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3.1 The ‘Bloody Code’

During the eighteenth century, state violence against the person was accepted and this included capital punishment (execution) for those convicted of certain crimes. Across the early eighteenth century more than 200 acts were passed to make up to 200 separate crimes punishable by the death sentence. The majority of these were property crimes that you might consider to be fairly petty, including shoplifting or stealing a rabbit. This system of law was popularly known as the ‘Bloody Code’ and meant that people who were found guilty of crimes like highway robbery or theft could be hanged the same as murderers. Historians have for some time debated the significance and use of the ‘Bloody Code’ and what it tells us about the society that used it.

The gallows and hanging in popular culture

The Bloody Code was supposed to act as a terrifying deterrent to those who would commit crime and there is no doubt that the idea of capital punishment and hangings loomed large in the public imagination in this period. There are many illustrations featuring penitent prisoners awaiting their execution day like this one in Figure 18 which shows dandies (very fashionable young men) visiting a condemned man:

A coloured image showing a large group of men. Most of the men in the image are well-dressed in coats and top hats. Some of these men stand and talk to each other, but others watch the blacksmith removing the chains from a prisoner. The prisoner stands with arms folded next to the warden. On the far left, a reverend speaks to one of the visitors.
Figure 18 Social elites (or ‘English dandies’) visiting a man sentenced to hang at Newgate Prison. In this image, the visitors watch as the shackles (or irons) of the condemned man are removed by the blacksmith in the Press Yard. An engraving by Robert & George Cruikshank for Pierce Egan’s Life in London, published in 1823.

You can also find accounts of the lives and crimes of the condemned in newspapers and pamphlets, and sometimes the convicts themselves created their own narratives through confessions or final speeches.

A coloured image showing hundreds of spectators at a public execution. On the right of the image is wooden stadium-style seating. In the foreground, people sell food and drink. The gallows are visible in the distance. To the left of the image is the procession of the condemned apprentice, whose cart is followed by mounted guards with pikes. The scene is chaotic and most people in the image are staring towards the gallows. At the bottom of the image is a quotation from Proverbs Chapter 1 Verses 27-8.
Figure 19 William Hogarth, ‘The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn’, 1747. Hogarth’s famous print captures the festival-like atmosphere of a public execution at Tyburn in London during the eighteenth century.

Many historic images of hangings present them as public spectacles. A fair-day-like atmosphere accompanied hangings in London for much of the eighteenth century. Prisoners convicted at the Old Bailey Courts were taken from the cells of Newgate Prison and walked in procession along what is now Oxford Street to Tyburn, an area near today’s Marble Arch, where up to 20 convicts might be hanged at once. There were only eight of these occasions a year and they were often considered to be a public holiday with ale houses packed and street vendors selling foods (including gingerbread people supposedly in the shape of the prisoners) and copies of the final speeches of the condemned.

The imagery of Tyburn is widespread in cultural products and we can find it featured in print media, paintings, ballads and novels often created with a moral purpose. But how common was the death sentence under the Bloody Code?

Activity 8

Timing: Allow about 45 minutes

Go to the Old Bailey Online website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Open the link in a new tab or window so you can easily navigate your way back to the course.

Here you will find the records of London’s central criminal court. You are going to examine handkerchief theft prosecutions for one year.

Go to the Search Home page and use ‘handkerchief’ as your keyword, choose ‘Theft> all subcategories’ as the offence and leave all the other fields blank except for the dates. In dates choose January 1770 to January 1771 and search.

Here you can see all the cases prosecuted in twelve months that included handkerchief theft. Read as many cases as you like and make very quick notes about values of property, verdicts and sentences.

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Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


You will notice that those found guilty were not automatically sentenced to death and hanged. There was a wide range of ‘secondary’ punishments (punishments used as an alternative to death) including transportation which was a common way of dealing with troublesome London youths, such as pickpockets. The perceived value of the item stolen mattered and so did the level of violence involved. Younger offenders and those committing property crimes, such as theft, that did not result in bodily harm or threats, were rarely sentenced to death despite the letter of the law. You may also have noticed how fascinating court records are in giving us a glimpse into everyday city life!