Dec 01 2009
John Colborne (later Lord Seaton), during his long career as a light infantry officer came to know and respect the British soldier for his virtues. He also knew, however, that in every regiment there was a hard core of recidivists, men who appeared time and time again before regimental and general courts martial. These were the King’s “hard bargains”. Colborne noted that, although often few in number, they could, like rotten apples, have a seriously detrimental effect on the whole corps.
The 30th were no exception to this rule. Both battalions had their share of these rogues. In the second battalion they were very few in number and seem to have had little effect on the overall discipline of the corps. In India, though, where the related problems of boredom and alcohol (arrack, with its powerful effect) could seriously undermine even the best of soldiers, the incidence of repeat offenders was very much higher, and the offences they committed generally more serious.
Two of the hardest bargains in the 1st battalion were Richard Key and Samuel Lickler, both Englishmen (which rather challenges the preconception that the worst soldiers were Irish), both labourers who had been good soldiers until the went to India. Indeed, Key was a drummer within months of enlistment in 1806, and remained at that rank until 1811, by which time the effects of arrack were seriously influencing his behaviour – or misbehaviour.
Both Key and Lickler made frequent appearances before regimental courts martial. The six-monthly inspection returns often list three appearances for each man. They suffered the gamut of military punishment: extra drill, logging, solitary confinement and flogging. Nothing seemed to have any effect.
The records of regimental courts martial have not survived, unlike the papers from general courts martial. In 1816 both men appeared before general regimental courts martial (a court with the power of a general court martial but sat by officers from a single regiment). In each case, the proceedings tell us a lot about the men and their behaviour.
On 11th December Richard Key appeared before the court, which consisted of four captains, two lieutenants and two ensigns of the 30th, with Major Bircham, himself a man from the ranks, as president. He was charged with “Quitting the fort (St George, in Madras) without leave, being drunk and rioting in Blacktown (an area of Madras where the bazaars were), and grossly abusing and striking Sergeant Bibby a violent blow on the head which occasioned the loss of one of his teeth, when in the execution of his duty on the 8th instant.”
Three prosecution witnesses attested against Key. Sergeant Bibby deposed that he had seen Key “stripped in the street and naked”. So amazed was he by this sight that he found Sergeant Robertson, the market sergeant, and asked him to accompany him so that he could show him something that would astonish him. When reinforcements were called up to arrest Key, he ran at Bibby, struck him a blow in the face which knocked out one of his teeth and used very abusive language against him.
The second witness, Sergeant Robertson, confirmed Bibby’s evidence. A third witness, the adjutant, Lieutenant Stephenson, confirmed that Key had no permission to quit the fort.
Key’s defence was a simple assertion that he did not “recollect any of the circumstances that happened in Blacktown but admits that he left the fort without leave”.
Key already had a record for violence against NCOs, and against Indians, male and female, so it is no surprise that he was sentenced to 600 lashes. The sentence was confirmed by General Ogg, who commanded the garrison at Fort St George, and Key duly received his punishment without remission.
Samuel Lickler had faced the same court eight days earlier. He was charged firstly with “quitting the fort without leave when on guard on the evening of the 28th ult or morning of the 29th ult and not returning until brought back a prisoner on the 30th ult; and secondly with “making away the chief part of his necessaries”. Men often faced a charge of going awol because they got drunk and were incapable of returning to the fort. Lickler, however, seems to have made a deliberate attempt to desert, and not for the first time. Selling necessaries, that is, uniform and equipment, was another frequent offence, and seems to have been a means of acquiring money to buy alcohol but again, in Lickler’s case, the money seems to have been intended to facilitate his escape.
When invited to plead, Lickler declared himself guilty. Consequently, no evidence was called and he was not invited to offer a defence. As a result he was sentenced to 500 lashes and to be put under stoppages not exceeding half his pay until the cost of the necessaries had been reimbursed.
What makes this court martial interesting is the response of the confirming officer, General Ogg. He wrote:
“I am of opinion that court martial, notwithstanding a prisoner pleading guilty, should always examine evidence when to be had; to enable them to weigh and appreciate the degree of guilt. A man through ignorance may plead guilty to a charge which when examined into may be found accompanied by circumstances that in some degree extenuate the guilt. I will thank you to let evidence be taken in this trial.”
At this point, Major Bircham had recourse to an expert on military law, whose book on the subject was used as a handbook by those sitting a court martial. [See "An Essay on Military Law and the Practice of Courts Martial", by Alexander Fraser Tytler]. Tytler fully considered the problem of a man insisting on pleading guilty and advised that where he could not be persuaded to change his mind, then his guilt had to be assumed by the court. As Bircham wrote: “in conformity to the opinion expressed by Tytler on that subject, in the 5th chapter and third section, they [the court] are not warranted in taking down evidence.”
Ogg confirmed the decision of the court, but reduced the corporal punishment to 250 lashes.
The eventual fate of these two hard bargains was markedly different. Not long afterwards, Lickler volunteered (or perhaps was invited) to transfer to a penal corps in order to escape further punishment, and departed to Australia. Key, despite showing no improvement, even declaring on one occasion that “he was damned if he would be logged”, remained with the regiment and died “a natural death” in 1822.