The death of Robert Sim: a protest against flogging in Limerick city, 1867

On a grey February Monday in 1867, an inquest jury of 12 Limerick men met in the hospital of the New Barracks, to investigate the death of Private Robert Sim ‘then and there lying dead’ before them. Sim, of the 74th Highland Regiment, had died 2 days earlier, from ‘congestion of the brain, occasioned by erysipelas’ according to the military surgeon Charles John White. 1 (Erysipelas is an acute bacterial infection of the skin, most frequently occurring on the face in this time period. 2) So why did Sim’s death warrant a coroner’s investigation? Before the discovery of antibiotics, even the strongest individual could die from an infection, or the accompanying fever. Inquests were convened when the coroner had doubts about the cause of death, and these suspicions were generally aroused by a report from a clergyman, a policeman or a local government official. For Sim’s was no ordinary case of sudden fever: 17 days before his death he had been taken the barrack square, tied to the halberds and lashed fifty times with the cat o’ nine tails. The sounds of flogging – the drum beat to keep time for the flogger, the groans of the man under the lash – may have echoed through the streets around the barracks, as it had in Castlebar in 1845. Limerick Coroner John Gleeson called the inquest on Sim’s body because he, and others in the city, suspected that the Private’s death was something out of the ordinary.

The conflict between medical expertise and lay common-sense on inquest juries. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
The conflict between medical expertise and ordinary common-sense on inquest juries.
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The inquest called 5 military witnesses: two NCOs (non-commissioned officers) responsible for running the military prison and hospital respectively and three regimental surgeons. The officer commanding the regiment, Colonel William Kelty McLeod, was also present and participated. The jurors questioned each witness, their inquiries revealing their collective concerns about the medical care offered to Private Sim after the flogging. The NCOs were asked about the practice of sending flogged men to jail rather than prison, while the surgeons were asked about whether doctors supervised floggings (they did) and if military prisoners were visited daily by medical officers (they were). Of course, the jury’s main concern was what had caused the death of Robert Sim. Military surgeon Charles White, who had examined Sim’s body, stated that the soldier died of erysipelas, but the jurors were not so sure. The foreman of the jury asked whether the infection was caused by the flogging Sim had endured but White refuted this, pointing to the length of time between the punishment and the onset of infection. He also said ‘I cannot say whether the death of the deceased was accelerated by the punishment he underwent; I should say it had very little or nothing to do with it.’ 3 By the time Sim was seriously ill, his back presented ‘a perfectly healthy appearance’.

But Sim’s body was also examined by a civilian doctor, Dr Jonathan Elmes. He agreed with the diagnosis of erysipelas, having seen inflammation on the head and face consistent with the disease. Elmes also noted abrasions on the skin between the shoulders ‘probably the remaining marks of punishment’. His verdict on Sim’s death was ‘irritative fever, with the concomitant congestion of the brain’, which was in agreement with Surgeon White. However, under questioning from the jury, Elmes offered a medical opinion at odds with White’s: ‘I have no doubt but that the punishment the deceased underwent led to the train of symptoms which led to his death.’ 4 The jury now had two contradictory assertions from medical professionals who agreed erysipelas had killed Sim, but differed on whether the flogging had affected his health. They had viewed the body, listened to the evidence and questioned the witnesses. The jury of 12 Limerick men reached a startling conclusion; that Sim died from fever ‘accelerated from corporal punishment he received, as the result of a district court martial.’ 5 This finding blamed the death of Private Sim not on any medical deficiency in his care but on the flogging he received 17 days before he died. It was not the verdict Colonel McLeod wished to hear.

When the inquest ended, the body of Private Sim was taken from the New Barracks to be buried in the military graveyard. An ‘unusually great’ crowd of civilians followed the cortege from the barracks to the military graveyard on the northern edge of the city. According to the Limerick Reporter, these were mostly from ‘the humbler class’, a section of society the editorial writer believed ‘are by no means undiscriminating admirers of British soldiers’. Yet many attended Sim’s burial, showing their sympathy with his fate by their conduct and demeanour. 6 The presence of so many civilian mourners shows how widely the news of Sim’s death and the coroner’s inquest had spread in the city, for the funeral did not start until the inquiry had closed. Limerick people had waited outside the barrack for the inquest to finish, in order to follow Sim’s coffin to the graveyard.

A London crowd waiting for an inquest verdict (1901)
A London crowd waiting for an inquest verdict (1901) Source

The knowledge of the soldier’s punishment and death was not confined to the coroner and those men with enough property to be eligible for service on his jury. Since Sim was a Presbyterian, the public interest cannot be explained by any fraternal denominational feeling, for Limerick was an overwhelmingly Catholic city.

