Skip to main content The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. Hogarth's 1758 oil painting "The Bench": 3 judges in formal robes and wigs, 2 asleep, with a shadowy figure in the background


History of The Old Bailey Courthouse

London's Central Criminal Court, 1673-1834

Justice Hall, or the Sessions House, was also called the Old Bailey, after the street in which it was located, just off Newgate Street and next to Newgate Prison, in the western part of the City of London. Over the course of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the building was remodelled in ways which both reflected and influenced the changing ways trials were carried out and reported (see trial procedures). The current Old Bailey Courthouse stands on the same site.


The Old Bailey was located about 200 yards northwest of St Paul's Cathedral, just outside the western wall of the City of London. It is named after the street in which it is located which itself follows the line of the original fortified wall, or "bailey", of the City. The location of the courthouse close to Newgate prison allowed prisoners to be conveniently brought to the courtroom for their trials. More generally, its position between the City of London and Westminster meant it was a suitable location for trials involving people from all over the metropolis, north of the river Thames.

The Courtroom

Although the Old Bailey courthouse was rebuilt several times between 1674 and 1834, the basic design of the courtroom remained the same. It was arranged so as to emphasise the conflict between the accused and the rest of the court. The accused stood at 'the bar', directly facing the witness box (where prosecution and defence witnesses testified) and the judges seated on the other side of the room. A mirrored reflector was placed above the bar, in order to reflect light from the windows onto the faces of the accused. This allowed the court to examine the facial expressions of the accused and form impressions of the validity of their testimony. In addition, a sounding board was placed over their heads so as to amplify their voices.

Early in the period the jurors sat on the sides of the courtroom to both the left and the right of the accused, but from 1737 they were brought together in stalls on the defendant's right, sufficiently close together to be able to consult each other and arrive at verdicts without leaving the room. Seated at a table below and next to where the judges sat were clerks, lawyers, and the writers who took the notes in shorthand which formed the basis of the Proceedings.

1673 Open Air Building

The medieval courthouse was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In 1673 the Old Bailey was rebuilt as a three storey Italianate brick building, described by John Stype in 1720 as "a fair and stately building". In front of the courthouse was the Sessions House Yard, a place where litigants, witnesses, and the personnel of the court could gather. The area inside the wall, where prisoners awaited trial, was called the bail dock. They were separated from the street by a brick wall with spikes on top to keep the prisoners from escaping.

A surprising feature was that the ground floor of the building, where the courtroom was located, was open to the weather; the upper stories were held up by doric columns. The walls had been left out in order to increase the supply of fresh air to reduce the risk that prisoners suffering from gaol fever (typhus) would infect others in the court. On the first floor there was a "stately dining room" for the justices. Inside the courtroom there was a bench for judges at the far end, and, on both sides, partitioned spaces for jurors and balconies for court officers and privileged observers. Other spectators crowded into the yard. The trials attracted a mixed audience of London's more and less respectable inhabitants, but it was alleged that criminals attended in order to devise strategies for defending themselves should they find themselves on trial. The crowd's presence could influence or intimidate the jurors sitting inside.



1737 Refronting

In 1737 the building was remodelled, and enclosed. Although this was purportedly in order to keep out the weather, the City authorities may also have wanted to limit the influence of spectators. The ground floor of the exterior was refaced with large masonry blocks, and the windows and roofline altered to reflect prevailing architectural styles. A passageway was constructed linking the courthouse with Newgate Prison, to facilitate the transport of prisoners between the two. The interior was rearranged so that the trial jury could sit together, since they were now expected to give their verdicts after each trial, without leaving the courtroom (see the trial).

With the courtroom now enclosed, the danger of infection increased, and at one sessions in 1750 an outbreak of gaol fever (typhus) led to the deaths of sixty people, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. Subsequently, the judges relied on nosegays and aromatic herbs, spread about to keep down the stench and prevent infection.

Spectators frequently came to see the trials, and courthouse officials had the right to charge fees for entry to the galleries. The radical John Wilkes, when Sheriff of London in 1771, thought this practice undemocratic and prohibited it. Consequently at the October sessions of that year there was almost a riot due to the pressure of the crowds trying to get in, and those inside the galleries were accused of being "turbulent and unruly". Wilkes's order was rescinded, and spectators continued to pay to see trials until 1860.

1774 Reconstruction

In 1774 the court was rebuilt by George Danceat a cost of £15,000. As a way of further controlling public access, a semi-circular brick wall was built around the area immediately in front of the courthouse, the bail dock. This wall provided better security for the prisoners awaiting trial and was intended to prevent communication between prisoners and the public. Public view of the courtroom windows was thereby obstructed. The narrow entrance also prevented a sudden influx of spectators into the courtroom. In addition, the passage between Newgate Prison and the Old Bailey was enclosed with brick walls. It is possible that a desire to counteract the more fortress-like appearance of the Old Bailey is one of the reasons why the City, from 1775, went to greater efforts to ensure that the Proceedings provided full and fair reports of the trials--see the publishing history of the Proceedings.

The new courthouse still had a single courtroom, but it had new facilities for court personnel. There was a separate room for witnesses, so that they would not be obliged to wait for their turn in a nearby pub. A grand jury room was appointed with eighteen leather seated chairs and three tables. There were also separate parlours for the Sheriff and Lord Mayor, a Lord Mayor's Clerk's Room, an Indictment Office, and a drawing room for the swordbearer and judges's clerks. Indeed, the lavish provision for the judges and their servants contrasted dramatically with the prisoners' quarters in the basement. The Lord Mayor's Dining Room, for example, included a fireplace with a mosaic on the front, mahogany dining tables, chairs, a pot cupboard, and a large Turkey carpet. Looking glasses (mirrors) were added in 1787. Luxurious dinners, cooked in the kitchen on the ground floor and served with drink from the wine vault, were provided at 3pm and 5pm. Outside in the yard there was a covered colonnade for carraiges and 5 coach stands. During the Gordon Riots of 1780 the courtroom was badly damaged, and the crowds carried away the furniture and burned it on bonfires in the streets. The damage was soon repaired.

The courtroom now had four brass chandeliers and, reflecting the increased role of lawyers, a semi-circular mahogany table for council to plead from. Since some prisoners were still branded, there were two irons for confining the hands of criminals while they were burnt. A large glass mirror continued to be positioned to reflect daylight on to the face of the accused (later replaced by gas lights). Behind the jurors, and seated above them, were spectators sitting in a gallery. Fees were still charged for admission to the galleries. Although only a limited number of spectators could be accommodated, the increasingly detailed Proceedings published in these years allowed anyone who read them to keep informed of events in the courtroom.

In order to accommodate the growing number of trials, a second courtroom was added in 1824. Reflecting the still increasing role of lawyers, the new courtroom had seating for attorneys, counsel, and law students. There were also seats for spectators, jurors in waiting, prosecutors and witnesses, and officers of the court.

1834 Central Criminal Court

In 1834 the name and jurisdiction of the Old Bailey changed. Reflecting the growth of the London area, the jurisdiction of the new Central Criminal Court spread beyond the City of London and Middlesex to include parts of neighbouring counties. The new court met twelve times a year, rather than eight, and the courthouse was remodelled yet again. The current building on the site was opened in 1907.

Introductory Reading

  • Howson, Gerald, Thief-Taker General: The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (London, 1970), Appendix IV
  • Rumbelow, Donald, The Triple Tree: Newgate, Tyburn, and the Old Bailey (London, 1982)

See also the full Bibliography.

For a comprehensive bibliography of modern historical writings on London see
London's Past Online.

©2003 The Old Bailey Proceedings Online