The Bloody Code

At the end of the 17th century, there were approximately fifty crimes in England for which a person could be executed.

But, in 1723, the number of crimes that carried the death penalty had increased dramatically to around three hundred and fifty, and, it could be said, that the scales of justice were most certainly not sprinkled with mercy in favour of the felon.


The reason for the sudden increase in offences that carried the death penalty was an Act of Parliament that was known as “The Black Act”, or “The Waltham Black Act,” but which later became commonly known as “The Bloody Code.”

Under the Act, most of the laws that now carried the death penalty were to do with theft and damage of property, and, in an age when the ruling classes were made up of land and property owners, one might be forgiven for thinking that vested interests were at play in the setting down of laws on the statute books.

Actually, no forgiveness is necessary, vested interests were most certainly at play.

Indeed, the dramatic increase in crimes for which a person could be hanged was intended to deter the lower classes from thieving from and damaging the property of their betters.

As George Savile, the 1st Marquess of Halifax put it:-

“Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.”


This readiness to mete out the death penalty for seemingly petty offences, would later become known as the “Bloody Code”, and its origins can be traced back to 1723, when, in the wake of the South Sea Bubble crisis of 1720, and the resultant subsequent economic downturn, a series of thefts of deer occurred in the forest of Waltham Chase in Hampshire.

The gangs who were perpetrating the thefts were blacking their faces in order to disguise themselves.


Wanting to deter the gangs – and to discourage other such gangs from adopting similar practices anywhere else in the country, the Government of the age rapidly pushed “The Waltham Black Act” through Parliament, which was:-

“An Act for the more effectual punishing wicked and evil disposed Persons going armed in Disguise and doing Injuries and Violence to the Persons and Properties of His Majesty’s Subject, and for the more speedy bringing the Offenders to Justice.”


The act ruled that anyone who was found in a hunting area, a royal park, or a forest with a blackened face, could be sentenced to death, regardless of whether they had actually stolen anything.

An offender could also be executed for setting fire to corn, hay, straw, wood, houses, or barns or for shooting another person.

The same penalties applied to attempting to rescue anyone imprisoned under the Black Act or attempting to solicit other people to participate in crimes that violated it.

According to one 19th century legal commentator:-

“No other single statute passed during the eighteenth century equalled in severity, and none appointed the punishment of death in so many cases.”


The Act remained in force until 1823, when the then Home Secretary, Robert Peel, introduced a bill that repealed it in its entirety, and on the 8th of July, 1823, the Bill was passed and the so-called “Black Act” or “Bloody Code” was no more.

In 1829 Sir Robert Peel would go on to establish the Metropolitan Police, a reform that would bring in the policing of the Metropolis.