Our four partner museums have come up with objects for tour that tell stories of the region’s ‘wicked past’. The latest item to appear at Salisbury Museum is a cat-o-nine-tails, used, certainly in the Royal Navy, and perhaps by other ship’s captains, to discipline sailors at sea.
This ‘cat’ had nine tails because large ropes were plaited from three smaller ones which were, in turn, plaited. Unravel the lot and you have nine strands.
The ‘cat’ was used after the late 17th century for more serious crimes such as striking an officer, theft, and mutiny. Bearing in mind the need to maintain control in a small, over-crowded ship, perhaps thousands of miles from home and months from any allied support, captains no doubt felt that they needed to be harsh. Mutiny might attract a penalty of hundreds of lashes which was often effectively a death sentence as infection would set in afterwards.
In theory at least, the ‘cat’ could still be used in British prisons up to the middle of the twentieth century and in some countries it is still a possible mode of punishment.