, his sentence in number of lashes being divided between ships. After having the requisite number on his own vessel he would be cut down and taken by tender to the next where he was re-tied and ‘catted’ again.

A navy rope cat was usually replaced after a single use unless a number of men were being flogged when it would be scrubbed in a bucket of seawater between prisoners. Unbeknown to those involved this made navy floggings less likely to result in infected wounds, when added to the fact navy punishments were often for fewer lashes. Seamen were less easily replaced than landsmen, and one who could not do his job while flogging wounds healed not only meant his shipmates had to cover his work as well as their own but his absence from duty might compromise the ship’s performance in action. Notwithstanding this it is reckoned more than 50 men were flogged for various offences aboard Victory in the weeks before the Battle of Trafalgar. And on the already horrendous retreat to Corunna in 1809 General Edward Paget had drawn his regiments of the rearguard into a square ready to flog three men for looting when he was told the enemy were only several hundred yards behind them!

Despite the Duke of Wellington’s insistence his ‘scum of the earth; could not be controlled without the lash, George III was never fond of flogging, and as the 19th century drew on the number of lashes permissible was reduced. Perhaps the increasing use of whipcord and leather-thonged cats caused more severe injury in fewer strokes than the original rope whips. With the rise of more effective communications, increased awareness of the effects of flogging caused disquiet among the general population, and several high profile cases where men died after being whipped hastened the end of the cat: its use was abolished on mainland Britain in 1871. It could still be used abroad, however.

The navy kept the cat, but use declined until in 1879 it too was banned by the Admiralty. The writing was on the wall, and following the senior service’s lead, the following year the army got rid of the lash. The last British soldier was flogged in July 1880, in Afghanistan, for sleeping on sentry duty. The ban was confirmed by Act of Parliament the following year.

The reminders were a few horribly scarred backs, and soon they too were lost to time until only a phrase remained...

Jonathan usually writes about British cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars.
Find out more at Cavalrytales


  1. Very interesting post Jon.
    Many thanks.

  2. Was it just your choice of words, to use the word "torture" as opposed to "punishment" or, was the use of the Cat officially sanctioned as a form of torture to be used against, who!! wayward Locals or, the then equivalent of insurgents etc ?

    An interesting read though, thank you.

    1. My choice. But I've no doubt it would have been used for that purpose. For getting information from spies, maybe? There's little information available on how spies were treated because 'gentlemen' would never torture, or be tortured as, suspects, would they? (MM Bennetts will know much more about this than I). By the Inquisition? But military officers would never condone such use.

  3. Terrific post, John. Some very interesting details.

  4. I have heard of an alternative meaning for "let the cat out of the bag" - it's the other end of "buying a pig in a poke" - you think you're buying a sack containing a piglet to rear for food, but in reality it's a stray cat that is no use to anyone. Just a thought.

    1. Really? I had no idea. So much fascinating trivia learned in one short read :)

    2. That's a new one on me, too. I wonder how old it is?
      Actually, given the verminous state of much housing a cat might be handy, especially if you could grab any rats it caught. Useful for warding off scurvy and ricketts when cooked :)

  5. And ... I understand that the phrase "not enough room to swing a cat" refers back to this dreaded "cat" of flogging. Great post, Jonathan. Thanks for the info!

  6. Did these flogging devices have metal, stone, or wood in the knots at the end? I've heard of such devices - far more deadly than just the rope knots - and wondered if they were used in the British army or navy.

    1. I've heard of those too - short lengths of wire in the knotted ends to increase the cutting effect. I've not come across any rferences to this type being in official use, but then there probably wouldn't be. You'd have to be a particularly sadistic individual to have a cat made in this way - not something to be generally broadcast :)

  7. Ouch!
    I'm posting tomorrow - also on a cat theme - but much more cuddly than this.
    Grace x


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.