Sunday, 1 April 2012

Why was London the 'state slaughterhouse' of eighteenth-century England?

Peter King

The Unbloody code

Among the new perspectives I am currently working on is the geography of the so called 'bloody code' of the eighteenth century. This turns out to have varied massively between localities. The eighteenth-century 'bloody code' has much occupied historians. This accumulating mass of penal statutes that attached the death sentence to many, often minor, property crimes ( stealing a sheep, pickpocketing a hanky, stealing stoce from a particular bridge, even giving food to a gypsy were all capital offences by the mid eighteenth century) has always been seen as a central part of the criminal justice system. Many historians such as Hay and Gatrell have argued that the gentlemen of the eighteenth century loved the death penalty and used it strategically to reinforce their rule. When I started looking at the geography of the bloody code, however, I discovered that in some very large parts of England and Wales it was not bloody at all. In the middle third of the eighteenth century virtually no one was hung for property crime in Cornwall, much of west Wales and much of the north-west and the north. Murderers were hung everywhere but hanging for property crime was used massively in London but hardly ever in the west of Britain. Scotland, it seems, also made little use of the 'bloody code' although I have not researched this.

Even allowing for population difference the 'bloody code' was regional. The number of people hanged in London per head of population was as much as twenty times greater than that in certain western counties. Places like Cumberland, Westmoreland , Cornwall, Breconshire and even Glamorgan could go decades without a hanging for a property crime. The people of the west did not believe in the bloody code and refused to put it into operation but historians, by focussing on the centre - London, the Midlands, Lancashire etc - have missed this. London was a state slaughterhouse. Several hundred offenders might be executed for property crime there in any given decade. The state murder rate, or execution rate if you like, was much higher than the prosecution rate for murder in general in London. This was not the case in the West. So ….......why?

Herein lies a fascinating and complex story that I am trying to unravel. I have some ideas - prosecution rates in general were lower in the West - for all crimes and massively so. Also people did not see the state courts as necessarily the best way to deal with crime. The survival of Celtic languages in many of these areas also coincides interestingly.

Any thoughts would be gratefully received

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