Today I am celebrating the abolition of the death penalty in the United Kingdom which happened on this day in 1998. Seems a bit late doesn’t it? Actually we had been incrementally removing the death penalty since 1808. Up until then we had become rather overzealous when it came to handing out death penalties. In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book that were punishable by death. By 1800 there were 220. They included: ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’, ‘blackening the face or using a disguise while committing a crime’, and ‘strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7 -14 years of age’. Mostly the laws were about protecting property. They were about letting rich people keep what they had and the poor could literally go hang. For example, ‘grand larceny’ was a crime that called for the death sentence, but grand larceny was defined as theft of goods worth anything over the value of twelve pence, which wasn’t very much even then. It was a terrible system of punishment that was afterwards referred to as ‘The Bloody Code’. If you were lucky, your sentence might be commuted to transportation to Australia, but if you ever turned up back home again, you’d better have a damned good reason.
The man who really started reforming our awful capital punishment laws was called Samuel Romily, he was very much influenced by his friend, philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. He argued that the draconian laws actually increased crime. That it made us all bloodthirsty and generally awful. Romily hoped to improve “Our sanguinary and barbarous penal code, written in blood” In 1808, he managed to repeal the law that made it a capital offence to steal from an individual. In 1812, he managed to get the death penalty removed from soldiers and sailors found begging without a proper licence and in 1814 he managed to stop criminals being hung, drawn and quartered in favour of hanging followed by beheading.
It was all horrifically gruesome, and executions took place in public as well. The last record we could find of a person being hung drawn and quartered was in 1782. It went badly. Although the man’s body was buried, it was immediately dug up by the crowd and cut into a thousand pieces, which were carried away as ‘souvenirs’. So I can see what Romily meant about people being bloodthirsty.
While we’re on the subject, let’s have a look at some of the other methods of execution we’ve used. From 1532, you could be boiled to death for poisoning. Luckily, it didn’t last long and the law was repealed in 1547. Drowning, which was considered a more gentle form of execution and therefore mainly reserved for women, went out in 1623. In 1790, we gave up burning women for treason in favour of hanging. Being crushed to death was a special punishment reserved for people who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty at their trial. This would happen sometimes because if a person pleaded guilty, they would forfeit their estate to the crown and their heirs would inherit nothing. It was because of something we called ‘corruption of blood’. The totally innocent children of a condemned person were not even allowed to inherit from their totally innocent grandparents. That law was with us until 1870. We stopped crushing people in 1772.
In 1823, Parliament passed an act called the ‘Judgement of Death Act’. It didn’t actually ban the death penalty, it just made it discretionary for anything except treason and murder. By 1861 we were down to just five offences: murder, arson in the royal dockyards, espionage, piracy with violence and high treason. Though judges had to pronounce a death sentence for these crimes, they were allowed to commute it to imprisonment.
Public executions were banned in 1868 and it was only in 1908 that it became illegal to hang someone under the age of sixteen. The limit was raised to eighteen in 1933. The death penalty for murder in England, Scotland and Wales was removed in 1965 and in Northern Ireland in 1973. The last execution took place in 1964. The death penalty for arson in the royal dockyards was removed in 1971, and from espionage in 1981. That left piracy with violence and treason. You could still be beheaded for treason up until 1973. These last two crimes remained punishable by death until we accepted the European Convention of Human Rights in 1998.