Wicked Wessex!

Cat-o'-nine-tails

Object from: Poole Museum

Life was hard for sailors in the 1700s and 1800s. They faced harsh punishments, including being flogged with the dreaded cat-o’-nine-tails.

Miserable Maritime Life in Wessex

Poole was a maritime centre in the 1700s and 1800s, but life was tough for the men who crewed the ships.  

The cat-o’-nine-tails was a type of whip used in the Royal Navy. A sailor could be flogged for anything from drunkenness to desertion. Each of the cat’s ‘tails’ was knotted to increase the pain of the lashes.

The cat was usually kept in a cloth bag, hence the term ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.

Flogged around the fleet

The most severe form of this punishment was being ‘flogged around the fleet’. This involved the offender being rowed in turn to each of the ships in port, where he would receive a flogging, witnessed by the ship’s crew, before being rowed to the next one. A surgeon was present to ensure the sailor was fit to continue.

This practice was abolished in 1879 but had probably stopped long before. 

More tales of misery

  • Disease on board ships was rife – sailors often suffered from illnesses like pneumonia, tuberculosis or cholera.
  • Scurvy (from a lack of vitamin C) was common causing exhaustion, joint pain and tooth loss.
  • The sailors mainly lived off dry biscuits, pea soup and salt beef. The only fresh things in their food were… maggots! 

Poole Museum's cat-o'nine-tails

Poole Museums chose the cat-o’nine-tails to fit the theme of Wicked Wessex.  The museum has a rich and varied collection of objects from Poole’s time as the maritime centre of Wessex. The cat-o’-nine-tails pictured is actually a replica.

Photo of a cat-o-nine-tails.
Replica cat-o'-nine-tails from Poole Museum.
Painting of a historic ship entering the Bay of Naples, 1867.
Historic Poole ship entering the Bay of Naples, 1867.