Today (December 15) in London History – Cat o’ nine tails

Two Pentonville Prison inmates were given the ‘cat’ – flogged with the cat ‘o nine tails – on December 15th, 1954. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one was completely unexpected.

It was serendipity, really.

Happens all the time to those of us who frequent libraries where you’re allowed to go into the stacks. You’re in there looking for the book you’re looking for and out of the corner of your eye you’ll spot a title you didn’t know about but is perfect for part of your research. 

For me that’s a major difference between the British Library and the London Library. The British Library you cannot go into the stacks. The British Library staff fetch the books for you that you’ve ordered. Which means there is zero chance of a serendipitous book find in the British Library. Different story at the London Library. I’ve been here 50 years and I’d guess maybe about two and a half weeks of those 50 years in London have been spent prowling blissfully in the stacks of the London Library. And making lots of happy accident ‘finds’. For the record, the other differences between those two libraries are: you can’t take books from the British Library; you can from the London Library. And the British Library is free to use. The London Library is a subscription library – my subscription costs me several hundred pounds a year. And it’s worth every penny.

Now in this instance, I wasn’t in the stacks of the London Library. A lead had sent me to a back issue of the Daily Telegraph. December 16th, 1954, to be exact.

And because of the serendipitous find I never got to what I went there in the first place for. And now I can’t remember and indeed have lost the back of the envelope notation that got the ball rolling. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a cat-o-nine tails flogging on December 15th, 1954 – but that’s what I stumbled upon. And ever on the lookout for the quirky and off-the-radar as opposed to the achingly obvious candidates for this Today in London History podcast series, well, there it was – gifted to me – my December 15th piece. And it wasn’t just that it was cat-o-nine tails flogging – as compelling as that is – the additional spur in the side was the date: 1954. Good God. 

But, focussing focussing all the time, as you do with these matters – I quickly remembered that come 1954 capital punishment in this country had another 14 years to run.

It’s just that – well – flogging by cat-o-nine tails seems, feels a whole lot more cut from the cloth of the Spanish Inquisition than hanging does.

Think of that moment in the Tarantino film Pulp Fiction when the tables get turned and the hard man of the hood Marcellus Wallace spells things out for the red neck copper who was raping him just a couple of minutes ago:  What now? Let me tell you what now. I’ma call a coupla hard, pipe-hittin’ brothers, who’ll go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blow torch. You hear me talkin’, hillbilly boy? I ain’t through with you by a damn sight. I’ma get medieval on your ass.”

Well, translate that to Pentonville Prison in London and December 15th, 1954. The appliances – and the accents – change a little bit but they’re both in the same realm of experience. Marcellus and his rapist are both people persons – though not in the sense that we normally use that phrase. As were the “visiting committee” who ordered the flogging by cat-o-nine tails for the two Pentonville inmates. It’s jarring and unsettling that euphemism “visiting committee” – jarring and unsettling precisely because they’re anonymous bureaucrats ordering up a dose of getting mediaeval for a couple of recalcitrant inmates. I’ll take Marcellus Wallace every time. Scary as he is you know who he is, where he is, what he’s all about, where he’s coming from. He’s a known known. The Visiting Committee are unknown unknowns. Faceless. Right out of Orwell’s 1984.

Ok, let’s meet the known knowns at Pentonville. Frank Ellis was 25 years old. He was serving two sentences of three years, to run concurrently, for housebreaking and burglary. Barry Coulson Duffield was 27 years old. He was serving a five-year sentence for housebreaking and larceny. Frank Ellis received 15 strokes. Barry Coulson Duffield received 12 strokes. Both men were new inmates. Barry Coulson Duffield had been sent down on December 1st and Frank Ellis on December 2nd. They were flogged as a punishment for gross assaults on three prison officers on December 4th. 

And that’s all we know. This one’s going to haunt me. Because I for one am panting to know more. It would be just about possible for one or both of the two inmates to still be alive. They’d be in their 90s. Just imagine being able to open this story up. Find out about their background. And what came after they were given the ‘cat’ as the Telegraph headline put it. And to hear from a couple of their fellow inmates. And indeed those prison officers. And as long as we’re at it, the householders they burgled. And yes members of the Visiting Committee. And the biggest scoop of all – interviewing the man who flogged them. And the other people – the prison officials – who were present. Our Telegraph story is just bare facts. There would have been a maelstrom of emotion – of feelings, passions – surging round this single London event. It almost certainly would have had knock-on effects. It’s just a piece of local, personal – not personal to me but to the dramatis personae – London history – but I’d very much like to see right into its howling centre. Almost certainly, though, this would be one of those instances when the historian has to hand over to the novelist. 

Ok, three takeaways. Two of which are great poems. First, I don’t know how you read about a couple of young men getting the cat in a London prison in the 1950s and not have that bring to mind Auden’s great poem Musee des Beaux Arts.

I’ll just give you the opening and closing lines. You’ll see the relevance instanta.

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood 

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

That’s how the poem opens. Here’s it close:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance, how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I wanted to find out about some of the rest of London that day, the various somewheres it was sailing calmly on to.

On December 15th, 1954 London would have been looking forward to the Christmas trees in parks being lit up. That would happen the next day.

