THE BLACK ACT

This is one of the most horrific pieces of legislation ever passed by a government headed by Robert Walpole, of rich Whigs who had taken land in Royal forests for estates and hunting lodges. When a group called the Blacks responded by damaging some of their property, this act was the result. It was aimed at a specific group of people, but was later widened to prosecute anyone practicing any of the crimes mentioned. The act included the following:

Persons in disguise and armed being in a forest, killing deer or game will be deemed felons

Sending threatening letters, demanding money, rescue anyone already arrested, to be charged with felony

Anyone charged was to surrender to authorities or be deemed guilty in their absence

But if they surrendered within the allotted time and made a full confession, would be pardoned.

Anyone aiding or abetting those accused, or failing to inform authorities would be deemed felons

Hundreds, ie local area, to be responsible for compensation for damages by a felon

Persons injured or killed by felons to be given compensation

Justices were allowed to search for stolen venison

Reward for people wounded in prosecuting offenders to be compensated

Trials to be in any county – ie they could be moved out of area to prevent locals refusing to convict their friends and neighbours

This is the basis for the many convictions which were commuted to transportation to North America, then when those pesky colonials revolted, to the hulks in the Thames, then the founding of Australia. To demonstrate how truly ludicrous the law could be, this is from E P Thompson’s book Whigs & Hunters:

“At the Lent Assizes at Thetford in 1802 Elizabeth Salmon was indicted under the lack Act for incendiaries, in setting fire to a stack of hay, fodder and clover. …Elizabeth ..had been living (in her own house) with a man named Frosdike. The stack stood in her own yard, and was made up of some part of fodder from the common, some gleaned in the neighbourhood, and some clover perhaps bought y Frosdike. This man had drifted off and had returned once more before finally abandoning Elizabeth. On his final visit he had ‘sold’ a pony and the stack to another man (the prosecutor) for 24g; the pony (it was alleged) was worth 12g, so that presumably the stack was valued at 2. Frosdike was not called as a witness, and no evidence was brought by the prosecution as to the ownership of the stack. One presumes that Elizabeth.. had taken some part in the gleaning, and felt that she had some right in it. When the money was paid to Frosdike, she said she would burn the stack to the ground rather than let it be sold.She made no pretence of secrecy, but immediately called some of her neighbours as witnesses, and in front of 10 ir 12 people took a hod of coals from her fire to the stack. When it failed to burn well, she fetched her bellows. None of the neighbours sought to interfere. For this she was convicted and cast for death. In her defence she said she had been ill-treated by Frosdkike. One is left with an impression that she was also ill-treated by the law.”

Ill treated is rather an understatement. This is both ridiculous and horrific, and this was almost a century after the Black Act was passed, well into what is called the Age of Enlightenment.

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