The Old Bailey Sessions House by John Ellis, 1790

The Old Bailey, also known at various times as Justice Hall, the Sessions House, and the Central Criminal Court, was named after the street in which it stood, just off Newgate Street and next to Newgate Prison. Old Bailey Street follows the line of the original fortified wall, or “bailey”, of the City. The courthouse was conveniently close to Newgate Prison.

This 1808 sketch by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin published in The Microcosm of London: or, London in Miniature shows a trial in the Old Bailey.


Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin – Ackermann, Rudolph; Pyne, William Henry; Combe, William (1904) [1808] “Old Bailey” in The Microcosm of London: or, London in Miniature, Volume 2, London: Methuen and Company

The courtrooms were arranged to emphasise the contest between the accused and the forces of the prosecution. The accused stood at “the bar” (in “the dock”), directly facing the witness box, where prosecution and defence witnesses testified, with the judge or judges seated on the other side of the room. Before the introduction of gas lighting in the early nineteenth century a mirrored reflector was placed above the bar to reflect light from the windows onto the faces of the accused. This allowed the court to examine their facial expressions and assess the validity of their testimony. A sounding board was placed over their heads in order to amplify their voices.

Rowlandson and Pugin’s illustration ‘represents the court employed in the examination of a witness, who appears to have just received the usual admonition upon these occasions, of ”Hold up your head young woman and look at his lordship.”’

Early on, 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 the judges were clerks, lawyers, and the writers who took the shorthand notes which formed the basis of the Proceedings.

My fifth great uncle, his son, and his grandson were all victims of crime whose cases were heard in the Old Bailey:

  • George Bowyer transported for pickpocketing: My 5th great uncle Claude Champion Crespigny (1734-1818) was robbed of a pocket handkerchief in 1790. The thief was sentenced to be transported to New South Wales. He appears to have died on the voyage.
  • O is for Old Bailey Records: William Champion de Crespigny (1765-1829), my 1st cousin 6 times removed, accused his coachman of ‘stealing harness’ in 1789. The coachman was acquitted.
  • T is for trial for theft: In 1838 Herbert Joseph Champion de Crespigny (1805-1881), my second cousin five times removed, was driving a carriage. It overturned and he broke his leg. While being assisted he was robbed. The accused thief was found guilty.
AtoZ map B

The Old Bailey is marked with an X


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