The Flogged Soldier


John Hutchinson was a private in the 1st battalion of the Scots Fusileer Guards when in October 1834 he was sentenced to six months on the Brixton treadmill.  He had been found guilty of desertion.

Hutchinson had good reason to want out.  Three months before he had received 300 lashes on his bare back having been discovered drunk on sentry duty.  On a hot July day he was stripped and tied up in the presence of his battalion, then stationed at Charing Cross.  What happened next made national news:


…before the 20th lash the poor fellow began to writhe with agony, and called out for mercy; as the punishment proceeded the cries and groans were truly appalling . . .  It was at length found necessary to order out the drums, which beat to stifle the cries of the unfortunate man; the blood spirited from his back in all directions, and ran down to his heels.  During the time the poor fellow’s cries of “O god, have mercy,” “pray have mercy,” “O Christ have mercy on me,” were truly heartrending.  Several of the young soldiers fainted away one after another, unable to look upon the appalling torture of one of their fellow-men.  He received the whole of the 300 lashes, and when taken down his back presented a most dreadful spectacle, and looked as if he had been flayed alive.  He was taken to the military hospital in Grosvenor-place, and when the covering was taken from his back for the surgeon to dress it, swarms of flies gathered round; and it was with difficulty they could be kept off the coagulated blood on his back.

The case of Hutchinson caused a sensation.  Public meetings were held denouncing it, letters written and petitions drawn up.  In the House of Commons it prompted several members to call for the abolition of flogging.  One, Feargus O’Connor, an Irish Chartist and Repealer, stated a more appalling account had never been published. He believed the feelings of the whole country were shocked with the occurrence and that an investigation was loudly called for.

The frequency and severity of flogging in the army had rapidly diminished in the first part of the nineteenth century – with hard labour in prison the preferred means of punishment.  By the mid 1830s it was suggested up to a fifth of the army had spent time in a house of correction.

The parliamentary enquiry held after Hutchinson’s case resulted only in a reduction of the maximum number of lashes to 200.  It wasn’t until 1868 that flogging was outlawed for troops on home service.  It continued overseas until 1881 and was allowed in military prisons until 1907.

All this would have meant little to Hutchinson who was released from Brixton in April 1835 having served the whole of his sentence.  He returned to his battalion, now stationed at at St James’s, in a ‘rather delicate state of health’.  His great wish was to leave the regiment, a sum of money for which had been publicly collected, though – the Morning Chronicle noted – not quite enough to buy his release.

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Soldiers were widely acknowledged as by far the most troublesome of all the categories of prisoner in the house of correction at Brixton.  At times they made up to a fifth of the prison’s population.  They were delivered from their barracks following courts martial and kept separate from the other inmates, with their own accommodation and treadwheel.

Corporal in the Grenadier Guards.

Corporal in the Grenadier Guards circa 1840. Almost all of those from this regiment sentenced to punishment in a house of correction were sent to Brixton.

In March 1833, a group of 38 soldiers – mostly from the Guards – began to show signs of insubordination.  It had started with a refusal by some to work on the treadwheel, who only complied when threatened with solitary confinement.

Later in the day a large stone was thrown over the wall of the soldiers’ yard and through one of the windows of the governor’s house.  As evening approached, their spirit became more ‘clamorous’ – and many used ‘oaths and exclamations’ that they would not suffer further imprisonment.

The governor, Lieutenant John Sibley, who had been in the post less than a year, addressed the men, pointing out the consequences of their conduct and the folly of resisting the prison regulations.  They responded by pulling down brickwork to use as missiles against the prison staff.

All now refused to go to their cells and even the threat of firearms would not move them.  With only fourteen officers available, Sibley called in the police, who arrived in number and with staffs and were soon able to quell the protest.

The subsequent report by the Surrey magistrates expressed their frustration at Brixton being forced to take such numbers of insubordinate soldiers, and who resolved to write to the secretary of state to complain.

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Whipping Boys



Jack Page was around 12 or 13 years old when, in 1824, he was charged with stealing a rope of onions from a stall on Borough Market.  He was a too familiar face to the court.  The magistrate lamented that he did not know what to do with ‘so incorrigible a rogue’ who was not even deterred by the prospect of a return to the treadmill.

John Green, the governor of Brixton, who happened to be in the court at the time, was clear in his view on how the youngster should be dealt with: only a flogging would have an effect.  ‘Stout robust men, he said, might feel fatigued by the exercise of the [tread]wheel, but this never occurred with active and slender youths, as they descended from the machine as little exhausted as when they commence the work.’

Whipping was often used to spice up a prison sentence.  It was banned for women by 1820 but continued as a punishment for boys.  The cat-o’-nine-tails was the instrument of choice, though sometimes its knotted thongs would be tied together as a minor show of compassion.

