What Was the Black Act?
The Black Act was an Act of Parliament passed in Britain in 1723. Under this law, a variety of poaching-related crimes became felonies, which meant that they could potentially be punished with the death penalty. In a subsequent amendment, the law was made even broader in scope to make prosecutions for a range of offenses possible. In 1827, the act was repealed, but the legacy of this draconian legislation lives on.
Ostensibly, the Black Act was passed to deal with the growing issue of poaching from private parks and land owned by the king. It raised a number of questions about the right to game animals, however, and the position of the lower classes in Britain. In retrospect, the law appears to have been specifically designed to target Britain's poorest, such as vagrant wanderers and people who were desperate enough to kill animals in private parks for food.
This act was inspired by the Waltham Blacks, a notorious gang who would blacken their faces before entering parks to poach and set fire to outbuildings. After the gang murdered a gamekeeper, Parliament took action, deeming poaching with the face blackened or obscured a felony. In addition to poaching, the law also covered entering private lands with weapons, cutting down trees, establishing gardens on private land, and committing acts of vandalism, such as arson. A later amendment extended the act to anyone wearing a disguise while committing a crime.
The immediate result of the Black Act was an ability to crack down ferociously on poachers. Over time, it was also used to crack down on the lower classes in general, along with protesters, who often wore disguises out of fear of retaliation. Many criminals were executed for violations of the act, or held in prison for extended periods of time.
The conflict between landed gentry and the lower classes was neatly illustrated by this law. Many of those without land argued that game animals, by virtue of being wild, were the property of everyone, and therefore it was legal to hunt them wherever they might be found. Land-owners, however, felt that the game on their land was their exclusive property, especially when they provided food and shelter for these animals and hired gamekeepers to protect them from predators (and poachers). The question of who had the right to take game persisted long after the repeal of this law, although the repeal at least assured poachers that they wouldn't be hung for catching a trout.
Poaching is still illegal today. It seems that laws from the past are still carried out.
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