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.

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