Sent down at the Old Bailey: A tour of the world's most famous court

Ahead of its £37m refurbishment, Sam Masters is given a rare glimpse of its historic hidden depths

Sam Masters
Thursday 23 May 2013 01:08 BST

The room would be vaguely familiar to anyone who attended a school infirmary built in a certain period: white tiled walls, slightly yellowed by the passage of time, and the pervasive smell of mildew. At one end is a door that today simply leads outside, but in the past led to certain death.

Few people these days get to see “dead man’s walk” at the Old Bailey – where for hundreds of years convicts were led out to be executed outside on the site of the old Newgate Prison – and those that do give it little attention. Increasing numbers of workmen will soon begin passing through similarly hidden parts of the Central Criminal Court, however, as it begins a £37m refurbishment to bring the creaking building into the modern world after years of neglect. And with that work comes a raft of developments to the building that, in many ways, has not changed for a century.

Situated near St Paul’s Cathedral in central London, the court – perhaps the most famous in the world – is a Minoan labyrinth of passages, narrow openings and vast chambers below street level, opened to The Independent for a rare tour.

“Welcome to the Old Bailey, prepare to get lost,” Charles Henty, the man responsible for running the court on a day-to-day basis and leading the building’s transformation, tells us.

The Secondary of London and Under Sheriff and High Bailiff of Southwark describes himself as effectively the managing director of the Bailey, running the building with what the former Coldstream Guardsman describes as “military precision”.

The public lobby memorialised in John Mortimer’s Rumpole is today the scene of the same hushed conversations frequent in any large criminal court in Britain. It was all so different in 1807, when 28 people were killed in a crowd surge to watch a hanging; window space in the galleries overlooking the prison gallows outside were rented to the wealthy for a better view.

Bedded in the wall above the main entrance is a visible reminder of the Bailey’s turbulent past. “These things are our little battle mementos,” says Mr Henty, pointing to a two-inch shard of glass embedded in the wall above. It flew through the hall when in 1973, the IRA targeted the court and Scotland Yard in car bombings.

Despite photography for the most part being strictly prohibited by the Contempt of Court Act, the Bailey has become familiar to the British public from its repeated depiction in television dramas. The T-shaped design comes from later additions to the courthouse designed in 1907 by Edward Mountford and has played host to the Kray Twins and the Yorkshire Ripper.

Things have changed since the days when pieces of Dr Crippen’s dead wife’s skin were handed around Court One in a soup plate for inspection by jurors in October 1910. The 2013 courtroom is filled with laptops, flatscreen televisions and microphones.

Above Court One is a glass roof that lends the room an uncommon brightness. “It would probably be one of the best places to grow cannabis in London,” Mr Henty says. “I’ve never tried it myself, maybe we could do it with tomatoes.”

Detainee in the Bailey’s 74 cells get meals from the same catering firm that provides food for the court staff and judges. “I think the prisoners get microwave food though,” Mr Henty adds.

The Grand Hall, seldom opened to the public and even more rarely photographed, is filled with barristers and suited solicitors underneath a dome painted with mosaics by Gerald Moira. Through an oak door is a “strictly off limits” security office where the day’s trials are monitored. On the day of The Independent’s visit, there were just four murder trials taking place and two rape trials amongst others attended by 40 defendants, though on average there would be seven or more murder trials taking place.

It is below the courts that much of the Bailey’s history can be found, including an exposed section of the Roman Wall that surrounded London. “A ‘vicious jail’ is how it was described then,” says Mr Henty. “We have been here for a very long time.” There was once a secret tunnel that ran from St Sepulchre’s Church opposite for a chaplain to avoid crowds while visiting the Bailey to give condemned prisoners their last rites.

The giant coal room with its 25ft ceilings below street level is also hiding a secret. Down an open hatch and metal ladder is the river Fleet below. It was where Elizabeth Dry, the Quaker reformer who improved conditions at Victorian jails, used to collect water for the inmates. “I wouldn’t touch it,” says Mr Henty of the river that became so fetid it was covered from the 1860s onwards.

The operating budget of the Bailey, which sees some 1,500 cases a year, is around £8.5m with the courts thought to cost another £100 per minute to operate. It is home to 74 cells over three floors and has an average occupancy of around 90 per cent.

Mr Henty says: “It’s an immensely complex project and we can’t close. This building has got to the point where it isn’t fit for purpose. When I arrived not enough was being considered about the long-term options for the building. There was a major problem coming.”

He said the proposals, which went out to tender this week, would see the City of London Corporation fund most of the project with around £10m coming from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service. “This place has to be available for sitting, that’s why we’ve spent six years looking at how to do it properly,” he says, proudly adding: “I have not lost a sitting day since I have been here.”

The plans will see courts renovated in pairs over 10 years with work beginning in 2016. A key part of the changes will be replacing the Bailey’s three huge steam boilers with gas generators. “It’s a bit of a subterranean existence,” says Mr Henty of the constantly manned power plant. It is said that, on hot days, the best place to be at the Bailey is in court because judges will not tolerate poor air conditioning.

Although the amount of diesel fuel used has dropped since 1997, the 1967 boilers are still hugely inefficient. “It is also very difficult to find replacement parts and bits,” says Mr Henty. “Ebay is what is used most of the time.”

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