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A guest post by Wendy Wallace.

old bailey

The 20 tonne gilded statue of Justice by F.W. Pomeroy.

On a bitterly cold March evening, a group of London Historians had the opportunity to look around the Old Bailey – London’s most famous and historic criminal court.

There’s been a court on the site since the 1500s and much of the pomp and gravitas attached to this venerable institution survives. Dressed in an elaborate lace bib over a specially tailored suit, a black rosette hanging down from the collar at the back (a wig guard, for catching the powder from the syrup someone in his position would traditionally have worn) our guide and host had a title as elaborate as his garb.

Charles Henty, Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark, is an ex-military man who’s been running the Bailey for the last eight years. Disarmingly, when asked how long it took him to master the job, he replied that he is still learning.

And it is quite a job. The Bailey contains 18 courts and what the Secondary’s talk made clear above all else is that it’s a business. Each court costs around £80-100 per minute to operate and keeping courts running, with defendants, counsel, judges, press, relatives and public all in the right place at the right time, is a mighty exercise in logistics and security.

The Bailey – so known for the street on which it sits, is in its current incarnation an architectural mix, with the old building opened by Edward V11 in 1907 and the ‘new’ extension built in the 1970s. Its courtrooms and steps are familiar to all of us through television dramas and news programmes; trials ranging from the Kray twins to that of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and the quashing of the convictions of the Guilford Four, have occurred here.

In the sombre grandeur of court number one with its scarred wooden desks, curtained witness box, wide dock and under a dome through which pours what looks like natural light but is in fact electric light, Secondary, as he is addressed, gave a witty and passionate talk about an institution which lies at the heart of British justice. He expressed his concern over the ever-younger ages of defendants. Eleven and twelve year old children have in recent years appeared in this dock charged with murder, and rape.

Outside the main courts, briefs congregate in a magnificent marbled hall, its domed ceilings decorated with painted allegories of justice by the artist Gerald Moira. (Moira slipped in his own face in to a couple of these, showing himself as a artist in one and, in his painting of the Blitz, a tea-drinking crone.)

High on a wall in the new building, an embedded shard of glass has been allowed to remain; it’s a tiny and telling reminder of the IRA bomb that partially destroyed the building in 1973.

Down two or three storeys, in the bowels of the building, carpet gives way to quarry tiles. Here the walls are not Carrera marble but the most utilitarian painted brick. Here, in small cells, prisoners are held on their way in to and out of court.

And beyond this holding area, outside the building, in the most sombre and spine-chilling aspect of the visit, Secondary walked us by torchlight down Dead Man’s Walk – a series of brick doorways of ever decreasing size through which condemned prisoners once made their lonely way to the gallows.

The Old Bailey seems to indicate in its architecture the range of social positions, from the most exalted to the lowliest. One can’t help wondering how many of the defendants down the ages – if they’d had the advantages of those who run the system – would never have been ended up in the dock.

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Wendy Wallace is an author and journalist, whose first novel – The Painted Bridge – was published in 2012.

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Our visit was also covered by London Historians member, the writer Vic Keegan here.

Here’s a video clip showing interiors of the Old Bailey and featuring Charles Henty, Esq – Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark.

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