"Bloody Code" is a term used to refer to the system of crimes and punishments in England in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was not referred to as such in its own time, but the name was given later owing to the sharply increased number of people given the death penalty, even for crimes considered minor by today's society.
Capital punishment and Transportation
In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book punishable by death, but that number had almost quadrupled by 1776, and it reached 220 by the end of the century. Most of the new laws introduced during that period were concerned with the defence of property, which some commentators have interpreted as a form of class suppression of the poor by the rich. George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, expressed a contemporary view when he said that "Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen". Grand larceny was one of the crimes that drew the death penalty; it was defined as the theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, about one-twentieth of the weekly wage for a skilled worker at the time. As the 18th century proceeded, jurors often deliberately under-assessed the value of stolen goods, in order to avoid a mandatory death sentence.
As the 17th century drew to a close, lawmakers sought a less harsh punishment that might still deter potential offenders; penal transportation with a term of indentured servitude became the more common punishment. This trend was continued by the Transportation Act 1717 (16 Geo. 3 c.43), which regulated and subsidised the practice, until its use was suspended by the Criminal Law Act 1776. With the American Colonies already in active rebellion, parliament claimed its continuance "is found to be attended with various inconveniences, particularly by depriving this kingdom of many subjects whose labour might be useful to the community, and who, by proper care and correction, might be reclaimed from their evil course". This law would become known as the Hard Labour Act and the Hulks Act for both its purpose and its result. With the removal of the important transportation alternative to the death penalty, it would in part prompt the use of prisons for punishment and the start of prison building programmes. In 1785 Australia would be deemed a suitably desolate place to transport convicts; transportation would resume, now to a specifically planned penal colony, with the departure of the First Fleet in 1787. It has been estimated that over one-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867 were transported to Australia and Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). Some criminals could escape transportation if they agreed to join the army. Jurist William Blackstone said of the Bloody Code:
It is a melancholy truth, that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than a hundred and sixty have been declared by Act of Parliament to be felonious without benefit of clergy; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death.
Relaxation of the law
In 1823 the Judgement of Death Act 1823 made the death penalty discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. Gradually during the middle of the nineteenth century, the number of capital offences was reduced, and by 1861 was down to five. The last execution in the UK took place in 1964, and the death penalty was legally abolished in the following years:
- Murder, temporarily from 1965, permanently from 1969, in Northern Ireland from 1973
- Arson in a naval dockyard, 1971
- Espionage, 1981
- Piracy, 1998
- High treason, 1998
- Wilf 2010, p. 139
- Wade 2009, p. 9
- Sharpe 2001, p. 116
- Wade 2009, p. 10
- Glyn-Jones 2000, p. 322
- "An act to authorise, for a limited time, the punishment by hard labour of offenders who, for certain crimes, are or shall become liable to be transported to any of his Majesty's colonies and plantations."
- Drew D. Gray, Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1660-1914 p.298 (2016)
- Brodeur, Jean-Paul; McCormick, Kevin R. E.; Visano, Livy A. (1992), "High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks about the Policing of Political Activities", Understanding Policing, Canadian Scholars’ Press, ISBN 1-55130-005-2
- Glyn-Jones, Anne (2000), Holding up a Mirror: How Civilizations Decline (Revised 2nd ed.), Imprint Academic, ISBN 978-0-907845-60-7
- Sharpe, Jim (2001), "Crime, Order and Historical Change", in Muncie, John; McLaughlin, Eugene, The Problem of Crime (2nd ed.), Sage Publications, pp. 107–150, ISBN 978-0-7619-6971-6
- Wade, Stephen (2009), Britain's Most Notorious Hangmen, Wharncliffe Local History, ISBN 978-1-84563-082-9
- Wilf, Steven (2010), Law's Imagined Republic: Popular Politics and Criminal Justice in Revolutionary America, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-14528-2