The Bloody Code: your guide to the severe legal system

How did the system of judicial punishment in England from the late-17th to 19th centuries become known as the 'Bloody Code', and what were the petty crimes that could lead to the death penalty? Emma Slattery Williams explores for BBC History Revealed

Scene at Tyburn, Paddington, London, 1696; showing crowds gathered to watch a hanging. The triple gibbet and cart used for hanging can be seen in the centre, while in the background to the left a drawing and quartering is being undertaken. The image erroneously shows London Bridge, the River Thames and the City to be immediately opposite Tyburn. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

What was the Bloody Code?

‘Bloody Code’ is the term sometimes used to describe the legal system in place in England between the late 17th and early 19th centuries, when more than 200 offences came to carry the death penalty – many of which appear trivial today. The Bloody Code isn’t an official name: it was coined some time afterwards in acknowledgment of the justice system’s increasingly gruesome nature, though precisely when isn’t clear.

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What made the Code so bloody?

In 1688, 50 crimes were punishable by death in England and Wales, but over the course of the next century, the list grew considerably so that by 1815, there were more than 200 capital offences on the statute books. Many of the new offences related to property, including damage to gardens and cattle, and it was hoped that the severity of the resulting punishments would act as deterrents to further criminal activity and protect landowners’ interests.

However, you could also be punished if you simply conspired to commit a capital offence or aided in a rescue attempt for those who had been imprisoned for such crimes. One standout piece of legislation was the Waltham Black Act.

In 1723, a number of deer thefts took place in the forest of Waltham Chase in Hampshire, perpetrated by gangs who blackened their faces as a form of disguise. The Waltham Black Act, passed in haste to dissuade similar crimes elsewhere in Britain, allowed anyone found in a forest, royal park or hunting area with a blackened face to be sentenced to death, regardless of whether they had stolen anything.

The implications were multifaceted: beyond concerns over property (the theft of deer), there were rumours that the poachers were Jacobites, supporters of the deposed Stuarts who wished to see them restored to the throne.

In other words, as well as being a preventative measure against theft, the act was also designed to target political threats. Many landowners of the period also happened to be MPs, which ensured that it was swiftly passed into law.

How were criminals punished under the Bloody Code?

With no national police force, deterrence was the main method of preventing crime. Prosecution was largely in the hands of the victim, who would bring the criminal in front of a local magistrate. Towns did have constables, but they were unpaid and only worked during their spare time.

Public execution by hanging was the preferred method for dispatching felons, with the added benefit that aspiring criminals would hopefully be deterred after witnessing the fate that awaited them if they were caught.

A scene from an 18th-century English prison, from The History of Our Country, published 1900. With limited government regulation, conditions were often appalling (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A scene from an 18th-century English prison, from The History of Our Country, published 1900. With limited government regulation, conditions were often appalling (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 1783, ‘New Drop’ gallows were properly introduced in Britain – these had a platform that fell away underneath the condemned, ensuring a quicker death via a broken neck. Prior to this, a simple gallows was used without a trapdoor; those sentenced to death perished from prolonged strangulation.

Gibbeting, a post-mortem punishment where the dead would remain on display as a deterrent to others, was also employed until 1832.

What were some of the crimes that carried the death penalty?

Capital offences included arson, the cutting down of trees, wrecking a fishpond, destroying turnpike roads and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner. Between 1735 and 1799, 80 women were hanged for “murdering their bastard child”. While some women were driven to commit the offence due to the stigma of having a baby out of wedlock, in reality, most of the infants had probably been stillborn, or had died shortly after birth due to natural causes.

Capital offences included arson, the cutting down of trees, wrecking a fishpond, destroying turnpike roads and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner

Children themselves were not exempt from the death penalty. Providing there was strong evidence of “malice” behind their crimes, youths aged 7–14 could also find themselves facing the gallows. The concept of criminal responsibility was not yet recognised, and it wouldn’t be until 1908 that executions for those under the age of 16 were finally abolished.

How did juries react to the Code?

In some cases, offenders were offered mercy if they joined the army or navy. But despite the popularity of public executions, many juries were reluctant to pass the death penalty, especially in Scotland and Wales, which had more autonomy over their legal systems.

Sometimes, judges and juries circumvented the legal system to spare people from the gallows. For example, in cases where the theft of goods above a certain value carried the death penalty, the figure might be underestimated on purpose – known as ‘pious perjury’. On other occasions, juries might find the accused not guilty, even if the evidence clearly suggested otherwise.

