English Interrogation Law
London’s Great Fire of 1666 began in the shop of Charles II’s baker on Pudding Lane.1 By the time it died out three days later, it had burned 436 acres, 15 of 26 wards, 13,200 homes, 400 streets, 89 churches, and many schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public structures.2 A monument marks the spot where the fire stopped. The inscription notes that the fire began at Pudding Lane and ended at Pye Corner, evidence, according to a “non-conformist preacher,” that the fire manifested God’s wrath on London for the sin of gluttony.3
The Great Fire destroyed London’s medieval courthouse.4 A replacement, Justice Hall, was completed in 1674 but quickly became known by the street on which it was located. Old Bailey Street followed the lines of the original fortified wall that was called a “bailey.” The three-story, Italian-style brick building was conveniently located close to Newgate Prison, still standing (and polluting the air) five centuries after its construction. In front of the courthouse was the Sessions House Yard, where litigants, witnesses, and court personnel could gather. The area inside the wall, where prisoners awaited trial, was called the bail dock. It was separated from the street by a brick wall with spikes on top to keep prisoners from escaping.
The ground floor had no walls, allowing fresh air to circulate and decrease the risk that “gaol fever”—typhus—would spread from the prisoners to others in the courtroom.5 While that was probably a good idea, imagine the Old Bailey in the winter months when rain, cold, fog, sooty air, and the fetid smell of Newgate Prison would attend the proceedings. The accused stood at “the bar” facing the witness box; the jurors were seated on both sides of the accused. The judges were on the other side of the courtroom.
The great value of the Old Bailey to historians is that, from the beginning, records were kept of the trials. The earlier records are sparse, but a sparse record is better than none.