Old Bailey Opens
A court of sorts has been held on the site of the Old Bailey since medieval days, supposedly with money provided by Lord Mayor Dick Whittington enabling the necessary accommodations to be established. This court was held within the prison on the site – the infamous Newgate. The original building was destroyed along with much of the rest of London in the Great Fire in 1666 , but was replaced in 1674, this version in turn being refronted in 1734. A further rebuilding took place in 1774, with an extension added to allow for a second courtroom in 1824.
The Old Bailey – so called because it sits on the street of that name, which runs along the line of the old city walls, the bailey – has been officially known as the Central Criminal Court since 1834. In one of those confusions arising out of ownership and history, the building still belongs to the Corporation of the City of London, and the Lord Mayor has the right to sit with the judges during trials if he or she so please, though taking no active part in the proceedings.
Since 1856 the court has been used to try major cases from around the country, rather than just those originating out of crimes committed in the City and Middlesex – this situation arose when the Harold Shipman of his day, Doctor William Palmer, was thought unable to obtain a fair trial in his native Staffordshire , so an act of Parliament was passed authorising the trial of significant cases at the Old Bailey.
A fire damaged the old building in 1877, and with the swiftness for which British justice is renowned a new one was planned by E.W. Mountford and duly constructed – the official opening taking place on February 27 1907, King Edward VII personally attending the event.
The Baroque building, fronted with Portland stone, and with acres of marble inside, is a well known backdrop to TV news reports, its dome topped with a gilded statue of ‘lady justice.’ Unlike the American version, however, the British lady justice is tellingly not blindfolded: thus the inscription above the main entrance; ‘defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer’ has often had an ironic ring – the Guildford Four were found guilty there, for example. And the availability of justice according to the thickness of a person's wallet is emphasized by the ceremonial gates of the court only being used for visits by royalty and the Lord Mayor.
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