Tuesday, 19 August 2008

WRONG: You can still be executed in Britain for High Treason, Piracy and Arson in Her Majesty’s Shipyards

For some reason, this old saw is still lingering wherever pedants meet pubs.

A ridiculous number of offences have been punishable by death in Britain over the years. So many, in fact, that the statute books of the 18th century later became known as “The Bloody Code”. Alongside murder, you could be executed for treason, stealing from a shipwreck or from a rabbit warren, writing graffiti on Westminster Bridge, poaching, stealing letters, sacrilege, blacking-up your face at night (this was more a measure against robbery than minstrels), impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner (again, a measure against benefit frauds, rather than impressionists), cutting down young trees, being in the company of gypsies for a month and, remarkably, “strong evidence of malice” in 7-to-14-year-old children. According to the Lord Chief Justice, in 1801 a boy of 13 was executed for stealing a spoon.

Executions were popular public events. In 1807, 40,000 came to see the hanging of the murderers Owen Haggerty and John Holloway at the Old Bailey – so many that a sudden rush near a pie stall caused more than thirty spectators to be trampled to death. Given the circumstances, the irony may have been lost on them.

By 1861, various parliamentary reformers had managed to reduce the list of capital crimes to four: murder, high treason, arson in royal dockyards and piracy with violence. A century later, the Murder Act (Abolition Of The Death Penalty) of 1965 introduced a five-year moratorium on execution for murder that was made permanent in 1969. Outstanding death sentences were commuted, but it was too late for Gwynne Owen Evans (also known as John Welby) and Peter Allen, a pair of small-time thieves who stabbed a workmate of Evans’ to death during a robbery. They were simultaneously hanged in Manchester and Liverpool respectively, becoming the last people to be executed in Britain.

High treason ceased to be a capital crime in 1971 and the Crime And Disorder Act of 1998 put an end to the remaining two. In 1999, Jack Straw signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention On Human Rights, formally abolishing the death penalty, though the Convention does contain the proviso that any signatory state may employ it during time of war. In 2002, the penalty was abolished in the Turks and Caicos islands in the West Indies (see here for more about British overseas territories), meaning that it is now impossible to be executed for any crime on British territory anywhere in the world, no matter whose rabbit warren you’ve been caught with your hand in.


LePlum said...

This is incorrect. Arson in a royal dockyard was repealed in 1971 by the Criminal Damage act 1971.

Anonymous said...

Most interesting esp cially as a distant relation of mine was a 20th century executioner in the U K