During the 1700s and early 1800s, England was very quick to hang her criminals, even for relatively minor offences. Under the ‘Bloody Code’, 220 crimes were punishable by death, ranging from keeping company with Gypsies, to ‘strong evidence of malice’ in children, to stealing of goods worth over 5 shillings and cutting down a tree. Many of these offences had been introduced to protect the property of the wealthy classes. Between 1770 and 1830, 35 000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but many of these were commuted into imprisonment, and only 7 000 executions were actually carried out.
Britain introduced transportation in the 1700s as an alternative to hanging – a less extreme form of punishment that also provided cheap forced labour for the colonies. Convicted criminals were sent to penal colonies to serve their prison sentences. Initially, convicts were sent to North America. They would be transported by merchants, and auctioned on arrival to plantation owners and others. About 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America, until the American Revolution of the 1780s put a stop to that option. Britain then turned to Australia, from 1788, establishing penal colonies at Norfolk Island, Van Dieman’s Land, Queensland and New South Wales. Transportation to Australia ended in 1868, by which time as many as 165,000 convicts had been sent down under.