Women under the “Bloody Code”.


The English Penal Code in the period from 1723 to 1820 became increasingly severe, mandating the death penalty for an ever increasing number of offences and this became known as “The Bloody Code”.  1723 saw the introduction of the first of the (Waltham) Black Acts and the expansion of these continually increased the scope of capital punishment over the next ninety years.  In 1688 there were 50 crimes for which a person could be put to death.  By 1765 this had risen to about 160 and to 222 by 1810.

It should be noted that only 20 or so crimes normally resulted in execution and that in the vast majority of cases (69 – 70%) the death sentence was commuted. 
The huge number of capital crimes was inflated not only by endless acts of Parliament mentioned earlier but also by the minute subdivision of capital offences into individual categories.  For instance there were seven individual offences of arson that each carried the death penalty.
The country was run by the property owning middle classes who were understandably keen to protect their property from the large underclass who were seen as feckless and who’s lives were considered to be of little real value.  In the period from 1735 to 1800, an amazing 1596 females were condemned to death with 1243 being reprieved and 356 executed, 32 by burning and the remainder by hanging.  169 women and girls were executed for crimes against property whilst 187 were to suffer for murder:  Most of these women were convicted on circumstantial evidence or on the strength of their confessions after very short hearings, often without any real defence in trials that would be considered wholly inadequate by today’s standards.


The non murder cases break down as follows:


Crime                                                                               No. executed

Highway robbery                                                                       42

Robbery in dwelling house                                                       35

Burglary                                                                                      25

Arson                                                                                          16

Housebreaking                                                                           9

High Treason Coining                                                                8

Forgery/Uttering/Personating                                                    7

Riot/destroying property                                                             7

Stealing in a shop                                                                       6

Horse/sheep theft                                                                       5

Privately stealing from a person (Pick pocketing)                  5

Returning from transportation                                                    3

Sacrilege                                                                                     1

Total                                                                                         169


With over a thousand men and women a year being sentenced to death, although only a small proportion being actually executed, there was growing activism in the early part of the nineteenth century to reduce the number of crimes for which people could suffer the ultimate punishment.
Sir Samuel Romilly, (1757-1818), attempted to get Parliament to de-capitalise many minor crimes. On
the 17th of January 1813, he introduced a Bill in the House of Commons "to repeal so much of the Act of King William as punishes with death the offence of stealing privately in a shop, warehouse or stable, goods of the value of 5shillings". This Bill was thrown out by the House of Lords.
After Romilly's death in 1818, Sir James Mackintosh, who had supported Romilly's proposals, took up the abolitionist's cause. On
the 2nd of March 1819, he carried a motion against the government for a committee to consider capital punishment, by a majority of nineteen.  In 1820, he introduced six bills embodying the recommendations of the committee, only three of which became law.  Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor, secured an amendment to keep the death penalty for stealing to the value of more than £10. On the 21st of May 1823, Mackintosh put forward a further nine proposals to parliament for abolishing the punishment of death for less serious offences. He wanted to make forgery a non capital crime but this was opposed by Sir Robert Peel.  Shoplifting ceased to carry the death penalty in 1823.

Between 1832 and 1837, Sir Robert Peel's government introduced various Bills to reduce the number of capital crimes.  Sheep, cattle and horse stealing were removed from the list in 1832, followed by sacrilege, letter stealing, returning from transportation in 1834/5, forgery and coining in 1836, arson, burglary and theft from a dwelling house in 1837.


In the period 1800 to 1833 a further thirty three women were to hang for crimes other than murder.  The last of these was Charlotte Long who was hanged for arson in August 1833 at Gloucester.


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