The grand building that houses the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales is often called the Old Bailey. But why?
The simple answer you will often hear is that it’s named after the road it stands on, Old Bailey, which is itself named after the Roman Wall that surrounded London and runs under the back of the courthouse.
The road, Old Bailey runs north-south between Ludgate Hill and Newgate, both also had gatehouses in the Roman Wall – and the wall itself runs about 20 metres to the east of the road, and would have had a deep ditch on the outside. The slight problem is that the Roman Wall surrounded London, so was hardly unique in this spot, and in fact, this is the newest part of the Roman wall, as it was built last being further away from the heart of Roman London at the time.
So “old bailey” seems a bit odd. The gatehouses were significant at either end, and there were a couple of small bastions along the wall, but those were common all over the place. All told, it’s hardly the sort of thing to name a road after.
The road ran alongside the ditch outside the wall, and was the closest point to the wall that would have been possible. It was originally known as La Baillie.
That may be a clue.
At the time, there was already a small jail inside Newgate, later to be massively expanded as Newgate Prison, and the location where the courthouse sits today. Therefore the area was known for judicial process from the very earliest days, and in Old-French, la baillie is also a term for a judicial officer, and the term la baillie was in use in England in the 1200s, and is still used in Scotland today.
There are also a number of instances where the term ballie and some judicial phrase are used in conjunction outside London, such as the Assises de la Baillie here.
It’s not to say that the Old Bailey road was named after the bailey – as in a fortification surrounded by a moat, but when you look at London at the time, it’s not a small village, and there were loads of places that would be more likely to be named after the fortification wall — not some semi-rural side street of little importance on the less interesting side of London.
Although it’s unproven, I lean toward the idea that the road is named after the local jail, and the local presence of judicial officers.
Whatever the origins of the road name, by Tudor times it had acquired its English name, The Old Bailley.
The earliest reference I can find to referring to the court house as The Old Bailey though comes from the 1680s. The proceedings of the King’s Commission of the Peace itself also referred to cases held at “Justice-Hall in the Old-Bailey” in 1701. John Strype in 1720 wrote that the officially named Court of the King’s Commission of the Peace is “held at Justice-Hall in the Old-Bailey, commonly call’d the Sessions House”
Newspapers of the same time were also routinely referring to the Old Bailey as the court house.
The early references seem to be suggestive of the estate being the Old Bailey, and the courthouse being inside it. The key is that the nickname had already arrived and stuck.
So, while I can’t be sure if the off-repeated tale of the origins of the name is correct, the nickname is truly ancient.
An interesting fact though about the Central Criminal Court is that although it’s a criminal court for serious offences across England and Wales, it’s very closely tied with the City of London.
Originally the Sessions House of the City of London, it took over handling serious crimes across England and Wales only in 1834 when it was renamed the Central Criminal Court. Although the legal affairs are managed by the government, the building itself is still owned by the City of London — through the Bridge House Estates, and the City still picks up the costs of running the courthouse instead of the government.
That gives the City a few, rarely exercised privileges. For example, the Lord Mayor has the right to sit in any court case, and the judges still sit off-centre in the courtroom, to leave space for the Lord Mayor, should one turn up.
If only court cases weren’t so serious, you’d think they’d turn up once just to do it.
Even if the Lord Mayor doesn’t want to turn up, anyone else can, as being a legal court, it’s open to the public to visit the court rooms — not the rest of the building, and leave your electronics at home as you won’t be allowed inside with them.