Mask wearing in 1723

Let me start by offering you something you probably weren’t aware of? “For a century, covering or blacking one’s face was a criminal act that could lead to the death penalty; the Black Act was repealed in 1823.” Now before we all go getting our knickers in the proverbial twist screaming it must be a racist act let me explain.

The “Blacks” were two groups of poachers who “blacked” or masked their faces to prevent identification. They were based in Hampshire and Windsor Forest respectfully and formed after the South Sea Bubble collapsed in 1720. This downturn in the fortunes of many workers in England meant starvation and poverty were hard to avoid so these groups formed and started to poach, on the lands of gentry, some of their wild animals. The first flurry of activity came from the Hampshire group and began in October 1721 when 16 poachers assembled in Farnham to raid the park of the Bishop of Winchester. Three deer were carried off and two others killed. Four of the poachers were later caught, with two released for lack of evidence and the others pilloried and sentenced to a year and a day in prison. More poaching came when 11 casks ordered for the Prince of Wales proved to be the last straw as “Hanging Judge” Sir Francis Page brought in to deal with the troubles being sent to Winchester Assizes to oversee any prosecutions.

It was clearly a case of direct action been taken against the upper classes that had the wealth and more importantly the food during a time when the poor were subject to the most abject poverty. Whether it was the government or just rumour the Black’s were linked with the Jacobite uprisings which could rally support from those loyal to the King and pose the Blacks as a political threat to be dealt with. The truth is more likely to be somewhere in between but in the first decade of the C19th many sought to repeal the act because “no other act equalled it in severity nor appointed the punishment of death in so many cases

It was an offence to hunt, kill, wound or steal deer in a forest, down, chase or Royal Park, with the first offence punishable by a fine and the second by penal transportation. Other criminalised activities included fishing, the hunting of hares, the destruction of fish-ponds, the destruction of trees and the killing of cattle in those locations, the last of which also punishable by death. An offender could also be executed for setting fire to corn, hay, straw, wood, houses or barns or shooting another person. The same penalties applied to attempting to rescue anyone imprisoned under the Black Act or attempting to solicit other people to participate in crimes that violated it. In total, the Act introduced the death penalty for over 350 criminal acts. In 1823 it was finally repealed.

England has a long tradition of mask wearing clearly and not always for medical reasons.