Cat-o-nine Tails, United Kingdom, 1700-1850

Cat o'nine tails, whip-cord with wooden handle

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Cat o'nine tails, whip-cord with wooden handle
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Cat o'nine tails, whip-cord with wooden handle, reputedly British Navy, 1700-1850

A cat-o-nine tails is a whip. It consists of nine pieces of cord each tied with a series of knots. The device traditionally punished sailors in the British Royal Navy by whipping their bare backs. It is thought the cat-o-nine tails got its name from the ‘scratches’ it left on a man’s back. Ship captains could only order up to 24 whips of the cat-o-nine tails. The device was suspended by the Royal Navy in 1879 but it had fallen out of use long before this date.

The cat-o-nine tails created some English expressions: “Not enough room to swing a cat” referred to the whip; “Letting the cat out of the bag” refers to the device being kept in a special bag on board.


Wellcome (general)
Sir Henry Wellcome's Museum Collection
Object Number:
handle, wood and thongs, whipcord
handle: 465 mm x 75 mm x 20 mm,
overall length: 1240 mm
Wellcome Trust (Purchased from Stevens)