John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. [Decorated initial "A" by Thackeray from Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]

decorated initial 'T'he Old Bailey! Ugly words---associated (in a Londoner's mind, at all events) with greasy squalor, crime of every description, a cold, bleak-looking prison, with an awful little iron door, three feet or so from the ground, trial by jury, black caps, bullying counsel, a "visibly affected" judge, prevaricating witnesses, and a miserable, trembling, damp prisoner in the dock. The Old Bailey---or rather the Central Criminal Court, held at the Old Bailey---is, par excellence, the criminal court of the country. In it all the excellences and all the disadvantages of our criminal procedures are developed to an extraordinary degree. The Old Bailey juries are at once more clearsighted and more pig-headed than any country jury. The local judges---that is to say, the Recorder and the Common-Serjeant---are more logical, and more inflexible, and better lawyers than the corresponding dignitaries in any of our session towns. The counsel are keener in their conduct of defences than are the majority of circuit and session counsel; and at the same time the tone of their cross-examinations is not so gentlemanly, and altogether they are less scrupulous in their method of conducting the cases entrusted to them. The witnesses are more intelligent and less trustworthy than country witnesses. The officers of the court keep silence more efficiently, and at the same time are more offensive in their general deportment than the officers of any other court in the kingdom. And lastly, the degree of the prisoners' guilt seems to take a wider scope than it does in cases tried on circuit. More innocent men are charged with crime and more guilty men escape at the Old Bailey than at any other court in the kingdom; because the juries, being Londoners, are more accustomed to look upon the niceties of evidence from a legal point of view, and in many cases come into the jury-box with exaggerated views of what constitutes a 'reasonable doubt,' and so are disposed to give a verdict for the prisoner, when a country jury would convict.

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Four views of the Old Bailey (or Central Criminal Court). [Click on photographs to enlarge them.]

The Old Bailey, although extremely inconvenient, is beautifully compact. You can be detained there between the time of your committal and your trial---you can be tried there, sentenced there, condemned-celled there, and comfortably hanged and buried there, without having to leave the building, except for the purpose of going on to the scaffold. Indeed, recent legislation has removed even this exception, and now there is no occasion to go outside the four walls of the building at all---the thing is done in the paved yard that separates the court-house from the prison. It is as though you were tried in the drawing-room, confined in the scullery, and hanged in the back garden.

The court-house contains, besides ample accomodation for the judges, alder men, common-councilmen, sheriffs, and under-sheriffs, two large courts, called the Old Court and New Court, and two or three secondary courts, which are only used when the pressure of business is rather heavy. The gravest offences are usually tried in the Old Court on the Wednesday or Thursday after the commencement of the session, on which days one or two of the judges from Westminster sit at the Old Bailey. The arrangement of the Old Court may be taken as a tolerably fair sample of a criminal court. The bench occupies one side of the court, and the dock faces it. On the right side of the bench are the jury-box and witness-box; on the left are the seats for privileged witnesses and visitors, and also for the reporters and jurymen in waiting. The space bounded by the bench on one side, the dock on another, the jury-box on a third, and the reporters' box on the fourth, is occupied by counsel and attorneys, the larger half being assigned to the counsel. Over the dock is the public gallery, to which admission was formerly obtained by payment of a fee to the warder [jailor]. It is now free to about thirty of the public at large at one time, who can see nothing of the prisoner except his scalp, and hear very little of what is going on.


The form in which a criminal trial is conducted is briefly as follows: The case is submitted to the grand jury, and if, on examination of one or more of the witnesses for the prosecution, they find a prima facie [at first considering] case against the prisoner, a "true bill" is found, and handed to the clerk of arraigns in open court. The prisoner is then called upon to plead: and, in the event of his pleading "guilty," the facts of the case are briefly stated by counsel, together with a statement of a previous conviction, if the prisoner is an old offender, and the judge passes sentence. If the prisoner pleads "not guilty," the trial proceeds in the following form. The indictment and plea are both read over to the jury by the clerk of arraigns, and they are charged by him to try whether the prisoner is "guilty" or "not guilty." The counsel for the prosecution then opens the case briefly or at length, as its nature may suggest, and then proceeds to call witnesses for the prosecution. At the close of the "examination in chief" of each witness, the counsel for the defence (or, in the absence of counsel for the defence, the prisoner himself) cross-examines. At the conclusion of the examination and cross-examination of the witnesses for the prosecution, the counsel for the prosecution has the privilege of summing up the arguments that support his case. If witnesses are called for the defence, the defending counsel has, also, a right to sum up; and in that case the counsel for the prosecution has a right of reply. The matter is then left in the hands of the judge, who "sums up," placing the facts of the case clearly and impartially before the jury, pointing out discrepancies in the evidence, clearing the case of all superfluous matter, and directing them in all the points of law that arise in the case. The jury then consider their verdict, and, when they are agreed, give it in open court, and the prisoner at the bar is asked whether he has anything to say why the sentence of law shall not be passed upon him. This question is little more than a matter of form, and the judge rarely waits for an answer, but proceeds immediately to pass sentence on the prisoner.

judge A visitor at the Old Bailey, to whom the courts of Westminster or Guildhall are familiar, will probably be very much struck with the difference between the manner in which the Nisi Prius and the criminal barristers are treated by the officials of their respective Courts. At Westminster the ushers, who are most unpleasant in their demeanour towards the public at large, are as deferential in their tone to the bar as so many club servants. Like Kathleen's cow, though vicious to others, they are gentle to them. Indeed, at Westminster the bar are treated by all the officials as gentlemen of position have a right to expect to be. But at the Old Bailey it is otherwise. They appear to be on familiar terms with criers, ushers, thieves' attorneys, clerks, and police serjeants. Attorneys' clerks, of Israelitish aspect, buttonhole them; bumptious criers elbow them right and left, and the policemen on duty at the bar-entrance chaffs them with haughty condescension. Of course there are many gentlemen at the criminal bar whose professional position overawes even this overbearing functionary; but it unfortunately happens that there are a great many needy and unscrupulous practitioners at the Old Bailey, who find it to their advantage to adopt a conciliatory policy towards everybody in office; for it is an unfortunate fact, that almost everybody in office has it in his power, directly or indirectly, to do an Old Bailey barrister a good turn. "Dockers," or briefs handed directly from the prisoner in the dock to counsel, without the expensive intervention of an attorney, are distributed pretty well at the discretion of the warder in the dock, or of the gaoler [warder in prison] to whose custody the prisoner has been entrusted since his committal; and there are a few needy barristers who are not ashamed to allow their clerks to tout among prisoners' friends for briefs at half fees. It is only fair to state, that the counsel who resort to these ungentlemanly dodges form but a small proportion of the barristers who practise at the Old Bailey; but still they are sufficiently numerous to affect most seriously the tone that is adopted by Old Bailey officials towards the bar as a body.



The conventional Old Bailey barrister, however, is a type that is gradually dying out. The rising men at the criminal bar are certainly far from being all that could be desired; but their tone, in cross-examination, is more gentlemanly than that commonly in vogue among Old Bailey barristers of twenty years since. There are a few among them who occasionally attempt to bully, not only the witnesses, but even the judge and jury; but they always get the worst of it. As a rule, cross-examinations are conducted more fairly than they were, and a determination to convict at any price is rarer on the part of a prosecuting counsel than of yore. If some means could be adopted to clear the court of the touting counsel, or, at all events, to render their discreditable tactics inoperative, a great change for the better would be effected in the tone adopted towards the bar by the officials about the court. As it is, it is almost impossible for a young counsel to retain his self-respect in the face of the annoying familiarities of the underlings with whom he is brought into contact. On the occasion of our last visit to the Old Bailey, during the trial of Jeffrey for the murder of his son, we happened to witness a dispute between an insolent policeman, stationed at the bar-entrance, and a young barrister in robes, who was evidently not an habitue [frequenter] of that court. The barrister had a friend with him, and he wanted to get a place for his friend, either in the bar seats, or in the seats set aside for the friends of the bench and bar. The policeman in question placed his arm across the door, and absolutely refused to allow either the barrister or his friend to enter, on the ground that the court was quite full. The barrister sent his card to the under-sheriff, who immediately gave directions that both were to be admitted to the bar-seats, which were occupied by about a fourth of the number which they would conveniently accomodate, about half the people occupying them being friends of counsel who, we suppose, were on more intimate terms with the discourteous functionary than was the barrister in question. On another occasion it came to our knowledge that a barrister, who did not habitually practise at the Old Bailey, was refused admission at the bar entrance to the court-house by the police-sergeant stationed there. He showed his card, but without avail, and eventually he expressed his intention of forcing his way past the policeman, and told that official that if he stopped him he would do so at his peril. The policeman allowed him to pass, but actually told another constable to follow him to the robing-room, to see whether he had any right there or not. The barrister, naturally annoyed at being thus conveyed in custody through the building, complained to one of the under-sheriffs for the time being, but without obtaining the slightest redress. Of course this system of impertinence has the effect of confining Old Bailey practice to a thick-skinned few; but it does not tend to elevate the tone of the bar (of which the Old Bailey barrister is unfortunately generally taken as a type); and those who are jealous for the honour of the profession should take steps to do away with it.

