The Bloody Code is the name given to a range of crimes punishable by death in 18th-19th Century England.

After the English Civil war and the Glorious Revolution, the land-owning classes tried to get back some kind of control over Government. The chaos of the preceeding generations was beginning to come to an end, but a fear of anarchy remained among the elites. Urbanisation meant that this manifested itself as a fear of crime and criminals.

Over the course of the 1700s, the death penalty was extended to more and more crimes. In the 1660s, only 50 crimes were punishable by death; by 1815, that number had risen to 288.

Crimes punishable by death under the Bloody Code:

  • murder
  • treason
  • stealing from a shipwreck
  • damaging Westminster Bridge
  • stealing goods valued at five shillings (25p) or more
  • highway robbery
  • stealing letters
  • poaching
  • blacking yourself up at night
  • impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner
  • cutting down young trees
  • begging without a licence if you are a soldier or sailor
  • being in the company of gypsies for a month
  • "strong evidence of malice" in children 7-14 years old

and hundreds more offenses.

Such strict laws were, however, rarely implemented. Prisoners often were found innocent by juries not willing to sentence someone to death for stealing a loaf of bread, and the judiciary often reduced the sentences of criminals and found the a way to dodge the death penalty. Some were sent to the army or navy instead, and some to Australia. Sometimes the charges were made less severe (one example is a criminal who the records show was charged: "Stole £5 value 10d"). The net result of this is that executions actually significantly dropped over the time the Bloody Code was in force.

It was enforced at times, though, most notably in the Essex Azzises of 1785, where 10 men were found guilty of a variety of one of the following crimes: highway robbery, breaking and entering, and stealing linen from an outhouse. They were all executed on Friday July 22nd, 1785. In 1801, a boy was executed for breaking into a house and stealing a spoon. He was only thirteen years old.

The beginning of the end of the Bloody Code lay in the campaigning of Samuel Romilly. He, as a Member of Parliament, introduced bills in the House of Commons from 1808-1812 to repeal large parts of the Code. While he sucessfully removed the death penalty for all thefts against the person (e.g. pickpocketing) and for begging while being in the army or navy, three of his other reform bills were thrown out by the House of Lords.

Sir Robert Peel set about removing much of the rest of the Bloody Code as in his role as Home Secretary between 1822-30. And by 1834, the death penalty for stealing 25p or more was also abolished. Bizzarely this resulted in a better conviction rate as judges and juries could be honest without fear of condemning someone.

By 1861 there were only four capital offenses: murder, treason, arson in in the royal dockyards and committing piracy with violence. The Bloody Code no longer existed.