Old Bailey Central Criminal Courts London known from the street on which it stands, is a court in London and one of a number of buildings housing the Crown Court. Part of the present building stands on the site of the medieval Newgate gaol, on a road named Old Bailey that follows the line of the City of London’s fortified wall (or bailey), which runs from Ludgate Hill to the junction of Newgate Street and Holborn Viaduct. The Old Bailey has been housed in several structures near this location since the 16th century, and its present building dates from 1902.
The Crown Court sitting at the Central Criminal Court deals with major criminal cases from within Greater London and in exceptional cases, from other parts of England and Wales. Trials at the Old Bailey, as at other courts, are open to the public; however, they are subject to stringent security procedures.
In 1834, it was renamed as the Central Criminal Court and its jurisdiction extended beyond that of London and Middlesex to the whole of the English jurisdiction for trials of major cases. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service manages the courts and administers the trials but the building itself is owned by the City of London Corporation, which finances the building, the running of it, the staff and the maintenance out of their own resources.
The court was originally intended as the site where only criminals accused of crimes committed in the City and Middlesex were tried. However, in 1856, there was public revulsion at the accusations against the doctor William Palmer that he was a poisoner and murderer. This led to fears that he could not receive a fair trial in his native Staffordshire. The Central Criminal Court Act 1856 was passed to enable his trial to be held at the Old Bailey.
In the 19th century, the Old Bailey was a small court adjacent to Newgate gaol. Hangings were a public spectacle in the street outside until May 1868. The condemned would be led along Dead Man’s Walk between the prison and the court, and many were buried in the walk itself. Large, riotous crowds would gather and pelt the condemned with rotten fruit and vegetables and stones. In 1807, 28 people were crushed to death after a pie-seller’s stall overturned. A secret tunnel was subsequently created between the prison and St Sepulchre’s church opposite, to allow the chaplain to minister to the condemned man without having to force his way through the crowds.
The present Old Bailey building dates from 1902 but it was officially opened on 27 February 1907. It was designed by E. W. Mountford and built on the site of the infamous Newgate gaol, which was demolished to allow the court buildings to be constructed. Above the main entrance is inscribed the admonition: “Defend the Children of the Poor & Punish the Wrongdoer”. King Edward VII opened the courthouse.
During the Blitz of World War II, the Old Bailey was bombed and severely damaged, but subsequent reconstruction work restored most of it in the early 1950s. In 1952, the restored interior of the Grand Hall of the Central Criminal Court was once again open. The interior of the Great Hall (underneath the dome) is decorated with paintings commemorating the Blitz, as well as quasi-historical scenes of St Paul’s Cathedral with nobles outside. Running around the entire hall are a series of axioms, some of biblical reference. They read:
- “The law of the wise is a fountain of life”
- “The welfare of the people is supreme”
- “Right lives by law and law subsists by power”
- “Poise the cause in justice’s equal scales”
- “Moses gave unto the people the laws of God”
- “London shall have all its ancient rights”
The Great Hall (and the floor beneath it) is also decorated with many busts and statues, chiefly of British monarchs, but also of legal figures, and those who achieved renown by campaigning for improvement in prison conditions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This part of the building also houses the shorthand-writers’ offices.
The lower level also hosts a minor exhibition on the history of the Old Bailey and Newgate featuring historical prison artefacts.
In 1973, the Belfast Brigade of the Provisional IRA exploded a car bomb in the street outside the courts, killing one and injuring 200 people. A shard of glass is preserved as a reminder, embedded in the wall at the top of the main stairs.
The original ceremonial gates to the 1907 part of the building are only used by the Lord Mayor and visiting royalty. The general entrance to the building is a few yards down the road in the South Block and is often featured as a backdrop in television news reports. There is also a separate rear entrance, not open to the public, which permits more discreet access. In Warwick Square, on the western side of the complex, is the “Lord Mayor’s Entrance”.
A remnant of the city wall is preserved in the basement beneath the cells.
The court manager is known by the title of the Secondary of the City of London. As of 2012, the Secondary is Charles Henty.