Green was required to oversee all the floggings of those sentenced to Brixton.  The prison rules required he ensured they ‘be given with temper and humanity, yet not in such a manner as to render it trifling or ridiculous, but with every circumstance of seriousness and solemnity, and to be always applied in his presence.’

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They took place within the prison walls, but also in public.  The victims would be transported from Brixton to the scene of their crime.  It gave satisfaction to a vengeful crowd while simultaneously advertising the deterrent to those who might break the law.

 A Political Pilot (pamphlet), March 26th 1831.
In the first quarter of 1829, Green oversaw at least eight public whippings in locations including Clapham, Streatham and Weybridge.  Part of his expenses claim is pictured below.  It includes claims for transport, men to administer the punishment and brandy for the boys’ backs.


Expenses of John Green used with permission of the Surrey History Centre


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Oil, Soap, Coals and Beef

CIMG4173The magistrates of Surrey – the men in charge of the house of correction at Brixton – were extremely careful about how the county’s money was spent.  Most of the supplies to the prison were put out to public tender.  These images are taken from the quarter session records for 1827 held at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, and reproduced with permission.


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The Prison Wagon

Prison Wagon

A design for a prison wagon for the county of Surrey, 1836. Reproduced with the permission of the Surrey History Centre.

In November 1821 people living on Borough High Street wrote to the Surrey magistrates complaining about the manner in which prisoners were being conveyed along their road.

Local residents, it seemed, had become fed up with the open cartloads of – probably very noisy – miscreants being hauled between the nearby court of Union Hall and the prisons at Horsemonger Lane and Brixton.  A committee of magistrates investigated the complaint:

[We] do report that in our opinion the best mode of conveying prisoners . . . would be in a covered cart . . . and to contract with some person to furnish a horse or horses and a proper attendant or attendants to drive the same.

The older designs of transport mirrored the unreformed prison.  Men, women and children were carried together with no separation or officer to oversee them.  Later versions had individual compartments.  Edward Wright was a young teenager when he was committed to Brixton for 21 days in the 1850s for stealing rope:

Accordingly, in the evening of that day, I was conducted, with half a dozen others . . . into one of Her Majesty’s royal carriages, which contained about eight little compartments, just large enough for one person to sit down in; and when we had started upon our journey, some of the company, evidently intent upon making the most of their present opportunity, began to sing a song, the chorus of which I joined in with vigour.

I discovered the drawing of a prison wagon above in the archives of the Surrey History Centre in Woking.  It is dated 1836 and designed ‘To carry 20 Prisoners inside’.  Many thanks to the SHC for permission to publish it.

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Black Tom

Prison is no place for the paranoid; solitude and time have conspired against many a jealous husband or wife.

Tom Smithers had good reason to be suspicious.  In 1824 he had been apprehended on one of the night searches of the lodging houses in Kent Street, convicted as a rogue and a vagabond and given three months on the Brixton treadmill.  During his punishment his wife had never been to see him and, following his release, he found she had abandoned his old quarters.

Morning Chronicle, 1824.

Morning Chronicle, Saturday 11th September 1824, from where this story is taken.

He made enquiries and was told she was living with a ‘gentleman’, to whose lodgings he proceeded.  On arrival he saw his spouse, who instead of receiving him with open arms, took her a pair of bellows and flung them at his head, swearing if he did not vanish out of her sight she would annihilate him.  At that moment a man appeared armed with a broom covered in mud, with which he gave Smithers a dab between the eyes.  His name was ‘Black Tom’, an African who earned his living by sweeping the crossings at the corner of Union Street in Southwark.

Faced by a ferocious wife and her broom-wielding lover, Smithers took his grievance to the magistrate at Union Hall who summonsed the lovers before him.  On being asked why he had assaulted the complainant and harboured his lawful wife, Black Tom replied: “Your Honour, I pick up the lady, not tinking she had another husband; and as me and she agree, I no like to part her, for she be a very good woman to me.”

At this point Mrs Smithers, ‘a fine, copper-coloured damsel’ burst breathless into the court. Hearing Black Tom’s declaration in her favour, she ran towards him, and clasping him round the neck, imprinted about a dozen smacking kisses on his pouting lips, that resounded through the room.  They were pulled apart, and Black Tom opined that although it would be a hard struggle for him to give up such a beautiful creature, yet, as she was married, he “suppose” it must be so.  The magistrate replied he was in the right road for Brixton if he did not.

“Oh, your Honour, me give her up now,” declared Black Tom.  “I no want her again; me go off to my business in the road; me no like Brixton; God forbid me see de treadmill.”