Transportation to the penal colonies in America, Canada, Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (today known as Tasmania) was also used as an alternative to capital punishment. Between 1788 and 1868, Australia became home to 162,000 British convicts alone.

Was it effective as a crime deterrent?

Court records show that far fewer people were executed during the 18th century than during the two preceding centuries – suggesting that either the harsh punishments worked as a deterrent, or that judges were hesitant to pass such severe sentences. Of approximately 35,000 people sentenced to death in England and Wales between 1770–1830, it’s thought that only 7,000 executions were actually carried out.

After pickpocketing was downgraded from a capital offence in 1808, the number of prosecutions rose, leading supporters of capital punishment to suggest that more lenient punishments increased the rate of crime.

Were there any critics of the Bloody Code?

Late 18th/early 19th-century lawyer and MP Sir Samuel Romilly was both a vocal opponent of the slave trade and a reformer of the criminal justice system. He successfully lobbied for the abolition of the death penalty for crimes such as pickpocketing and personal theft, and in 1814, he also succeeded in abolishing the practice of hanging, drawing and quartering.

Later, MP William Ewart led a campaign to ban the practice of hanging in chains, and removed the death penalty for stealing cattle in 1832. Victorian writers Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray were also strong critics of public executions and questioned the effects they had on spectators.

Rather than being solemn occasions where the gathered crowds witnessed justice being carried out, the events often turned into raucous affairs that – somewhat ironically – attracted pickpockets and criminal behaviour.

What were the prisons like during this time?

Prisons in Britain during the 18th century were not necessarily a better alternative to the death penalty – disease was rife, and inmates often found themselves sharing cells with rats. And unlike the prisons of today, there was no separation according to age or the nature of the crime, so petty child thieves could find themselves sleeping next to hardened criminals.

Villages and towns had their own lockups where people would wait to be seen by the local magistrate, while other prisoners could be kept in the dungeons of castles. However, there were a few large prisons such as Newgate in London, which could hold around 300 prisoners.

Decommissioned ships known as prison hulks were also used, while those who fell behind on payments could find themselves in debtors’ prisons.

Around 25 per cent of inmates died each year during the mid-18th century – a figure that was often higher than the annual execution rate. Conditions inside prisons were not given much thought, as they were run by individual towns rather than by central government, and gaolers were not paid. They would instead take money directly from the prisoners, which meant that many offenders stayed in well beyond the end of their sentences because they were unable to afford their release fees.

Around 25 per cent of inmates died each year during the mid-18th century – a figure that was often higher than the annual execution rate

The Gaols Act of 1823 finally saw the beginning of prison reforms, including the separation of male and female inmates, the payment of gaolers, frequent visits by doctors, and attempts to rehabilitate prisoners.

Why was the Bloody Code abolished?

Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Sir Robert Peel was a keen supporter of reforming the justice and prison systems. He introduced the Gaols Act of 1823, which removed the death penalty for 130 offences and improved conditions within prisons.

In the same year, the Judgment of Death Act also allowed judges to use their own discretion when passing sentences, and gave them the power to commute a death sentence to imprisonment except in cases of murder and treason.

UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 06: Demonstration Against Capital Punishment At Wandsworth Prison In London On November 6Th 1959 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Demonstrators march past the gates of Wandsworth Prison in London in 1959, calling for the end of capital punishment. The death penalty would be suspended in 1965. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

By the 1830s, the use of the death penalty for any crime other than murder had become rare. In 1861, there were just five offences that carried a death sentence: murder, treason, espionage, piracy with violence, and arson in royal dockyards. Seven years later, public executions were abolished, instead being carried out behind prison walls.

What replaced the Bloody Code?

During the late 19th century, campaigners called for an end to capital punishment on moral grounds, with public sympathy usually at its highest whenever a woman was condemned to death. The conversation was then reignited in 1945 following the election of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, whose ranks included many vocal supporters of the cause.

In 1953, London serial killer John Christie was found guilty of a murder that a young man, Timothy Evans, had previously been hanged for. This, along with other high-profile miscarriages of justice and hangings that caused public outcry, saw more and more people in Britain lend their support towards abolition.

In 1965, the death penalty was suspended for five years, ultimately becoming permanent in 1969. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that capital punishment was officially abolished, with last two crimes being treason and piracy with violence.

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This article first appeared in the July 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed