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
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
High Treason Coining 8
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
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
Sir Samuel Romilly, (1757-1818), attempted to get Parliament to de-capitalise many minor crimes. On
After Romilly's death in 1818, Sir James Mackintosh, who had supported Romilly's proposals, took up the abolitionist's cause. On
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