Walk towards St Paul’s Cathedral in London . Stand outside and take a look around and you'll see a building with a much smaller dome and a statue on top. That's the Old Bailey, The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales.

On the top of the Old Bailey is the famous statue of Justice, depicted as a woman with a sword in one hand and scales in her other. Contrary to popular belief, she isn't blindfolded. The statue was cast by J. W. Singer and sons and is the most widely-known and visible symbol of the Old Bailey.

History of the place

The Old Bailey was first built in 1539 in London as a session house for Newgate gaol, and was named after the street that ran by it. It was rebuilt in 1774. The Central Criminal Court act of 1834 established the Old Bailey as the Central Criminal Court and gave it authority to

"inquire of, hear and determine all treasons, murders, felonies and misdemeanours"

meaning criminal cases -- in the City of London and the surrounding area, as well as the most serious or complicated cases from around all of England and Wales.

The original court was demolished entirely in 1902, only to be expanded by architect Edward Mountford to cover the site of the Newgate prison. This is the current Old Bailey, and it was opened by King Edward VII in 1907.


The Old Bailey is weird inside. The chambers downstairs are a maze and not open to the public. The courts themselves are a mixed bunch; some are new, pine-furnished small affairs, while the older rooms are bigger and panelled in dark wood. There are 12 courtrooms inside IIRC, and in all of them the public gallery is upstairs. There are large waiting areas, with wood and green being the dominant decorative themes.

Public hangings were held outside the Old Bailey. People would sit in the Magpie and Stump, a pub across the road, and watch the execution of murderers, rapists and even thieves and fraudsters. This ended when in 1868, Michael Barrett was the last person to be executed publicly.
Famous Trials

As the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey has had its fair share of high profile cases. Oscar Wilde made his famous 'Love that dare not speak its name" speech in the dock; Lord Haw Haw was tried for treason after WWII, the original London mobsters the Krays and the Yorkshire Ripper were also tried and found guilty there.


The proceedings of the Old Bailey from 1670 to 1834 are still extant. They show, among other things, an execution of boys under 14 for theft under the Bloody Code. Sheffield University is creating an online searchable version of the records.


The Old Bailey is open to the public to sit in on sessions, from Monday to Friday (except Bank Holidays and the day after). You have to go through a metal detector, and telephones, bags of all types and food are banned. Sessions are 10am - 1pm, and 2pm - 5pm

Central Criminal Court
Old Bailey
Tel: +44 20 7248 3277

The nearest tube station is St Paul’s.


Origins of the Old Bailey

Officially known as the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey started out in 1539 as a Session House on the site of the old Newgate prison. It was named the 'Old Bailey' after the street on which the court was built, which in turn was named after the castle walls which used to run near there. The Sessions, which were held eight times per year, were nominally overseen by the Lord Mayor of London acting as Chief Justice, with the other commissioners acting as his assistants. In actuality the cases were tried before a Recorder and the Common Serjeant of London acting with the authority of the Lord Mayor. Crimes ranging from witchcraft the sheep stealing were commonly heard at the court, and the court often tried crimes committed by children as young as 13. Records of the proceedings from this era are available from the 1670's onward and are available from the Public Record Office, and is gradually being put online by Sheffield University.

An Increase in Power

In accordance with the Central Criminal Court Act of 1834, Newgate prison's Session House was renamed as the Central Criminal Court, and became an assize court. It was also this act also which saw the court empowered to try defendants for the crimes of treasons, murders, felonies, and misdemeanours committed in London and Middlesex and certain parts of Essex, Kent, and Surrey.
The Old Bailey, although extremely inconvenient, is beautifully compact. You can be detained there between the time of your committal and your trial---you can be tried there, sentenced there, condemned-celled there, and comfortably hanged and buried there, without having to leave the building, except for the purpose of going on to the scaffold. Indeed, recent legislation has removed even this exception, and now there is no occasion to go outside the four walls of the building at all---the thing is done in the paved yard that separates the court-house from the prison - London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life, 1871
The original court was but was rebuilt in 1774 to design by architect George Dance, and again in 1902 when Newgate prison was demolished. The new courthouse was designed by Edward Mountford, was built between 1903 and 1906 and was opened by King Edward VII in 1907. Mountfords' Edwardian baroque facade was the first to feature the now famous statue of Justice, on the top of the main building's Dome.

The Modern Day Old Bailey

Since the second World War the Old Bailey has been expanded to include 12 separate courts. It hears cases from the City of London and the Greater London area, as well as those sent to it from England and Wales on occasions where it is thought that the case wouldn't get a fair trial if held locally. Examples of particularly notorious criminals that have appeared at the Old Bailey include Dr Crippen, William Joyce, the Krays, William Penn, the 'Yorkshire Ripper' and Harold Shipman.

Some of the courts traditions still carry on from the days when the courthouse used to be contained within the grounds of Newgate Prison. One example is that even today, judges traditionally carry a small bunch of flowers at the beginning of each session, a practice that was allegedly developed in an attempt to mask the stench coming from the cells.

Although there are no tours of the Courts, it is possible to see the British Justice in action from the public gallery from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday to Friday with an adjournment for lunch. It should be noted that no cameras, telephones, bags or tape recorders are allowed, and no children under 14 can attend.

Sources include: http://catalogue.pro.gov.uk/Leaflets/ri2245.htm

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