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"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.
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 making a sentence of death mandatory.
As the century drew to a close, law makers sought a less harsh punishment that might still deter potential offenders, and penal transportation became the more common punishment. The American Colonies had won independence by this time, but Australia was deemed a suitably desolate place to transport convicts to. 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.
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
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