The Old Bailey has been London's main criminal court for centuries, and there has been a jail on the site for at least 1,000 years. The name means ‘old wall’ as it was built next to London’s 2,000 year-old Roman wall, which still forms part of the building’s foundations. The original medieval court was first mentioned in 1585. It had been built with money donated by Richard Whittington (of pantomime fame) to deal with prisoners from Newgate Jail.
It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and rebuilt in 1674, with the court open to the weather to prevent the spread of disease. This precaution was forgotten 1734 when the building was modified to enclose the court and reduce the influence of spectators: this led to outbreaks of typhus, notably in 1750 when 60 people died, including the Lord Mayor and two judges.
It was rebuilt again in 1774 and a new prison was built in 1785 to improve the conditions and reduce the risk of disease.
Large crowds would gather to pelt the condemned with rotten fruit and vegetables and stones. In 1807, 28 people died when the crowd of up to 20,000 rampaged out of control after a pie-seller’s stall was overturned. Public executions were halted in 1868. Condemned men would then be executed inside Newgate Jail, where hangings continued for another 34 years.
Famous Old Bailey trials include those of Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Krays and Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’).
In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?
The last public ‘beheading’ in the UK took place outside the Old Bailey prison in 1820.
Crowning the Old Bailey is the statue of Justice; she stands 60m (200ft) above the street and is 3.7m (12ft) high, cast in bronze and covered with gold leaf. Her outstretched arms span 2.4m (8ft); in her right hand she holds the sword of retribution and in her left the equally-balanced scales of justice. She is especially distinguished from other statues of Justice by not being blindfolded.
Deep down in the labyrinth of tunnels underneath the Old Bailey, you can see the flowing water of the River Fleet.
The first duty of society is justice.
Hangings were so popular outside the Old Bailey that the wealthy rented ‘window boxes’ to watch in comfort.