Tom was making a hasty retreat when the magistrate called him back, cautioning him not to medal with other men’s wives in future.  Smithers and his wife meanwhile, took each other by the arm, the latter rather fickly declaring, as they left the court, that after all there was none like a husband.

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A Mother on the Treadmill – the Case of Elizabeth Loder

Nothing quite polarised debate in the 1820s like the newly devised treadmill.  From the public house to parliament those who decried its inhumanity locked horns with those who believed it a magic bullet for an apparent increase in crime.  One case in particular excited opinion.

In a letter to the Morning Post in November of 1823, a correspondent using the pen name ‘Julius’, reported on a case he’d witnessed at the house of correction in Guildford:

Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.42.37The woman in question was Elizabeth Loder.  She had been brought to court in October charged by the parish officer of Godalming with ‘having been delivered of a bastard child, and being then chargeable to that parish.’  With no state welfare system, it was down to the local community to support those unable to care for themselves – and anyone seen to be taking advantage was sorely looked upon.

The court was told it was Loder’s third child by three different fathers.  The magistrate directed an example be made.  He sentenced her to three months hard labour on the treadmill at Guildford.

The house of correction at Guildford

The house of correction at Guildford

Guildford was Brixton’s sister prison, built at the same time and also overseen by the Surrey magistrates; the newly devised treadmill had been installed at both.  Loder was made to tread its boards almost as soon as she arrived, but was so weak and emaciated was quickly admitted to the infirmary.  It transpired she had been living on a diet of nothing but potatoes and was so undernourished she was unable even to produce milk for her baby.  She was given an extra allowance of food and her child put on a diet of pap made from bread and sugar.

Loder was back at the wheel two weeks later.  She was made to tread for 15 minute periods with 10 minute breaks over a period of around six hours a day.  Those women at rest looked after her child as she trod, but she was still unable to feed it.  Help was offered from another inmate and new mother: Hannah Hall was a vagrant in rather more robust health and allowed Loder’s child to suckle on her, something she would do for the period of her own one month confinement.

The case of Elizabeth Loder was an important one for the opponents of the treadmill for it underlined the machine’s indiscriminate use.  John Ivatt Briscoe, who stood alone among the Surrey magistrates in his vociferous opposition to it had come across both Elizabeth Loder and Hannah Hall in his investigations at Brixton and Guildford:

I saw [Loder] three times, and on the first of these times . . . she complained of want of nourishment for her child.  On my second visit I saw both the women at work on the Wheel.  The cries of their infants re-echoed through the prison almost unceasingly, and they then looked pale and sickly . . . I do not hesitate to declare my decided opposition to the practice of punishing a woman in this manner, under any circumstances, and particularly while performing the office of a nurse.

Briscoe’s fellow magistrates were goaded by this criticism.  Two of them, George Walton and Henry Onslow, declared it a ‘a strong and pathetic appeal . . . to the sympathies of the British public’.  They opened an investigation into the case, one which claimed Loder’s stay at Guildford had ultimately improved her health:

She has declared she was better fed, and had more care taken of her, and was altogether more comfortable during her imprisonment than she had ever been before; that she had gained health and strength during the time she was subject to work on the Wheel; and on her leaving the prison, expressed much apprehension that she should not fare so well on her return home.

The magistrates concluded ‘that what has been done in the commitment and punishment of these women, has not only been in strict conformity to the directions of the statute, but has violated no feeling of humanity’.  The Medical Adviser declared Onslow and Drummond ‘women haters’ and asked: ‘what sort of men must they be, who could thus undertake to defend the practice of putting women suckling infants to the treadwheel.’

But the case of Loder had raised not only the issue of putting mothers on the treadmill, but the question of whether she should have been there in the first place.  Men could also be imprisoned for not supporting their children, but with paternity depending on an individual’s word, it was the woman who was more likely to be prosecuted.  The MP Matthew Wood  – who opposed putting women on the treadmill – was answered with laughter in parliament when he pointed out: ‘This poor woman had been worked constantly . . . for hours together, and what was her crime?  Why simply that she had three children by three fresh men.’

Others merely held up Loder’s crime as a justification for the treadmill.  Another correspondent to the Morning Post, in responding to the man who had brought the case to public attention, claimed the law was not tough enough:

The vice of bastardy, particularly prevalent amongst servants, I attribute to the want of an early religious moral instruction, bad examples from parents and others, the close familiarity of servants, and their gross manner of good living.  From what I have stated there appears too much lenity in the enforcement of corrective laws.  This fling of Julius at the tread-mill is another of the many systematic attacks on that method of correction.

The case of Elizabeth Loder was part of the evidence considered by the home secretary, Robert Peel, before he endorsed the use of the treadmill.  But in the event the banning of women from the punishment would not come into effect for another decade or so.

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