Arson in royal dockyards

Arson in royal dockyards was a criminal offence in the United Kingdom and the British Empire. It was among the last offences that were punishable by execution in the United Kingdom. The crime was created by the Dockyards etc. Protection Act 1772 (12 Geo. 3 c.24) passed by the Parliament of Great Britain and was designed to protect Royal Dockyards and vessels from arson attacks.

Dockyards etc. Protection Act 1772
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act for the better securing and preserving His Majesty's Dock Yards, Magazines, Ships, Ammunition, and Stores
Citation12 Geo. 3 c.24
Territorial extentBritish Empire
Other legislation
Repealed byCriminal Damage Act 1971
Status: Repealed

It remained one of the few capital offences after reform of the death penalty in 1861, and remained in effect even after the death penalty was permanently abolished for murder in 1969. However, it was then eliminated by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.


The Dockyards etc. Protection Act 1772 was passed in order to protect Royal Navy ships, dockyards, and stores from damage. At the time, ships were built of flammable oak wood and tar, and the naval yards were full of these supplies.[1] Punishment for violating the act was a death sentence.[1] The first section created the offence of arson in the royal dockyards by making it an offence to burn or destroy Royal Navy ships, stores, or ammunition under penalty of death anywhere in the British Empire. The Act also provided that benefit of clergy was not an available defence for the crime.[2] The second section also stated that offenders could be tried if the offence occurred anywhere outside of the realm.[3] The act put a version of arson in statute law for the first time, as all arson previously had been under common law.[4] Though Scotland had its own similar offence of wilful fire raising.[3]

At the time of the Act's passage, the death penalty was common; at the turn of the 19th century, 220 offences carried the death penalty.[5] In 1861, Parliament passed the Offences against the Person Act 1861, as part of a series of criminal law consolidation acts, which sharply limited the death penalty to only five civilian crimes: arson in royal dockyards, murder, treason, espionage, and piracy with violence.[6]

Case of John the Painter

Only one prosecution was brought under the Act.[7][8] In that case, the Scottish saboteur John the Painter (also known as James Hill or John Aitken) was prosecuted and executed in 1777 for setting the rope house at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard on fire.[9][10] He was hanged from the mizzenmast of the frigate HMS Arethusa, the highest gallows erected in British history,[11] with the frigate moored at Portsmouth Royal Dockyards in view of the damage he had caused.[10] A crowd of 20,000 gathered to witness the hanging.[11]


The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1969,[12] leaving the provisions of the Dockyards etc. Protection Act 1772 as one of the few crimes that retained the death penalty.[6]

In 1970, the Law Commission proposed that the crime of arson in royal dockyards be abolished in its draft Criminal Damage Bill as part of an update of the law on criminal damage.[7] The reasoning was that the law was no longer required for its original purposes, as warships were no longer made of flammable materials.[1] The resulting Criminal Damage Act received royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II in 1971 and the offence of arson in royal dockyards was abolished.[13][14] In a speech in the House of Lords in 1998, Lord Goodhart stated that the dockyard arson offence disappeared from the list of capital crimes in 1971 "without, so far as I am aware, either comment or concern."[15]

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998 abolished the death penalty for all remaining crimes.[16]

Despite abolition in the United Kingdom, a 2004 episode of the comedy quiz show QI asserted that it is still popularly and erroneously believed that arson in royal dockyards continues to exist as a capital offence.[17][18] Though similar crimes have occurred since abolition, they are now dealt with under general laws relating to arson.[19]

Applicability outside of the United Kingdom

A 1975 report for the Australian state of Victoria found that the Dockyards etc. Protection Act 1772 was still apparently in force, as the sections of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 that repealed the Dockyards Act explicitly applied only to the United Kingdom. However, the offence of arson in royal dockyards is considered obsolete in Victoria, as the provisions have been superseded by the Victorian Crimes Act 1958 and the Commonwealth Crimes Act 1914–1973. New South Wales also retained it, as it was viewed as being ultra vires for the Parliament of New South Wales to amend it.[3]

The British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar had the act incorporated into its law in the English Law (Application) Act 1962. Thus, the offence was retained in Gibraltarian law; however, section two was repealed in 1972.[20]

Until 2007, the act remained on the statute books in the Republic of Ireland, as British statutes formed a part of Irish law following the Kingdom of Ireland's absorption into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. It was fully repealed under schedules two and three of the Irish Statute Law Revision Act 2007.[21]


  1. "'A Solution to the 'Mikado' Problem: Updating Construction and the Separation of Powers'". Edinburgh Postgraduate Law Conference. Archived from the original on 4 August 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  2. "Criminal Law Act 1967 (c. 58)". 6 October 2016. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  3. Kewley, Gretchen (11 June 1975). Report On The Imperial Acts Application Act 1922 (pdf) (Report). Parliament of Victoria. pp. 106–107. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  4. William Blackstone (1765–1769). "Of Offenses against the Habitations of Individuals [Book the Fourth, Chapter the Sixteenth]". Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press (reproduced on The Avalon Project at Yale Law School). Archived from the original on 3 May 2008. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  5. Gregory, Derek (2013). Violent Geographies: Fear, Terror, and Political Violence. Routledge. p. 18. ISBN 1135929068.
  6. Croker, Charlie (2010). 8 Out of 10 Brits: Intriguing and Useless Statistics about the World's 79th Largest Nation. Random House. p. 175. ISBN 0099532867.
  7. Criminal Law report on offences of damage to property (PDF) (Report). The Law Commission. 1970. pp. 6, 22–23, 50. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  8. R. v. Hill (1777) 20 St. Tr. 1317
  9. Holgate, Andrew (13 February 2005). "Biography: John The Painter by Jessica Warner". The Times. Archived from the original on 3 January 2006. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  10. "1776 - Jack the Painter". Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  11. Ian Pindar. "Review: John the Painter by Jessica Warner". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  12. "MPs vote to abolish hanging". BBC. 16 December 1969. Retrieved 25 June 2017.
  13. "The Criminal Damage Act 1971". The Journal of Criminal Law. 36 (3): 185–187. July–September 1972.
  14. The Lord Chancellor (14 July 1971). "Royal Assent". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. col. 431.
  15. Lord Goodhart (12 February 1998). "Crime and Disorder Bill". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. col. 1347–1350.
  16. Hood, Roger; Hoyle, Carolyn (2015). The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 56.
  17. "Beavers". QI. Series 2. Episode 6. 5 November 2004. Event occurs at 25:45. BBC. BBC 2.
  18. "QI Series B, Episode 6 – Beavers". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  19. "Navy chef jailed for Portsmouth Dockyard arson". Portsmouth News. 3 July 2013. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  20. "English Law (Application) Act" (PDF). Government of Gibraltar. Retrieved 24 May 2017. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. "Pre-Union British Statutes Affected". Irish Statute Book. 16 December 2015. Retrieved 24 May 2017.

Further reading

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