Andrea/Cara here, I’m in the middle of a new WIP which involves criminal activities (no spoilers!) and found myself throwing the term “Old Bailey”—the famous court building in London—when several of the characters were talking about a possible trial. Now, that name, like Newgate Prison, is an iconic one when speaking of Regency justice. However I realized I was pretty fuzzy on its actual details, so decided I had better do some quick research in order to get everything right.
As our readers know, the Wenches all enjoy doing research, and I’m no exception (yes, yes, we are all history nerds!) So I rolled up my cyber sleeves and dove right in. To my surprise the Old Bailey actually has its own website, with a very extensive and delightful history—which I will now share with you.
First of all, it’s located close to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and is named after the street on which it sits (which in turn takes it moniker from the fact that it rest upon part of the original fortified wall—or bailey—of the City.) A courthouse occupied the space in medieval times, but it was destroyed in 1666 during the Great Fire of London. In 1673 a new three story “Old Bailey” was built out of brick in the Italianate style, along with an open air Sessions House Yard. This area was known as the bail dock, as it was where prisoners were kept as they awaited trail. (It was separated from the street by a high, spike-topped wall to keep them from escaping.)
The building itself had several very interesting features. The ground floor, where the courtroom was located, had one side completely open to the outdoors, save for a line of stately Doric columns. The idea was to ensure good air flow in order to prevent diseases like gaol fever from spreading from prisoners to judges and spectators. Upstairs was a fancy dining room for the justices. (Privilege has its perks!)
Old Bailey was remodeled in 1737 and the open-air wall was enclosed. There’s speculation that the authorities not only wanted to keep out the weather, but also the riff-raff. In the past, there were complaints that the spectators were influencing the outcomes of the trials. Cutting off clean air did have consequences. An outbreak of gaol fever in 1750 killed 60 people including the Lord Mayor and two justices. After that, nosegays and herbs were passed out—a tradition that is still commemorated to this day in a ceremony.
Trials were a popular spectator sport, and officials charge an entry fee to view the proceeding. The High Sheriff thought that wrong and banned the practice in 1771, but an ensuing melee at the trail of a notorious radical later that year convinced him to restore the fee. Spectators had to pay for the pleasure of watching their fellow citizens prosecuted until 1860.
There was another renovation in 1774, with a new semi-circular wall built around the House Yard, complete with a narrower entrance to control the flow of spectators into the courthouse. Brick walls were also added to the passageway connecting the building to Newgate Prison.
In Regency times, Old Bailey was considered quite luxurious. Witnesses now their own private room in which to wait (in the past, they often had to hang out at the local pubs) Other amenities included a grand jury room sported 18 comfy leather chairs, an Indictment Office, a drawing room for the swordbearer and clerks of the justices, and a grand dining room for the Lord Mayor, fitted out with a mosaic-front fireplace, Turkey carpet and mahogany dining tables and chairs. (A downstairs kitchen cooked up fancy meals twice a day, complete with libations from the wine vault.)
Alas, the prisoners did not have it quite so plush in their basement quarters. The courtroom wasn’t so comfortable either. A large mirror was positioned to reflect daylight on the face of a prisoner (presumably so the jury and spectators could watch his reaction to the accusations.) As branding was still a punishment for some crimes, there were irons to hold those judged to be guilty while they were burned.
So, that’s a quick look at the “supreme court” of London. I’m a huge fan of Anne Perry’s Victorian historicals, many of which features trial scenes in Old Bailey, so it was fun to learn some of its actual history. How about you—what famous building would you like to know more about?—the Wench history nerds are listening!