Hurried legislation is often bad legislation. The Black Act 1723 was bad, certainly as far as the rural working classes were concerned.

Morton landscape

James Morton

It came after the financial disaster of the South Sea Bubble – possibly the first modern Ponzi scheme – and at a time of civil unrest in the countryside. Villagers were annoyed that the gentry could ride over their crops in pursuit of game while they were heavily punished for hunting the same deer.

In 1722-24 there was an outbreak of deer thefts in Bishop’s Waltham, Hampshire. When poachers were arrested their friends made off with the wine destined for the bishop’s wine cellars.

The act was rushed through parliament in 1723, in theory to deter these men who, now armed and blacking their faces, had been poaching deer in royal forests. Like Labouchere’s amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the Black Act passed without any real debate. Indeed the only proposed amendment – to prevent a second trial after an acquittal – was defeated.

All this came against a groundswell of support for the deposed Stuarts. The Hanoverian George I was not as popular as his predecessor Queen Anne. Some historians believe that the act’s real purpose, promoted by Sir Robert Walpole, was to nip any Jacobite rebellion in the bud. Since the 1715 uprising there had been a number of such intrigues, including the Atterbury plot, after which Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, was banished.

The Black Act was the most heavy-handed piece of legislation of the 18th century, introducing 250 capital offences. Villagers who did not surrender a suspect could be ordered to pay a communal fine. Trials could be held anywhere in the country and suspects who did not give themselves up within 40 days were deemed guilty and could be executed without trial, or at best transported.

By 1745 and the failure of the second Jacobite rebellion, use of the Black Act began to fade away. Provisions in it were abolished in 1823 and the act finally came off the statute books five years later.


James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor