WITNESS A CRIMINAL CASE AT THE MOST FAMOUS COURTROOM IN THE WORLD
There has been a criminal court on the site of the Old Bailey since the 16th Century and a jail for over 1,000 years. Various fires and attacks have seen the court rebuilt time and time again; the famous domed Old Bailey as we now know it opened in 1907. Anyone can watch the proceedings of a court case from the public galleries without any bookings or fees.
The Old Bailey, London EC4M 7EH, United Kingdom
READ MAHRUKH MCDONALD’S STORY
Stepping into Court One at the Old Bailey, where the walls still echo with some of the most heinous criminal cases, can be an eerie experience. This courtroom has witnessed the country’s more notorious trials, including those of the Kray twins, who instilled terror throughout East London during the 1950s and ’60s; Dr. Crippen, whose wife’s torso was discovered under the basement floor in 1910; Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, convicted in 1981 of the murder of 13 women and attempted murders of seven others; Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 12 young men in the 1980s; and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, who was convicted of murdering her lover.
Ten minutes before the afternoon session was due to start, we rang the bell at the Newgate Street door and waited for a guard to invite us in for a security check. After going through security – no phones*, cameras, or large bags (including backpacks) are allowed in – we climbed three flights of stairs to a large waiting area with a prominent sign forbidding you from discussing cases in public areas.
Visitors have to stay for a minimum of 30 minutes for each case so as not to cause too much disturbance to the proceedings. That didn’t prove to be a problem for us at all – we got so caught up with the case, we ended up spending the entire afternoon there!
Some things have changed at the Old Bailey since the early days. Today, there are laptops and iPads where once there were inkwells and ledgers. Some things haven’t changed – all the court officials, including the judge and barristers, still dress in robes and wigs.
From the old oak public gallery, we had a bird’s eye view of the courtroom, including the accused – a young man accused of armed robbery – seated meekly in the dock. It was a fascinating experience with the barristers presenting their cases, calling witnesses to the stand, and the judge ensuring the legal validity of the claims made. We heard him many times state, “I have to, at all times, remain totally impartial so need to view all relevant information.”
The accused had previous convictions that the jury was not allowed to hear, and they were asked to leave the courtroom a few times during the proceedings when this topic needed to be discussed between the legal team and the judge. We in the public gallery were privy to this information, which made it all the more exciting. Unfortunately, the case was not concluded in that session and was held over for another day, which meant we did not find out the fate of the accused.
The public galleries are open on weekdays from 9:55 a.m. to 12.40 p.m. and again from 1:55 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. Visitors are not allowed anywhere else in the building aside from the occasional open days or on paid tours when you can see the famous dome from the inside, but we will definitely return to the Old Bailey to witness another case.
Did You Know? These days, 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. There was once a secret tunnel that ran from the church opposite to the Old Bailey so the chaplain could avoid crowds while visiting the Bailey to give condemned prisoners their last rites.
* We left our phones at the travel agents just a couple of minutes walk down the Old Bailey street for a small fee.
Feature photograph copyright a4stockphotos – stock.adobe.com
Building photograph copyright Alena – stock.adobe.com