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.


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  1. A great article. I’d never really thought about the name before.

    The entire building is run very much as part of the City which makes it unique in the court estate.

    For example, the two senior Judges, the Recorder of London and the Common Serjeant of London are both officials within the Corporation.

    There are lots of ceremonial details, too: the highest ranking judge sitting on any given day has one of the Coporation’s more ancient swords placed behind his seat by a Coporation official with a wonderful uniform (which doesn’t happen in any other Crown Court); and the Judges have a formal lunch which is hosted by the Sheriffs of London.

    The biggest shame is that the public galleries are compeletely segretated from the rest of the building so the public cannot see some of the grander spaces, such as the appropriately-titled Grand Hall.

    I also think the power of the Lord Mayor to sit as a Judge is still exercised formally on one occasion a year. It makes a little more sense if one remembers that s/he is the senior magistrate for the city (which is not uncommon) and so would be expected to sit in the magistrates’ court regularly. Indeed, that used to convene in the “Justice Room” of the Mansion House before they created the City of London Magistrates’ Court out of the safe-storage building next door, showing how intertwined justice and the local government were.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    A great article, thank you. Digging into the origins of the word ‘bailey’, it seems to go back to the Latin “baiulure”, meaning to serve, or bear a burden. Which might have appealed to our ancestor’s imagination, and helped cement (!) the relationship between justice and defensive structures. Bailiwick, bailiff both come from the same (and multiple other European words also).

    I wish there was a link between ‘bale’, ‘ball’ and baiulure, sadly I can’t find it!

  3. Maennling Nic says:

    This is a great time to learn new things and this article is a fine example. Thank you.

  4. Duncan Martin says:

    The term Baillie was used in Scotland until local government reorganisation in 1975. It was the equivalent on an alderman in England. In Edinburgh at least every Baillie was honoured by having an additional ornate street lamp outside their house.

  5. John Ward says:

    Thanks for this article. The bailey of a castle was a walled enclosure within which the various buildings of the castle were located. Many royal castles served as locations for courts and prisons. When royal castles were demolished after the 17hC civil wars, they often maintained their royal justice functions (ie. as locations for court and jails) functions in new buildings. There has always been discussion about where the Anglo-Saxon royal palace was located in the City prior to Edward the Confessor moving away and building his palace and abbey at Westminster. Perhaps the Old Bailey may be the site of the original Anglo-Saxon royal Castle at the City. It is interesting to consider that royal justice in London may have functioned at this site for a thousand years or more. Perhaps archaeologists in the future may shed some light on this subject.

  6. Richard Goodwin says:

    Although nothing to do with its name, the Lord Mayor link has some other odd rituals. I was called up to serve on a jury once, in the day that 2 large limousines turned up with an enormous gold mace sticking out of the window of one of them. They knocked on a door normally kept locked – reminiscent of Black Rod – and proceeded into a court. All sitting jury members (sadly not me, as I hadn’t been put on a case yet), barristers and officials filed into the court, and were given posies of flowers – we were told because of the stench that would have been prevalent at the time – and the court session opened. 5 minutes later, the whole thing was over, but it serves to remind us that it’s still the City’s courthouse, loaned to the Government.

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