crier To a stranger, a criminal trial is always an interesting sight. If the prisoner happens to be charged with a crime of magnitude, he has become quite a public character by the time he enters the dock to take his trial; and it is always interesting to see how far a public character corresponds with the ideal which we have formed of him. Then his demeanour in the dock, influenced, as it often is, by the fluctuating character of the evidence for and against him, possesses a grim interest for the unaccustomed spectator. He is witnessing a real sensation drama, and as the case draws to a close, if the evidence has been very conflicting, he feels an interest in the issue akin to that with which a sporting man would take in the running of a great race. Then the deliberations of the jury on their verdict, the sharp, anxious look which the prisoner casts ever and anon towards them, the deep breath that he draws as the jury resume their places, the trembling anxiety, or, more affecting still, the preternaturally compressed lips and contracted brow, with which he awaits the publication of their verdict, and his great, deep sigh of relief when he knows the worst, must possess a painful interest for all but those whom familiarity with such scenes has hardened. Then comes the sentence, followed, perhaps, by a woman's shriek from the gallery, and all is over, as far as the spectator is concerned. The next case is called on, and new facts and new faces soon obliterate any painful effect which the trial may have had upon his mind.


Probably the first impression on the mind of a man who visits the Old Bailey for the first time is that he never saw so many ugly people collected in any one place before. The judges are not handsome men, as a rule, the aldermen on the bench never are; barristers, especially Old Bailey barristers, are the ugliest of professional men, excepting always solicitors; the jury have a bull-headed look about them that suggests that they have been designedly selected from the most stupid of their class; the reporters are usually dirty, and of evil savour; the understrappers [subordinates] have a bloated, overfed, Bumble-like look about them, which is always a particularly annoying thing to a sensitive mind; and the prisoner, of course, looks (whether guilty or innocent) the most ruffianly of mankind, for he stands in the dock. We remember seeing a man tried for burglary some time since, and we came to the conclusion that he had the most villanous face with which a man could be cursed. The case against him rested on the testimony of as nice-looking and ingenious a lad as ever stepped into a witness-box. But, unfortunately for the ingenious lad, a clear alibi was established, the prisoner was immediately acquitted, and the nice boy, his accuser, was trotted into the dock on a charge of perjury. The principal witness against him was the former prisoner, and we were perfectly astounded at the false estimate we had formed of their respective physiognomies [judgments of character based on facial expressions]. The former prisoner's face was, we found, homely enough; but it absolutely beamed with honest enthusiasm in the cause of justice, while the nice lad's countenance turned out to be the very type of sly, insidious rascality. It is astonishing how the atmosphere of the dock inverts the countenance of any one who may happen to be in it. And this leads us to the consideration how surpassingly beautiful must that ballet-girl have been, who, even in the dock, exercised so extraordinary a fascination over a learned deputy-judge at the Middlesex sessions not long ago. We remember once to have heard a well-known counsel, who was defending a singularly ill-favoured prisoner, say to the jury, "Gentlemen, you must not allow yourselves to be carried away by any effect which the prisoner's appearance may have upon you. Remember, he is in the dock; and I will undertake to say, that if my lord were to be taken from the bench upon which he is sitting, and placed where the prisoner is now standing, you, who are unaccustomed to criminal trials, would find, even in his lordship's face, indications of crime which you would look for in vain in any other situation!" In fairness we withhold the learned judge's name.

Perhaps the most ill-favoured among this ill-favoured gathering are to be found among the thieves' attorneys. There are some Old Bailey attorneys who are respectable men, and it often happens that a highly-respectable solicitor has occasion to pay an exceptional visit to this establishment, just as queen's counsel standing at Nisi Prius are often employed in cases of grave importance; but these solicitors of standing are the exception, and the dirty, cunning-looking, hook-nosed, unsavoury little Jews, with thick gold rings on their stubby fingers, and crisp black hair curling down their backs, the rule. They are the embodiment of meat, drink, washing, and professional reputation to the needy barristers whom they employ, and, as such, their intimacy is, of course, much courted and in great request. Of course many Old Bailey barristers are utterly independent of this ill-favoured race; but there are, unfortunately, too many men to be found whose only road to professional success lies in the good-will of these gentry. There are, among the thieves' lawyers, men of acute intelligence and honourable repute, and who do their work extremely well; but the majority of them are sneaking, underhand, grovelling practitioners, who are utterly unrecognized by men of good standing.

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Created 12 October 2011

Last modified 11 September 2022