7 Secrets Of The Old Bailey

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 15 months ago
7 Secrets Of The Old Bailey

The Old Bailey: a name that usually crops up in tabloid tales of scandal, shame and slaughter.  If you've ever visited, hopefully it was from the public gallery or jury box. Here are some of our favourite facts about this redoubtable London establishment.

Photo by JAY in the Londonist Flickr pool.

1. It's not a bailey

The name 'Old Bailey' comes from the street on which the court is located. The road marks the route of the City's original fortified wall (or 'bailey').

'Old Bailey' is only a nickname for what's really called the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales. Old Bailey sounds better.

2. It's not all that old

There's been a jail on this site for over 1,000 years, and a court since the 16th century (serving the old Newgate Prison). Various fires and attacks have seen the court rebuilt again and again, and the famous domed Old Bailey we now know only opened in 1907. Some of the bricks in the Old Bailey's façade are repurposed from the demolished Newgate Prison.

Since 1907, thanks to Nazi and IRA bombings, further major alterations have been made to the Old Bailey. Many of the more recent courtrooms were only added in the 1960s and 70s.

Photo by Joe Dunckley in the Londonist Flickr pool.

3. Justice is not blind

The 22-ton, 3.5m tall figure of Lady Justice is the Old Bailey's crowning glory — clutching the sword of retribution in her right hand, and the scales of justice in the other. But contrary to the well-worn adage, this particular Justice is not blind(folded).

Apparently the inside of the Old Bailey's dome is "incredible", but it only gets to be seen by two people (the Old Bailey's under-Sheriff and the building manager), once a year.

Why the dome at all? It's a doff of the architectural hat to nearby St Paul's.

The old Fleet river runs directly beneath the Old Bailey. Photo by Jon Doe in the Londonist Flickr pool.

4. Underground river

Delve into the depths of the Old Bailey's former coal room, and you'll find a hatch in the floor, beneath which is a ladder leading down to the culverted River Fleet. It's said that prison reformer Elizabeth Fry once collected water here for inmates, although how much good drinking from what was basically a sewer did them, we're not sure.

5. Dead man's walk

A grizzly remnant of Newgate Prison is 'dead man's walk'. This is a series of archways which become increasingly smaller, through which condemned prisoners were led through on their way to the gallows. Check out this Stephen Fry documentary below, from 22 minutes in. In 1868, at the last public hanging here, 20,000 people came by tube.

6. Charles Dickens was inspired here

As a young court reporter, Dickens was a regular as the Old Bailey, and the tales he heard sometimes inspired his own fiction. Take this report of convicted thief Thomas Knight, deported to New South Wales, who then returned to England — just like Magwitch in Great Expectations.

7. Famous (and less famous) trials

Some of the country's most notorious trials have happened at the Old Bailey, including those of the Krays (Ronnie quipped to the judge: "If I wasn’t here, I could be having tea with Judy Garland."), Doctor Crippen, the Yorkshire Ripper and Ruth Ellis — the last woman to be executed in the UK. Dig into the archives, and you find some lesser-known, but equally fascinating cases: we just found this chilling account of a boy being booted to death by a clown.

"If I wasn’t here, I could be having tea with Judy Garland.": Ronnie Kray's comment to the judge, shortly before being put away for life. photo by Joe O'Malley in the Londonist Flickr pool,

Oh, and strictly no phones...

You can visit the Old Bailey every weekday* for free. However, you'll have to ditch your phone somewhere first. You can't take in into the courts, and there's nowhere to leave it outside.

*Reduced court sitting in August

Last Updated 02 August 2016