The next day, the verdict was reported in the Limerick, Tipperary and Cork press, and over the next few weeks the story featured in other newspapers in provincial Ireland. Later that week, the Limerick Reporter even published an editorial piece titled ‘Scourging soldiers in Limerick garrison’. In a year where Fenianism and the threat of rebellion once again occupied minds the writer pointed out that Sim was ‘punished more severely than the most decided Fenian’. (In his time in Limerick, Sim may have been part of the ‘flying columns’ formed by the 74th to police the surrounding countryside for Fenians. 7) He even claims that further horrors await: another flogged soldier in Limerick barracks is so ill ‘that his death maybe expected at any moment’.

The 74th Regiment by Daniel Cunliffe (1846) Source
The 74th Regiment by Daniel Cunliffe (1846) Source

The fate of Robert Sim had not escaped the notice of members of parliament who were opposed to flogging, and who annually challenged the Mutiny Bill clause on corporal punishment. Since Francis Burdett had made it a feature of the annual army vote, a succession of leading reformers had taken up the cause.8 By the 1860s, decades of persistent agitation had begun to bear fruit: in 1863 and 1864 the government won the vote to retain flogging in the army by just 2 votes.9 In 1867, the House of Commons debated the Mutiny Bill a few weeks after the Limerick jury’s verdict. In proposing that the government abolish flogging in the army in peacetime, Sir Arthur Otway referred to Sim’s death saying, ‘if it were possible that death should result from the punishment, the punishment ought to be abolished altogether.’ 10 For the first time ever, the government lost the vote and Otway’s motion to restrict flogging to wartime passed. Two weeks later, the Limerick jury petitioned the House of Commons to establish an inquiry into the punishments inflicted in the 74th Regiment and the many desertions from it.11

Sir Arthur Otway M.P.
Sir Arthur Otway M.P.

Unfortunately for the average British soldier, flogging in the peacetime army was not abolished in 1867. Due to the system of amendments and counter-amendments that characterizes the House of Commons, the government won the final vote on the corporal punishment clause of the Mutiny Bill. The system was so opaque that some MPs may have voted the wrong way: Sir George Bowyer complained that he had overheard members in the lobby outside the chamber trying to work out which way to vote.

‘He heard many hon. Members around him ask the questions, “Are we voting right?” “Are we voting for the ‘ayes’ or for the ‘noes’?” and he heard one hon. Member say, “I am voting for Otway,” when in reality he was voting against him.’ 12

However, Otway was not discouraged and his resolution to abolish flogging in peacetime was inserted into the Mutiny Bill in 1868. The verdict of the Limerick inquest jury, arguably more about the politics of army punishment than the medical facts of the case, showed that the public revulsion over flogging could force legislative change on a reluctant army. Wartime court martials lost the power to sentence British men to flogging in 1881, though African troops in the British army were flogged until 1946. 13 The death of Robert Sim in Limerick and the jury’s determination to condemn flogging had a direct effect on the disciplinary system of the British army.

  1. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, ‘Robert Sim. Copy of the depositions of the witnesses and the verdict of the jury upon the inquest held on 11th February last, by John Gleeson, Esq., in the hospital of the new barracks, Limerick, upon the body of Robert Sim, a private of the 74th Highlanders, who died in the said hospital on Saturday, 9th February 1867, after receiving a flogging in the open square of the said barracks, on 19th January previous, pursuant to a sentence of court martial’, p 3.
  3. Robert Sim Deposition, p 3.
  4. Robert Sim Deposition, p 4.
  5. Robert Sim Deposition, p 1.
  6. The Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator, 15 February 1867.
  7. Sir John Scott Keltie et al, A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland Regiments Volume 8, (Edinburgh & London, 1875), p 613.
  8. J.R. Dinwiddy, ‘The early nineteenth-century campaign against flogging in the army’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 383 (Apr. 1982), p 308-333.
  11. The Lancet, Vol 92 (1867), p 408.
  13. Arthur Grundlingh, War and Society: Participation and Remembrance South African Black and Coloured Troops in the First World War, 1914-18 (Sun Press, 2014), p 70.
Posted in Barracks, Britain, Co Limerick, Coroner, Flogging, History, Inquest, Ireland, Military, Prison, Punishment, Religion, Scotland, Sir Arthur Otway, Westminster | Comments Off on The death of Robert Sim: a protest against flogging in Limerick city, 1867