And two Windmill Theatre showgirls were injured in a car crash in Belgravia. And it was announced that they were calling time the 17th-century Elephant Stairs down to the Thames in Rotherhithe. The march of progress because it was also announced that London was getting a helicopter service. And that car parking was going to be permitted in two royal parks.

And several Conservative members in the House of Commons tabled a motion deploring – I’m quoting now – the tendency evident in recent BBC television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.” Presumably the sadism was to be confined to houses of correction. For the record, the M.P.s were objecting to a dramatisation of George Orwell’s 1984. Anyway, on it went. There wasn’t much question but pretty much all of London turned away, quite leisurely, from the mini-disaster that was being scored across those two bare backs in Pentonville Prison.

The second takeaway is – well, in my case – astonishment that in my lifetime British prisons were giving the cat to inmates. I was a world away when that happened. The  world that I knew on December 15th, 1954 was beyond innocent. Not so for Frank Ellis and Barry Coulson Duffield when their world shrunk to a small, sweaty, bad smelling room in Pentonville Prison.

The other poem is the one in which Ted Hughes gets to grips with the cat o nine tails.

And look, in the unlikely event of anyone not understanding the name cat o nine tails, it’s a whip, the business end of which separates into nine flails. So one stroke is effectively nine strokes. It was a given that 250 to 500 strokes was a death sentence. If you think about it – it hardly bears thinking about – it’s easy to understand. 500 strokes was actually 4,500 strokes. Nine times 500. And here’s a linguistic connection for you, the idiomatic expression we use all the time – salt on the wound – comes from this chapter in British naval penal history. They’d put seawater – as a disinfectant – on a newly whipped back. Salty seawater. It must have stung like hellfire.

Anyway our poem is the one with the, on-the-face-of-it impenetrable title, Wilfred Owen’s Photographs. I remember contacting Ted Hughes’s publisher in hopes someone there could explain that title. His editor said, “I don’t understand it either, I’ll ask Ted.” And then, well, the flame guttered and went out.

I now understand it very well indeed. Wilfred Owen was of course  the great World War I poet. He came to feel that what he and his men were experiencing was beyond the power of language – no words could convey the evil they were caught up in, the hideousness. “I cannot put this in words” – he could of course – “language isn’t equal to this experience.” And so he hit on the idea of sending photographs. Maybe the folks at home could begin to grasp the enormity of the western front if they saw what his camera saw.

That’s the framing idea Hughes brought to that moment in the House of Commons when some Irish members dared to propose that the British Navy’s use of the cat o’ nine tails be abolished.

This incidentally is one of the poems that Stephen and I do on our London in Poetry tour, which we’re running this year on December 28th. It’s very performable – that’s for Steve Noonan, the great English actor, who delivers the poems on the walk. And very teachable, that’s for me, the literary historian, who gets in under the bonnet with them. Starting with the explication of the poem’s title. 

You can see – and, more importantly, hear Hughes’ superb craftsmanship. That verb “pressed” in the second line. Prominently positioned, of course, starting the line as it does. The main thing though is it’s so evocative – evocative of press gangs.

And then in the next stanza, in the exact same position, the word Squared – it of course brings to mind the famous military formation,  the British square. Wonderfully it also suggests the obtuseness of the Conservative politicians who of course are going to oppose this blasphemous motion. I’m afraid that verb “squared” also aways brings to mind that wonderful passage about national matters military in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Passage goes as follows:

“Your average Frenchie. Magnificent coq au vin, come the hostilities, bashes off to Vichy. Eyeties. Tanks with four gears, all reverse. Pasta magnifico. English, spotted dick and watery greens. Fight till they drop. Reason: nothing to live for.”

Third point I make about the poem is it beautifully illustrates the sound reinforces sense principle. In the middle of the poem the parliamentarians get so worked up about the suggestion that the cat should be abolished that they lose their fluency, they’re choked with rage. The cadence of the poem – and its grammar, there – it’s stumbling over itself – reflects that. The sound reinforces the sense. And finally, there’s what every great poem has, a turn. You’ll see it. Well, hear it. It comes right at the end. The Irishmen shames those blowhards.

Here’s the poem.

Wilfred Owen’s Photographs

When Parnell’s Irish in the House

Pressed that the British Navy’s cat-

O-nine tails be abolished, what

Shut against them? It was

Neither Irish nor English nor that

Decade, but of the species.

Predictably, Parliament

Squared against the motion. As soon

Let the old school tie be rent

Off their necks, and give thanks, as see gone

No shame but a monument–

Trafalgar not better known.

‘To discontinue it were as much

As ship not powder and cannonballs

But brandy and women’ (Laughter). Hearing which

A witty profound Irishman calls

For a ‘cat’ into the House, and sits to watch

The gentry fingering its stained tails.

Whereupon . . .

                         quietly, unopposed,

The motion was passed.

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, I hope it’s okay if I put in a plug for that London in Poetry walk on December 28th. It’s sui generis – a very different cup of tea from any other London Walk. 

You’re not just getting London and some guiding – you’re also getting a dozen or so of the greatest poems ever written about London. To say nothing of a chance to act with one of the most gifted actors of his generation. At one point one of the pieces we do is a bit of Shakespeare. There are four speaking parts. So if you want to come home and say, ‘what did i do in London, well, for starters I acted with – shared the stage – with the new Dr Who.” Not bad, eh. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

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And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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