At the opening ceremony for the Central Criminal Court in 1907, the Recorder of London, Sir Forrest Fulton, addressed King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra:

We trust that this building, whilst well adapted for the transaction of legal business, also possesses architectural features at once dignified and beautiful, which will make it an ornament to the metropolis of your Empire and a fitting home for the first Criminal Court of Justice in your Majesty’s dominion.”

The Edwardian spirit of optimism, with its appeal to the majesty of empire, was of its time. But the 1907 building, which continues to house part of the Old Bailey, was in other respects a bridge between the early modern and modern forms of the English criminal justice system.

The immediate context for the 1907 building was a fire in 1877, which damaged the 1774 courthouse and the neighbouring Newgate Prison. The City of London Corporation (which remains the owner and administrator of the Central Criminal Court building) was forced to act. Both buildings were demolished and Edward Mountford was appointed as architect, to design a building in the neo-Baroque style. (Mountford’s portrait can still be seen in the Great Hall, on the ceiling outside court 3.) Mountford was known for the blending of sculpture, art and architecture: a feature of the 1907 building, with its famous dome-top sculpture of Justice by FW Pomeroy (which in turn inspired the name of the Fleet Street wine-bar, frequented by Horace Rumpole) and its striking murals (added to in 1954, following damage to the building in the Blitz).

It was not the first time that the courtrooms had been rebuilt. The site at Newgate had been used since the late medieval period as a prison. Nearby courtrooms had developed as a matter of convenience, probably around the time that the prison was redeveloped following the endowment of Richard Whittington (the four-time Lord Mayor of London). The Great Fire destroyed the buildings in 1666, following which they were reconstructed in 1674. A notable feature of the 1674 building was that it had one side open to the weather to prevent the spread of “gaol fever” (typhus) and giving a more literal meaning to the concept of “open justice”. In 1734, the building was re-fronted in an attempt to reduce the influence of spectators. However, regular outbreaks of disease followed including, in 1750, when 60 people died including the Lord Mayor and two judges. The building was reconstructed again in 1774 and a second courtroom was added in 1824.

By the mid-nineteenth century the basic architecture of English courtrooms was fixed in its modern form: arranged to emphasise the contest between the accused and the rest of the court. The accused stood in the dock, directly facing the witness box, jurors to the side (well placed to examine the facial expressions of those giving testimony – or the subject of it). Seated below the judges were the clerks, lawyers and note-takers of the proceedings. Behind the jurors was a viewing gallery for the public, though fees were still charged for admission. The 1907 building followed this form but with two notable changes. First, the new courtrooms included electric lighting, replacing the nineteenth-century practice of gas lighting combined with a mirrored reflector to reflect light from the windows onto the face of the accused. Second, the new courtrooms did not include irons for the binding of convicts’ hands were they to be sentenced to branding.

A feature of the 1907 building was its generous purpose-built accommodation for lawyers, witnesses, jurors and members of the public. Facilities for court users had an important practical purpose in avoiding the difficulties which had arisen from using local public houses as waiting rooms – both in terms of limiting the influence of drink and frustrating the local economy which had built up in the purchase of fabricated testimony. Separate rooms were now provided for male and female witnesses, as well as witnesses of “the better class”. The courtrooms, for the first time, included benches for the press who were by now a vital conduit to the public for information about trials.

In these ways, Mountford’s design was eminently suitable for the transaction of legal business, but as the Recorder rightly acknowledged, it was also dignified and beautiful. The interior lobbies and monumental staircase were faced with Sicilian marble and ornate mosaic arches. Allegorical paintings, representing Labour, Art, Wisdom and Truth decorated the ceilings of the Great Hall, with sculptures of Temperance, Charity, Mercy and Justice reflecting the late Victorian social compact between virtue and fairness.

The wider context for the 1907 re-building of the Central Criminal Court was a wave of reform to the criminal justice system which had commenced around the mid-nineteenth century and resulted in a landscape which is recognisable to the present day. Among other matters, a Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1864-66) had narrowly concluded against abolition of the death penalty, though it did recommend an end to public executions (brought about in 1868). The Prisoners’ Counsel Act 1836 had entrenched, for the first time, a right to legal representation in felony proceedings and a right to give evidence in one’s defence was eventually secured in 1898. Steps had also been taken towards the establishment of a public defence fund – the forerunner to legal aid (finally established in 1930).

In 1908, a criminal division was established for the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Appeal Act 1907. This superseded the Court for Crown Cases Reserved, to which referral was solely discretionary and limited to considering points of law. Despite initial opposition amongst the senior judiciary, politicians and the Bar, the appellate court proved to be a significant influence on the development of procedure and the law of evidence in the century that followed. 1908 also saw, under the Children Act, the abolition of the death penalty for children under the age of 16.

Responding to the Recorder’s address at the opening of the ‘new’ Bailey, in 1907, the King praised a more enlightened approach to criminal justice and condemned the “barbarous legal code” of a century before. In a vivid illustration of Abraham Lincoln’s famous adage about pleasing all of the people all of the time, however, the author of the 1908 official subscription to the Proceedings of the Old Bailey noted that there were “many who think that the artistic decoration has been carried too far for a court of criminal justice”.