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History of The Old Bailey Courthouse

London's Central Criminal Court, 1673-1913

The Old Bailey, also known as Justice Hall, the Sessions House, and the Central Criminal Court, was named after the street in which it was located, just off Newgate Street and next to Newgate Prison, in the western part of the City of London. Over the centuries the building has been periodically remodelled and rebuilt in ways which both reflected and influenced the changing ways trials were carried out and reported.

Contents of this Article

Location

Map showing the Sessions House on Old Bailey

The Old Bailey is located about 200 yards northwest of St Paul's Cathedral, just outside the former western wall of the City of London. It is named after the street on which it is located, which itself follows the line of the original fortified wall, or "bailey", of the City. The initial location of the courthouse close to Newgate Prison allowed prisoners to be conveniently brought to the courtroom for their trials. More generally, its position between the City of London and Westminster meant it was a suitable location for trials involving people from all over the metropolis, north of the river Thames.

The Courtroom

An Old Bailey trial is in process.  There is a man testifying on the right;  jurors are seated in tiered boxes in the centre-rear;  spectators are behind them;  council are seated on the left;  and above them the judges are seated on a raised platform, below the windows and the sword of justice on the wall.

Although the Old Bailey courthouse was rebuilt several times between 1674 and 1913, the basic design of the courtrooms remained the same. They were arranged so as to emphasise the contest between the accused and the rest of the court. The accused stood at “the bar” (or in “the dock”), directly facing the witness box (where prosecution and defence witnesses testified) and the judges seated on the other side of the room. Before the introduction of gas lighting in the early nineteenth century a mirrored reflector was placed above the bar, in order to reflect light from the windows onto the faces of the accused. This allowed the court to examine their facial expressions assess the validity of their testimony. In addition, a sounding board was placed over their heads in order to amplify their voices.

Early in the period the jurors sat on the sides of the courtroom to both the left and the right of the accused, but from 1737 they were brought together in stalls on the defendant's right, sufficiently close together to be able to consult each other and arrive at verdicts without leaving the room. Seated at a table below where the judges sat were clerks, lawyers, and the writers who took the shorthand notes which formed the basis of the Proceedings.

1673 Open Air Building

The medieval courthouse was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In 1673 the Old Bailey was rebuilt as a three storey Italianate brick building, described by John Strype in 1720 as "a fair and stately building". In front of the courthouse was the Sessions House Yard, a place where litigants, witnesses, and court personnel could gather. The area inside the wall, where prisoners awaited trial, was called the bail dock. They were separated from the street by a brick wall with spikes on top to keep them from escaping.

A view of the sessions house from around 1675, showing the open courtroom.  In the front is the bail dock, enclosed by walls topped with spikes.

A surprising feature was that the ground floor of the building, where the courtroom was located, was open on one side to the weather; the upper stories were held up by doric columns. A wall had been left out in order to increase the supply of fresh air to reduce the risk that prisoners suffering from gaol fever (typhus) would infect others in court. On the first floor there was a "stately dining room" for the justices. Inside the courtroom there was a bench for judges at the far end, and, on both sides, partitioned spaces for jurors and balconies for court officers and privileged observers. Other spectators crowded into the yard. The trials attracted a mixed audience of London's more and less respectable inhabitants, and it was alleged that criminals attended in order to devise strategies for defending themselves should they find themselves on trial. The crowd's presence could influence or intimidate the jurors sitting inside.

1737 Refronting

A view of the new Sessions House at the Old Bailey, around 1740.  Front elevation of the building showing the enclosed courtroom and remodelled exterior.

In 1737 the building was remodelled, and enclosed. Although this was purportedly in order to keep out the weather, the City authorities may also have wanted to limit the influence of spectators. The ground floor of the exterior was refaced with large masonry blocks, and the windows and roofline altered to reflect prevailing architectural styles. A passageway was constructed linking the courthouse with Newgate Prison, to facilitate the transport of prisoners between the two. The interior was rearranged so that the trial jury could sit together, since they were now expected to give their verdicts after each trial, without leaving the courtroom (see Trial Procedures).

With the courtroom now enclosed, the danger of infection increased, and at one sessions in 1750 an outbreak of gaol fever (typhus) led to the deaths of sixty people, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. Subsequently, the judges spread nosegays and aromatic herbs to keep down the stench and prevent infection, a practice commemorated in a ceremony which continues to this day.

Spectators frequently came to see the trials, and courthouse officials had the right to charge fees for entry to the galleries. The radical John Wilkes, when Sheriff of London in 1771, thought this practice undemocratic and prohibited it. Consequently at the October sessions of that year there was almost a riot due to the pressure of the crowds trying to get in, and those inside the galleries were accused of being "turbulent and unruly". Wilkes's order was rescinded, and spectators continued to pay to see trials until 1860.

1774 Reconstruction

The sessions house in 1790, showing new semi-circular brick wall in front.

In 1774 the court was rebuilt by George Dance at a cost of £15,000. As a way of further controlling public access, a semi-circular brick wall was built around the area immediately in front of the courthouse, the bail dock. This wall provided better security for the prisoners awaiting trial and was intended to prevent communication between prisoners and the public. Public view of the courtroom windows was thereby obstructed. The narrow entrance also prevented a sudden influx of spectators into the courtroom. In addition, the passage between Newgate Prison and the Old Bailey was enclosed with brick walls. It is possible that a desire to counteract the more fortress-like appearance of the Old Bailey is one of the reasons why the City, from 1775, went to greater efforts to ensure that the Proceedings provided full and fair reports of the trials -- see the publishing history of the Proceedings.

