‘Step through a door marked ‘do not wedge open’ at the Old Bailey and you start to descend into over 1,000 years of criminal history.’
Some things have changed since the days in 1910, when pieces of Dr Crippen’s dead wife’s skin were handed round the court in a soup-plate for inspection by jurors. Today there are laptops and microphones where once there were inkwells and ledgers.
At a rough estimate, defendants who have stood in its fabled docks must have served tens of thousands of years ‘at her Majesty’s pleasure’ for the murders and frauds, the robberies and kidnappings of which they have been convicted.
The building is named after nearby Old Bailey Street, which follows the lines of one of the original fortified Roman walls. The location was convenient for the speedy transfer of prisoners to Newgate Prison after sentencing. In medieval times, court was held in nearby rooms and in a later court building constructed in 1539, until they were destroyed by the Great London Fire of 1666 and then rebuilt in 1673 with an open design to help prevent the spread of the plague.
The introduction of nosegays and aromatic herbs helped to cut down on the spread of disease, and even some judges still carry nosegays or other flowers.
The court’s alumni include Dr Crippen, The Yorkshire Ripper, John Christie, Ian Huntley, Oscar Wilde and The Kray Twins. The current main building block was completed in 1902 and now is a Grade II listed building.
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.
Among the sights to be seen beyond the door which is right by the entrance to the 74 cells in the historic court building, is an exposed section of rough stone Roman wall, which formed part of the defensive structure of ‘Londinium’.
An archaeological excavation in 1966 found the remains of the Roman Wall. The monument is situated within the basement of the Central Criminal Court to the east of the Old Bailey and includes the standing and buried remains of part of London Wall, the Roman and medieval defences of London.
Originally the Sessions House of the City of London, it took over handling serious crimes across England and Wales, in 1834 when it was renamed the Central Criminal Court. The statue of Justice on the pinnacle of the building weighs over 20 tons and, contrary to popular belief, is not blindfolded. Thanks to Nazi and IRA bombings, they have made major alterations to the Old Bailey. They only added many of the more recent courtrooms in the 1960s and 70s.
The rarely seen subterranean depths of the Bailey from which many prisoners in the past never returned, is a terrible remnant of Newgate Prison. Called the ‘dead man’s walk.’ A series of archways which become progressively smaller, through which condemned prisoners were led through on their way to the gallows. As if to remind the condemned of the shortening of their lives – until they reached the grill which used to house a birdcage-like contraption which took them to the hangman.
Hangings were a public spectacle in the street outside until May 1868. The condemned would be led along Dead Man’s Walk between the buildings, and they buried many in the walk itself. Large, rowdy crowds sometimes gathered and pelted the condemned with rotten fruit and vegetables and stones. After it crushed 28 people to death when a pie-seller’s stall overturned.
An underground tunnel linking the Old Bailey with St Sepulchre’s church opposite was built, so priests could administer to the prisoners without having to weave their way through thousands of ghoulish spectators awaiting an execution. It allowed the chaplain to minister to the condemned without having to force his way through crowds.
There are two parts to the building, old and new. Entrance to the public gallery for the old part is in Newgate Street. This building contains the two most important courts: Court One and Court Two. However, because the court is old, they have small seats and not much leg room (especially for the Jury) judges often move to the more modern courts in the new building, which are more comfortable.
Nowadays visitors to the public galleries are requested to dress appropriately (no vests or shorts for men; no low-cut tops or short skirts for women) or entry to the court building may be refused. No children under the age of 14 are allowed into the building. Under-16’s must be accompanied by an adult.
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