The Bloody Code

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What was the ‘Bloody Code’?

In 1723 a system known as the Bloody Code was established in Britain, which imposed the death penalty for over 200 offences – many of which were surprisingly trivial. 

The Waltham Black Act 1723 was brought in as an emergency measure to deal with deer-stealing, and other activities in the royal forests, of men who disguised themselves by blacking their faces.  It was sweeping in its scope, making more than fifty distinct offences capital for seven different group of offenders.

The death sentence was also given out for a broad range of other rustic crimes such as damaging orchards, gardens, or cattle, with penalties attached to conspiring to commit any of these crimes or rescuing anyone imprisoned for these crimes. Between 1750 and 1815 a series of Acts/Statutes were added to the number of offences punishable by death, bringing the number to more than 200.

Capital punishment legislation and acts proliferated in a haphazard manner during this period to deal with individual crimes as they arose.  For example, destroying Westminster Bridge was the same kind of offence as destroying Fulham Bridge, but each offence had a separate capital statute (act).

Upon some research under the broad categories below, there would be several individual offences within them. For example arson had seven different individual offences, each with its own statute.  Soldiers and sailors could be executed if found vagrant without their passes and for stealing from bleaching-grounds in England and Ireland.  Breaking river banks, cutting down hop-vines, impersonating Greenwich pensioners and destroying textile machinery were all punishable by death.

Some of the offences on the list were as follows:

  • murder
  • arson
  • forgery
  • cutting down trees
  • stealing horses or sheep
  • destroying turnpike roads
  • stealing from a rabbit warren
  • pickpocketing goods worth a shilling (roughly £30 today)
  • being out at night with a blackened face
  • being an unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child
  • stealing from a shipwreck
  • wrecking a fishpond

There is no apparent definitive list of all 225 offences.  But as each singular offence was added with its own statute, it was no wonder the number of capital offences grew to over 200.

It’s also worth noting that juries were often unwilling to find people guilty, so that offenders could escape the noose. Evidence suggests that fewer people were actually hanged under the Bloody Code than before it.

After much campaigning, social reformer Sir Samuel Romilly succeeded in repealing the death penalty for some minor crimes, and as the century progressed transportation became a more popular mode of punishment.

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