The new courthouse still had only one courtroom, but it had new and often luxurious facilities for court personnel. There was a separate room for witnesses, so that they would not be obliged to wait their turn in a nearby pub. A grand jury room was appointed with eighteen leather seated chairs and three tables. There were also separate parlours for the Sheriff and Lord Mayor, a Lord Mayor's Clerk's Room, an Indictment Office, and a drawing room for the swordbearer and judges' clerks. The lavish provision for the judges and their servants contrasted dramatically with the prisoners' quarters in the basement. The Lord Mayor's Dining Room, for example, included a fireplace with a mosaic on the front, mahogany dining tables, chairs, a pot cupboard, and a large Turkey carpet. Looking glasses (mirrors) were added in 1787. Elaborate dinners, cooked in the kitchen on the ground floor and served with drink from the wine vault, were provided at 3pm and 5pm. Outside in the yard there was a covered colonnade for carriages and 5 coach stands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the Gordon Riots of 1780 the courtroom was badly damaged, and the crowds carried away the furniture and burned it on bonfires in the streets. But the damage was soon repaired.

The courtroom now had four brass chandeliers and, reflecting the increased role of lawyers, a semi-circular mahogany table for council to plead from. Since some prisoners were still branded, there were two irons for confining convicts' hands while they were burnt. A large glass mirror continued to be positioned to reflect daylight onto the face of the accused (later replaced by gas lights). Behind the jurors, and seated above them, was a gallery for spectators (fees were still charged for admission). Although only a limited number of spectators could be accommodated, the increasingly detailed Proceedings published in these years allowed anyone who read them to keep informed of events in the courtroom.

a photograph of the Old Bailey courtroom, 1897, the seats for the judges, counsel, jury and defendant.  A lone man stands in the middle of the courtroom.  The raised judges' platform is at the rear, with the sword of justice above.

In order to accommodate the growing number of trials, a second courtroom was added in 1824 by converting a neighbouring building. Reflecting the still increasing role of lawyers, the new courtroom had seating for attorneys, counsel, and law students. There were also seats for spectators, jurors in waiting, prosecutors and witnesses, and officers of the court.

In subsequent decades two additional courtrooms were added, but conditions, as can be seen in this depiction, were cramped: the fourth courtroom contained little more room than was necessary for the judge, jury, and prisoner’s dock, with counsel and the clerk forced to sit in a narrow row of seats. There was no seating for the public, which had to stand in the gangway.

1907 Current Building

As trials lengthened and the number of those seeking to watch increased in the late nineteenth century the courthouse building became increasingly inadequate. In 1877 a fire forced the City of London to act and proposals were drawn up for a new building. Owing to the dilapidation of Newgate Prison next door, which by the 1860s no longer held long-term prisoners, it was decided to pull down both buildings to make room for a larger building.

After many delays, the new building, designed in the neo-Baroque style by E. W. Mountford and built at a cost of £392,277, was finally opened by King Edward VII in 1907. It was lavishly fitted out and adorned with symbolic reminders to the public of its virtuous purpose. On top of the 67 foot high dome a 12 foot gold leaf statue was placed of a “lady of justice” holding a sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other; she is not, as is conventional with such figures, blindfolded. Over the main entrance to the building figures were placed representing fortitude, the recording angel, and truth, along with the carved inscription, “defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer”.

A quarter view looking southward down the Old Bailey, with the heavily built frontage of the Central Criminal Court in the centre of the picture.  The dome and statue of 'justice' sits above the main building.

The exterior was faced in Portland stone, while the interior lobbies and a monumental staircase had Sicilian marble floors, allegorical paintings representing Labour, Art, Wisdom, and Truth, and ornate mosaic arches. The four oak-pannelled courtrooms contained space for all those who needed to attend modern trials, including solicitors and barristers, court reporters, the press (who by now were the most important conduit to the public for information about trials), and spectators. Each courtroom had a spacious dock, enclosed by low partitions, for the defendants, with a staircase leading directly below to the holding cells. There were now separate rooms for male and female witnesses, and another for witnesses of “the better class”. Lawyers also had their own room, as did barristers’ clerks; the latter included a glass wall to ensure they did not engage in malpractices such as touting for business among prisoners and their associates. As in the previous building, there was an opulently appointed dining room for the judges.

At the opening ceremonies, the Recorder of London addressed the King and Queen:

The empty courtroom No. 1 at the Old Bailey with a row of seats for the judges along the back wall, seats and tables for counsel in the middle, the dock on the extreme right, and the jury box on the extreme left.

We trust that this building, whilst well adapted for the transaction of legal business, also possesses architectural features at once dignified and beautiful, which will make it an ornament to the metropolis of your Empire and a fitting home for the first Criminal Court of Justice in your Majesty's dominions.

The building was heavily damaged by bombing in 1941 and rebuilt. A modern extension was added in 1972. Nonetheless, the current building on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey, which still holds trials of local and national significance and can be visited, remains at its core the building which was first opened in 1907.

Introductory Reading

  • Howson, Gerald, Thief-Taker General: The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (London, 1970), Appendix IV
  • Jackson, Stanley, The Old Bailey (London, 1978)
  • Rumbelow, Donald, The Triple Tree: Newgate, Tyburn, and the Old Bailey (London, 1982)

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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