Amnesty International activists protesting the flogging of Raif Badawi outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Berlin. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images
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What actually happens when you get flogged

Thanks to Saudi Arabia’s brutal and inhumane treatment of blogger Raif Badawi, flogging as a punishment is back in the news. In 19th century Britain, the case of a young soldier who died after a similar assault provoked a national outcry.

“I suppose you thought to punish me for not writing”, said Private Frederick John White in a letter to his brother on 25 June 1846. The soldier, a 27 year-old south Londoner enlisted in the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, apologised for not being in touch with his family due to “a great deal of trouble” he had been through. He did not mention the flogging. A few days earlier, White, under the effects of alcohol, had had an argument with his sergeant and, during the fight he had stroked the sergeant’s chest with a metal bar. As a result, the Martial Court had sentenced White to 150 lashes.

When John White was found dead in his dorm, two weeks after writing the letter of apology to his relatives, the skin on his back had healed. After performing an autopsy within Hounslow Barracks, the medical army officers declared that his death was in no way connected with the flogging he had received almost a whole month earlier. White’s body was just about to be buried when the coroner for Middlesex decided to hold a judicial inquiry. The coroner was Thomas Wakley, a surgeon, medical journalist, and also the Lancet’s founder – and an ardent anti-flogging campaigner. The inquest into the Hounslow case sparked a national outcry. The post mortem examination of the soldier’s corpse, extensively reported by the Victorian press, provoked a burning political and medical debate on the effects of flogging on the health of a human being.

General of the British Empire, Sir James Charles Napier, in his Remarks of Military Law wrote that sentences of thousands lashes were common at the end of the eighteenth century. These were divided into instalments: when the skin had started to heal it was time to whip again. Flogging in the military, navy, schools and private homes was a common disciplinary measure in the nineteenth century. In order to discipline the mind it was considered necessary to discipline the body. Then, the skin was intended as a body’s shield.

Thomas Wakley. A photograph of a portrait by W H Egleton, after K Meadows. Image: WikiCommons

Thomas Wakley. A photograph of a portrait by W H Egleton, after K Meadows. Image: WikiCommons

As one of the witnesses told the coroner during the inquiry, blood had appeared between White’s shoulders after twenty lashes had been given. A regimental farrier kept on flogging until the fiftieth; he then handed over to his colleague so that he could have a rest. After fifty more had been given he took the whip again and inflicted the final fifty lashes. The farriers used the cat o’ nine tails, a tool made up of nine knotted thongs of cotton that could be found in veterinary shops. The punishment lasted half an hour: one lash every twelve seconds. The colonel and the regiment’s doctor stood with their arms folded. Neither of them checked the soldier’s pulse. A reader of the Times wrote to the editor that had the regimental doctor put his fingers on White’s wrist he would have found that at each lash his pulse faltered.

The coroner asked many questions to find out how many lashes a human being can endure. This was not because he thought that this number could be established but only to show the jury and the reporters that the number could not be quantified. It was unpredictable, and depended on variables such as the type of whips, the number of knots that the whips may form and, the external temperature. According to the press, 1846 recorded an unusually hot summer and this might have impaired the ability of White to recover. Then you have the experience of the floggers. They often undertook a sort of training to learn how to flog, using a tree trunk as a body. They were not supposed to break the skin and, as the Lancet reported, experienced hands knew that the lash should have fallen in the small area between the shoulders only. But as a Victorian pamphlet recited: “performers and skin materially differ, accidents sometimes happen”.

Dermatologist Erasmus Wilson was called by Wakley to perform a third autopsy on the body of White. Wilson, by analysing the cutaneous layer and the organs underneath, argued, in times prior to the discovery of the effects of bacteria in the bloodstream, that there was a connection between the external lacerations caused by the lashes and the internal state of the organs. According to Wilson, the injuries resulting from flogging were confined to the skin but the flogging was followed by inflammation of the internal organs and pulpy softening of muscles. The jury’s verdict, given on 4 August 1846, was that Frederick John White died from the mortal effects of the flogging that he had received at Cavalry Barracks in Hounslow.

On returning the verdict the jury called upon the public to send petitions to the British Legislature for the abolition of this form of military punishment. Less than a week after the end of the inquest, the Duke of Wellington established a limit of fifty lashes to be given for military corporal punishment. When flogging in the army was legally abolished in 1881, a few people knew it was still in law. John White was not the only person who had died after a flogging but this was the occasion on which the explanation for a dynamic relationship between superficial marks and injuries left on the body and internal organs of the punished was used as a political argument against corporal punishment. The back of the soldier furnished the script for marking an advancement in the history of the anti-flogging campaign in Britain.


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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era