About the Old Bailey

Themis and the scales of justice at night
The Greek goddess Themis presides over the Old Bailey. She personifies divine law.

THE Old Bailey has been a sink of human misery for hundreds of years.

Built on the site of the old Newgate prison, the area has been the scene of floggings, mutilations, pressings (if a defendant refused to plead guilty), burnings at the stake and hangings.

Up to 20 people could be hanged at a time, attracting up to 100,000 spectators.

A small bribe to the hangman could ensure a quick death, with him pulling down on the legs of the condemned man to ensure the neck snapped without too much suffering.

Local pubs, such as the Magpie and Stump, would hire out rooms offering views of the scene.

But in 1868 public hangings were abolished due to civil unrest.

There was no specific courthouse in London until 1539; rooms were hired close to Newgate Prison to hear cases.

The prison itself was riddled with disease and inmates were serviced by a stream of prostitutes.

Prisoners were even allowed to bring their own livestock into the jail.

By the 18th Century Newgate was crowded, filthy and unhealthy. In 1750 the Lord Mayor, two judges, an alderman, an-under sheriff and 50 members of the public attending the sessions house died from ‘gaol fever’ – another term for the infectious disease typhus.

Judges were forced to carry nosegays of flowers to hide the unpleasant smells from the cells, a tradition that still continues today.

There is said to be an Old Bailey ghost, which appears when travesties of justice occur.

The black-cloaked figure is believed to be the spirit of a man who was wrongly accused of being a highwayman, who was hanged and buried in lime on the site where the court now stands.

Typical courtroom in the old part of the Old Bailey.
A typical courtroom in the old part of the Old Bailey. Hanging behind the judge’s chair is the Sword of State, which is placed behind the most senior judge sitting in the courthouse. It represents the authority of the Queen to hand down justice on her subjects.

In 1834, the Central Criminal Court Act established the Old Bailey as the principal court for London and the South East circuit.

In 1902 the old sessions house and Newgate Prison were demolished to make way for the current building, which was opened in 1907 by Edward VII.

The Old Bailey is run by the Corporation of London. The correct name for the Old Bailey is the Central Criminal Court, the nickname is taken from the road the Court is situated on.

It comprises 18 courts spread over three floors.

The oak-panelled courtrooms have been the setting for some of the most infamous trials in world criminal history.

Daniel Defoe, Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Kray Twins, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and, more recently, disgraced politician Jeffrey Archer and Soham murderer Ian Huntley have all faced their nemeses in the Old Bailey dock.

Now you can witness history in the making. Every day a new drama unfolds within these walls.

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