London’s Old Bailey Criminal Court

History Of London's Old Bailey Court

The Old Bailey Criminal Court, nestled in the heart of London has a storied history, intertwined with the city’s own evolution and notable cases that have graced the halls of the Old Bailey.

I. Why is London Court Called Old Bailey?

The name “Old Bailey” has roots in both linguistic evolution and historical context. In the early Middle Ages, the area was known as “bailey,” a term derived from the Old French word “baillie,” meaning a fortified enclosure. Over time, it came to signify a courtyard or open space within a castle or fortified settlement.

The prefix “Old” was added to distinguish this court from the nearby Newgate Gaol, creating the moniker “Old Bailey.” As Newgate became increasingly associated with confinement, the Old Bailey emerged as a separate entity, devoted exclusively to Court functions.

The term “Old Bailey” therefore encapsulates the historical evolution of the court’s location since “Bailey” denoted a fortified courtyard, reflecting its original purpose within the ancient walls of London. Over time, this designation evolved to represent the very essence of justice and jurisprudence within the city.

The Old Bailey’s history is intrinsically linked to that of Newgate Prison, which stood in close proximity. Newgate, established in the 12th century, was initially a gate in the city wall, later evolving into a notorious prison. As Newgate became increasingly associated with confinement, the Old Bailey emerged as a distinct entity devoted solely to the administration of justice.

Together, they formed a formidable duo, with Newgate providing the backdrop for the incarceration of those awaiting trial at the Old Bailey.

III. Cases Tried at the Old Bailey

The Old Bailey, renowned for its jurisdiction over serious criminal cases, primarily handles trials for offences committed within the Greater London area. These encompass a wide range of crimes, including but not limited to:

  1. Homicide Cases: From murder to manslaughter, the Old Bailey presides over some of the most serious criminal offences, ensuring that justice is served for victims and their families.
  2. Sexual Offences: Cases involving sexual assault, rape, and other related crimes fall within the purview of the Old Bailey, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding the rights and well-being of victims.
  3. Theft and Robbery: The court addresses cases of theft, burglary, and robbery, underlining the significance of property rights and public safety.
  4. Fraud and White-Collar Crimes: The Old Bailey also handles complex cases related to financial crimes, fraud, and corporate malfeasance, reflecting the evolving nature of criminal activity in modern society.

IV. Famous Old Bailey Cases

  1. Jack the Ripper (1888): The notorious serial killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorized the Whitechapel district of London in the late 19th century. The gruesome murders of several women remain some of the most infamous unsolved crimes in history.
  2. Oscar Wilde (1895): The celebrated playwright Oscar Wilde faced trial at the Old Bailey on charges of “gross indecency” due to his homosexual relationships. His conviction and subsequent imprisonment marked a pivotal moment in the history of LGBTQ+ rights.
  3. Ruth Ellis (1955): Ruth Ellis, a nightclub hostess, became the last woman to be executed in the United Kingdom. She was convicted of murdering her lover, David Blakely, in a crime of passion.
  4. Moors Murders (1966): Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were tried at the Old Bailey for the gruesome murders of five children in the 1960s. The case shocked the nation and led to significant changes in criminal law and justice procedures.
  5. IRA Bombings (1970s): Numerous trials related to bombings carried out by the Irish Republican Army in London were held at the Old Bailey. These cases highlighted the ongoing struggle for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.


The Old Bailey stands as an indelible symbol steeped in the history and legacy of London itself.

From its humble beginnings as a fortified enclosure to its current status, the Old Bailey Court has borne witness to some of the most significant and impactful trials in British and world history.