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.