Against the Lash: an anti-flogging poem

On 16 August 1845, the Londonderry Sentinel published a poem about the dehumanising effect of flogging in the army. This is the only verse on flogging I have found in the Irish newspapers, and I cannot resist reproducing it in full below. It has many narrative elements to savour: a peasant lad sheds ‘noble tears’ on a ‘sullen autumn eve’ because his aged parents are sliding into decrepitude.
For those who don’t want to wallow in nineteenth-century sentimentality, here is a brief summary of the poem. A strapping young lad decides he cannot face the impending death and decay of his parents. He leaves them in the care of a neighbouring brother and departs the peaceful countryside to join the army. All goes well: he is cheerful and steady. But his brother dies, leaving his parents alone and destitute. They have nowhere to go but ‘The Workhouse! – the prison of the poor!’. This devastating news breaks the peasant’s heart and he drinks until he abandons his military duties. For this offence he is court-martialled and flogged. The last 2 verses address the real tragedy; the destruction of a man’s spirit by the lash’s ‘horrid work of blood’. The willing soldier, the open-countenanced, honest peasant, is gone forever, the cat o’ nine tails has ‘ only made a SLAVE’.
Coincidentally, this poem was published the same day that runaway-slave, orator and author Frederick Douglass set sail for Europe. As I wrote before, opposition to flogging was long-standing, but this poem shows clearly that American slavery influenced perceptions of individual rights and freedoms in Britain, and Ireland.
And for the connoisseurs of full-technicolor melodrama, here is the poem in full:
Against the Lash – “The Peasant Soldier” (Londonderry Sentinel, 16 August 1845.)

Want drove him from his home,
One sullen autumn eve;
He loved too deeply all within,
For any “taking leave.”
Want pinched him – but his heart,
Burned neither black nor bad;
He would not rob, nor poach, nor starve:
He was – an honest lad!

Some nineteen years had past,
Over an open brow
Which having shone through youth, at last
Burnt into manhood now!
His life began in smiles,
His youth kept on their track,
And now, with manhood’s touch of woe,
He wished their sunshine back.

He saw his father old,
And powerless and weak;
He saw tears in age furrows ploughed
Upon his mother’s cheek!
He felt a dread of home
Come shrouding round his heart,
He would not see the ruin come,
He knew he must depart.

It was a sullen eve,
The sunset left the corn
With such a cloud-frown so its ear
As ever lasts till morn.
He wept – the peasant lad –
Tears – holy tears – aloud.
And felt as if his heart threw off
The frowning of the cloud!

He walked to brother’s farm –
“Brother, you’ve money –say,
Wilt keep the old uns from all harm
If I should go away?”
“I will–“Enough! No more!”
The peasant brush’d his cheek,
Then turn’d him from a brother’s door –
His brother couldn’t speak!

On, on a few more miles–
(This heart-tree grows to fruit!)
The silent parting swells to noise! –
The peasant’s a recruit
The tears are dash’d away.
The smile again is seen:
His calm resolve has won the day–
The peasant serves his Queen.

Serves and serves well! A soldier’s growth,
springs out of every limb:
The Serjeant’s foresight well may carve,
A soldier out of him.
Cheerful at bed and board,
Steady at dress and drill
No care except for HOME to hoard
Against its chance of ill!

His brother fails, the dear
Old parents of his love
Have lost their last and little cheer,
To worse than jail they move
The Workhouse! – prison of the poor! –
Oh! how his nature slunk
Away from its own anguish, when
Grief made that Peasant drunk!

Drunk with a phrenzied rage,
That would not brook its care –
Drunk with a mad defiance such
As borders on despair!
Drunk till all hope died out,
All duty seem’d forgot–
Drunk till he went with pinioned limbs
To meet the culprit’s lot.

He slept a sleep like death,
Till he and morning work
And with all that withereth
Life’s human heart! – he spoke
No word – but met “the Court,”
With heavy look of gloom,
And heard his sentence – like a soul
Departing to it’s doom!

And now the lash has done
It’s horrid work of blood!
A man’s eye dim – a man’s heart crush’d,
Where once the peasant stood!
Bring surgeon’s care and skill!
Bring bitter salt and brine!
You cannot call his manhood back,
Nor bid his spirit shine!

No more unto the drill
He hies as to a feast,
No more the ready heart and will!
He hates you now at least
He knows himself is lost
But in the young and brave,
You’ve lost a soldier and a man,
And only made a SLAVE.

