Art Gallery - Feature Story

Hidden London: The Old Bailey

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Defend the children of the poor & punish the wrongdoer 

These are the words carved into the stone pediment above the ominous, cloaked figure, whose face is in constant shade. The figure, and the two beside it, represents fortitude, the recording angel, and truth. They overlook the doorway of, arguably, the most famous legal establishment in London: The Old Bailey. 

Located on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey (the road from which it took its name), the current building was completed in 1907. There has been a criminal court on the site since medieval times, however. A full history of the building’s many incarnations, and the reasons for their demolition and rebuilds, may be found at the official Old Bailey website here. 

Above: The Lady of Justice, gold leaf statue, mounted atop the dome of the Old Bailey. Unlike similar statues, she doesn’t wear a blindfold.

I visited the Old Bailey a few years ago, when I was carrying out location research for my Bow Street Society series of books. Despite its reputation, the Old Bailey building is (almost) hidden away on a narrow street. I was quite surprised by how limited the space in front of it was, as I’d always imagined it being on a busy, crowded thoroughfare. The fact it was actually rather quiet was, undoubtedly, the result of it being a Saturday. It being a weekend also meant that, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go inside. If I had visited during the week, I would’ve been able to sit in a public gallery of one of the court rooms, and watch a trial as it unfolded. The Old Bailey, or Central Criminal Court as it’s more widely referred to, is still a fully functioning court house. It hears cases of both local and national importance, with some of the most serious criminal cases in recent history having been heard there. For this reason, one must be sensitive to whoever else may be in the public gallery, too—such as, relatives of a murder victim and/or of the defendant. 

Undoubtedly, the temptation to watch a criminal trial at the Old Bailey is a natural part of the human condition. Humans are, generally, fascinated by the macabre, and want to learn more about it—without putting themselves in danger. Being curious about an Old Bailey criminal trial, or in true crime accounts, is part of this fascination. It also serves as reassurance, in the same way crime fiction reassures: by witnessing a trial unfolding, we are witnessing justice. By witnessing the process of justice, we may be assured that even the worst offenders will, ultimately, be caught and brought to account for their crimes. At least, that is the ideal outcome. 

Above: The interior of the Central Criminal Court in 1896, from The Queen’s London collection.

Like all court houses across the globe, the Old Bailey has seen wrongful—and questionable—convictions. Questionable, because the severity of the punishments didn’t always match the severity of the crimes, e.g. children being sentenced to hang for pickpocketing.  Such convictions and the wider methods of punishment and reformation (or lack thereof) are covered in a new exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell, London. The free exhibition, called Criminal Lives, 1780-1925: Punishing Old Bailey Convicts, covers the evolution of the British penal system from its emphasis on punishing the body, e.g. public flogging, to reformation. It also explains, in great detail, the history of transportation to Australia, and other colonies, and prison ships—otherwise known as “Hulks”. Using the stories of real life convicts to give the history its human face, the exhibition successfully highlights the plight of the individuals forced to endure the punishments dealt them. It also reminds us, the visitor, that the struggle to find effective—yet humane—ways of punishing and reforming those convicted of crimes is still a problem today. 

Photographs and handwritten documents abound in the exhibition. For me, history has always come alive in my mind whenever I see, and touch, the objects left behind. Though I couldn’t touch it, the belt and handcuffs displayed in one of the exhibition’s cases spoke volumes to me. My friend, who came to the exhibition with me, remarked on how small the handcuffs were. Looking at them, I had to agree. They were so narrow; it was as if they’d been made for a child. Given that men, women, and children were sentenced to imprisonment and transportation, this comparison may well have been a reality. At the very least, it seemed the handcuffs would’ve been worn by a very malnourished individual. That idea alone was disturbing, and conjured up all sorts of imaginings of what conditions may have been like for prisoners. 

The exhibition runs until the 16th May 2018, so there is plenty of time to visit. The archives are open Monday to Thursday, and one Saturday a month. It’s therefore a good idea to check their website for opening times when planning your visit. The exhibition is housed in a dedicated space on the first floor, with some exhibits also lining the stairs. I’d recommend allowing an hour to fully appreciate the exhibition. I’d also recommend visitors to pick up the free guide from the wall when first entering the dedicated space. This guide takes the visitor through the exhibit, piece by piece, giving additional information as it goes. There’s also a series of free events being held in connection to this exhibition. Again, please see the archives’ website for full details. 


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HIDDEN LONDON: The Old Bailey Sources of reference:

London Metropolitan Archives homepage: 

The Old Bailey Online: 

Interior Of The Central Criminal Court: The Queen’s London A Pictorial And Descriptive Record Of The Streets, Buildings, Parks And Scenery Of The Great Metropolis In The Fifty-Ninth Year Of The Reign Of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Cassell & Company Limited, (London, Paris & Melbourne, 1896) 

courtesy of Lee Jackson’s Victorian Dictionary website:  

Image URL: 

With the exception of the interior of the central criminal court (1896) photograph, all photographs were taken by T.G. Campbell on location at the Old Bailey.

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