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The Old Bailey.
The Old Bailey.
An Old Bailey trial circa 1808.
South Block, Old Bailey.

The Central Criminal Court in the United Kingdommarker, commonly known as the Old Bailey, is a court building in central London, one of a number of buildings housing the Crown Court. The Crown Court sitting at the Central Criminal Court deals with major criminal cases from Greater Londonmarker and, in exceptional cases, from other parts of Britainmarker. It stands on the site of the medieval Newgate Gaolmarker, on Old Bailey, a road which follows the line of the City of Londonmarker's fortified wall (or bailey), and gives the court its popular name. It lies between Holbornmarker Circus and St Paul's Cathedralmarker.

The building and its history

The court originated as the sessions house of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of the City of London and of Middlesexmarker. The original medieval court was first mentioned in 1585; it seems to have grown out of the endowment for an improved Newgatemarker prison and rooms for the Sheriffs made possible by a gift from Sir Richard Whittington. It was destroyed in the 1666 Fire of Londonmarker. It was rebuilt in 1674, with the court open to the weather to prevent the spread of disease. In 1734 it was refronted, enclosing the court and reducing the influence of spectators: this led to outbreaks of typhus, notably in 1750 when sixty people died, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. It was rebuilt again in 1774 and a second courtroom was added in 1824. Over 9 000 criminal trials were carried out in the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1834, including all death penalty cases. 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 trial of major cases. However, the building actually belongs to the City of London Corporation.

The court was originally meant to be 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 of 1856 was passed to enable his trial to be held at the Old Bailey.

The present 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 Prisonmarker, 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 personally opened the courthouse.

On the dome above the court stands a statue of Lady Justice, executed by the British sculptor, F. W. Pomeroy. She holds a sword in her right hand and a pair of weighing scales in her left. The statue is popularly supposed to show blind Justice; however, the figure is not blindfolded. A remnant of the city wall is preserved in the basement beneath the cells.

During The Blitz, 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 Courts 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 Cathedralmarker 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 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 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.

Between 1968 and 1972, a new South Block, designed by the architects, Donald McMorran and George Whitby, was built to accommodate more modern courts.

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'.


All judges sitting in the Old Bailey are addressed as "My Lord" or "My Lady" whether they are High Courtmarker, Circuit Judges or Recorders. The Lord Mayor of the City of London and Aldermen of the City of Londonmarker are entitled to sit on the judges' bench during a hearing but do not participate in trials.

The most senior permanent judge of the Central Criminal Court has the title of Recorder of London, and his deputy has the title of Common Serjeant of London. The present Recorder of London is Judge Peter Beaumont QC, who was appointed in December 2004 following the death earlier that year of his predecessor, Judge Michael Hyam. The present Common Serjeant is Judge Brian Barker QC. The position of Recorder of London should not be confused with that of recorder, which is a part-time judicial office, holders of which sit part-time as judges of the Crown Court or the County Court. Some of the most senior criminal lawyers in the country sit as Recorders in the Central Criminal Court.

Civic role

The court house originated as part of the City of London's borough judicial system, and it remains so. The Recorder and the Common Serjeant are both City officers, and the Recorder is a member of the Common Council because he is also a member of the Court of Aldermen. The City's Sheriffs and the Lord Mayor are justices there, but their jurisdiction is now nominal. The Sheriffs are resident with the senior judges in the complex. In Court Number 1, there are several benches set aside for the Bridge House Estates Committee (the City Bridge Trust), which is the actual owner of the building.

In popular culture

  • In the book A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the Old Bailey is the courthouse named in the book where Charles Darnay is put on trial for treason.
  • In the movie Witness for the Prosecution, the court scenes are set in the Old Bailey.
  • In the novel Patriot Games and the eponymous film, terrorist Sean Miller is tried in the Old Bailey for the attempted kidnapping of the Prince & Princess of Wales(which killed two guards), and sentenced to life in prison after Jack Ryan's testimony(Ryan foiled the plot by disabling Miller and killing another terrorist with Miller's gun).
  • The Old Bailey is destroyed with explosives by the vigilante V in the graphic novel V for Vendetta and its film adaptation. In the graphic novel, V entertains a long, one-sided conversation with the statue of Justice on the roof, in which he professes his love for her but accuses her of being a whore for the fictional fascist government, and tells her of his new mistress named Anarchy.
  • The television series Rumpole of the Bailey concerns a defence lawyer who works at the Bailey. Sir John Mortimer, a criminal barrister and author, often appeared at the Old Bailey. His courtroom experiences led him to create the fictional character Horace Rumpole.
  • In the popular Australian folk song "Botany Bay", the first verse references the "well known Old Bailey". The song tells the tale of a group of prisoners being taken from Britain to the penal colonies of Australia.
  • In the television series Bad Girls, the character Nikki Wade's successful appeal took place at the Old Bailey.
  • The book Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman has a character named Old Bailey.
  • In the television series Law & Order: UK several interior scenes set in the Old Bailey are shot in the Grand Hall of the Central Criminal Courts with the murals and axioms clearly visible.
  • The entire sketch "Court Charades" from the British comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus happens at the Old Bailey, appearing when it's showing the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • It is featured in the rhyme Oranges and Lemons, which, in turn, is featured in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

See also


  1. Digitizing the Hanging Court. Guy Gugliotta, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2007.

External links

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