Posted in Britain, Co Derry, Court Martial, Flogging, History, Ireland, Military, Poetry, Punishment, Slavery | Comments Off on Against the Lash: an anti-flogging poem

Feeding the Rising: military and civilian food supplies during the Easter Rising, 1916

On Easter Monday, 24th April, the staff of the Hotel Metropole on O’Connell Street were surprised to see a party of armed uniformed men enter the premises. Brandishing their guns at the manager, the men demanded all the cooked meats and bread from the kitchens. As the provisions were carried to the neighbouring building, the rebel headquarters in the General Post Office, the leader paid for the supplies with paper notes, later assumed to have been ‘liberated’ from the post office.  Over the next few days, the rebels stopped food delivery vans and confiscated their contents at gunpoint. Some unlucky deliverymen were given receipts from the ‘Irish Republic’, 1 stating how much they were owed but most of the 2,000 rebels did not have time for bureaucratic niceties. 2

From the Cork Examiner, 5 May 1916
From the Cork Examiner, 5 May 1916

While the rebels found food by any means possible, the British military faced the challenge of feeding large numbers of troops, as thousands of reinforcements joined the 2,312 men already in Dublin barracks. 3 The declaration of martial law on Tuesday 25th April helped the army provision itself because it gave the military complete control over economy and civil society. Soldiers were the first to be fed, and the army commandeered what it needed from wholesalers and distributors who willingly acceded to their demands. 4 As reinforcements poured into Dublin from the Curragh, Belfast and England throughout the week, the army’s need for food grew exponentially. The increased military demand, the cordon that was placed around the city centre, and rebels taking food at gunpoint, halted ordinary food distribution. With both state and rebel armies absorbed in the battle for streets and food, the civilian population were temporarily ignored.

Since every household bought fresh bread daily, a bread shortage was almost immediate. A large city centre bakery, Boland’s, had been occupied by the rebels, making the scarcity more acute. Desperate civilians, even in the embattled city centre, had no choice but to venture out to find bread. Queues formed outside bakeries from as early as 6am. 5 The remarkable sight of staid, throughly respectable professional men carrying cauliflowers or bread loaves amused passers-by during a difficult week. 6 Suburban residents may have been safe from bullets but the people of Howth, who received all their bread from the city centre, were forced to send to Drogheda for supplies. 7 The suburb of Ballsbridge was fortunate to have a bakery – Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien’s  – in the area, which continued to bake throughout the insurrection. In a remarkable gesture, the bakery did not raise their prices, selling at normal, pre-Rising rates. 8 In general, scarcity drove prices up: butter prices more than trebled until supplies ran out and margarine was substituted. 9

Image © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5160)
Image © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5160)

Of course, food prices were irrelevant to the those who had no money whatsoever. When the rebels captured the GPO, they commandeered the money intended for the families of serving British soldiers. The separation allowances were a lifeline for the Dublin poor, who endured wartime price rises with little corresponding increase in wages or job opportunities. During the Easter Rising, service families who lost their income became desperate. By Friday 28th April, privation had become starvation: ‘At almost every shop … women could be heard begging in vain for a single loaf or a drop of milk for their starving children.’ 10 Outside the besieged city centre, the poor raided market gardens for vegetables. 11

Image from
Image from

At the start of Easter Week, the army was too busy to bother with civilian needs, apart from an emergency distribution of Bovril to hungry Dubliners. 12 Once military success was assured, the army began supplying the civilian population with food. By Saturday 29th, the day of the surrender, the military were delivering supplies to local committees in the food-deprived suburbs of Rathmines and Terenure. 13 Bureaucratic attention turned on the poor on Friday 28th, when the army agreed to deliver food to depots run by the St Vincent de Paul, who would distribute the aid to the needy. In Fairview, the Army Service Corps handed out food to the hungry. 14 As well as supplying free food to the poor, the army continued to control food distribution in Dublin in the week after the Rising. Military transports delivered provisions to ‘responsible traders’, attempting to control prices by supplying only those shopkeepers who would not ‘mulct’ their customers.

But the army faced a food problem that was more politically pressing than organising a city-wide distribution system and feeding over 16,000 soldiers. 15 After the rebel surrender, about 1,000 insurgents who were detained by the army in Dublin had to be fed 3 times a day. There were regulations to interpret, accounts to be kept and all with an eye to the highly charged context surrounding feeding and politics. Suffragettes had begun hunger strikes in 1909, many of which were ended by brutal, life-threatening force feeding by prison authorities. James Connolly, a captured rebel leader, had gone on hunger strike three years previously during the Dublin Lockout. 16 Furthermore, the treatment of Irish dissidents in British detention had long been a sensitive political issue. 17 Five years after his conviction, the prisons conditions of the Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa, were still scrutinised in Ireland: rumours in February 1870 that he had been flogged shocked the nationalist press.18 In the case of the Easter Rising, with the Great War raging in Europe and martial law in force in Ireland, the civil government had allowed the army to assume complete control of the response to the insurrection. Fatally for the 16 executed rebel leaders, the government did not regain control immediately after the rebel surrender. Like the soldiers on the Front, the rebel leaders were subject to the swift and brutal punishments dispensed by the British army at war. 19 It was 20 May before General Maxwell agreed to seek the Prime Minister’s permission before executing prisoners.20 Once the executions ended, the army’s attitude to rebel prisoners in its custody became conciliatory, as proved by the ration plan drawn up in Richmond Barracks.

Rebel prisoners in Richmond Barracks
Rebel prisoners in Richmond Barracks

Per day, each prisoner received:

1 lb. of Fresh Meat
1 lb. of Bread
1 lb. of potatoes or other fresh vegetables
4 ozs of Bacon
4 ozs Jam
4 ozs Margarine
3 ozs Sugar
3 ozs Cheese
1 oz. Tea
1/2 oz. salt
1/50 oz. of pepper
1/4 pint of Milk

Based on the standard ration issued to British soldiers, 21 this allocation included margarine and fresh vegetables that were not usually given to men in uniform. But this ration could be further improved if the officer in charge decided that more ‘comforts’ were necessary. The letter describing the rations concludes with an incredible phrase ‘to be supplied regardless of expense’, proving how extraordinary the political circumstances were after the Easter Rising. 22 The British army, ever conscious of the Treasury, never spent money with abandon.

Prisoners did benefit from this permissive rationing. Between May and June 1916, the officer in charge of prisoners’ supplies in Richmond Barracks authorized extra bread and potatoes, the staple foods of prisoners who were, in his opinion, ‘largely from the peasantry’. They also received extra milk, sugar and cheese. On fast days, the prisoners were fed fish and tinned salmon ‘in deference to [their] religious convictions’. The considerate and generous feeding of the rebel prisoners was ‘to be done regardless of expense, to avoid complaints on the part of prisoners.’ 23 Without doubt, the army was aware of the political sensitivities around Irish rebel prisoners in British custody. These comfortable conditions were intended to preempt any publicity that rebels sympathisers could exploit if the prisoners were mistreated.

Muriel Brandt, The Breadline, 1916 (c.1950)
Muriel Brandt, The Breadline, 1916 (c.1950)

Unlike civilians outside the barrack walls, the rebels were assured of a daily breakfast, dinner and supper. They were undoubtedly luckier than inner-city Dubliners who struggled to feed their families in the aftermath of the Rising. Such was the distress caused during Easter week that the Poor Law system offered relief from 8th May to the poor ‘without involving them in any disability’. 24 Here too, fiscal prudence was set aside, and cash payments were made without the usual parsimony. Was this a humane response to deprivation or part of the civil government’s conciliatory policy towards Ireland? Although the army continued to manage the logistics of Dublin’s food supply, the power to feed the people was firmly back in civilian hands.

  1. Feeding the Rebels, Cork Examiner 3 May 1916.
  2. On acquiring supplies see Ann Matthews, The Irish Citizen Army (2014), pp 97-8. Figures for rebel forces, Matthews, p 104.
  3. Matthews, The Irish Citizen Army, p 105 and 106.
  4. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916
  5. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  6. This was sufficiently humourous to be reported twice: The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916; Supply of Bread, Cork Examiner 4 May 1916.
  7. Report by Special Correspondent Valentine Heywood, Cork Examiner 3 May 1916.
  8. Supply of Bread, Cork Examiner 4 May 1916.
  9. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner 3 May 1916.
  10. Report by Special Correspondent Valentine Heywood, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  11. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  12. Incidents of the Rebellion, Cork Examiner, 4 May 1916.
  13. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  14. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  15. Troop figures here:
  17. Sean McConville, Irish Political Prisoners 1848-22: Theatre of War (2003).
  18. Cork Examiner, 15 February 1870.
  19. For more on the legal basis for the rebel’s execution see
  20. McConville, p 431.
  22. H. Fraser Lt. Colonel, Provost Marshall, Richmond Barracks to The A.D.S.T., Irish Command, undated, WO 35/69/4.
  23. Lieut. G. Wynn Rushton to A.D. of S.&T., Irish Command, Supply Account of Sinn Fein Prisoners for the period 14/05/15 to 15/06/16, WO 35/69/4.
  24. Dublin’s Food, Cork Examiner, 4 May 1916.
Posted in Barracks, Britain, Co Dublin, Court Martial, Easter Rising 1916, Flogging, Food, General John Maxwell, History, Ireland, James Connolly, Military, O'Donovan Rossa, Prison, Punishment, Uncategorized, Urban, World War I | Comments Off on Feeding the Rising: military and civilian food supplies during the Easter Rising, 1916