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A guide to the UK’s historic legal buildings

2nd October 2017

Judge's gavel

The British legal system is widely regarded as one of the finest in the world. The histories of the UK’s various courts of law stretch back over centuries and have long acted as a benchmark of how justice can be administered by many emerging democracies.

Whilst most students of law based both in the UK and overseas rightly pay the most attention to the many extraordinary trials, their judgements and the consequences of these decisions, it should not be forgotten that the very buildings where these decisions take place are themselves often worthy of study.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the architecture and heritage of some of Britain’s finest and most significant legal buildings. And, whilst you will doubtless be familiar with most of the buildings discussed below, we are also confident that the information provided will allow you to learn a thing or two about some places which, although not the most widely-known, nevertheless hold an important place in the history of our country’s justice system.

The Old Bailey

Old Bailey

We, of course, had to begin our article with a look at the Old Bailey.

To help us with this task, we spoke to Tim and Joe Wood who, between them, run Old Bailey Insight & Legal London Tours – a company which provides fascinating talks, tours and seminars on both the Old Bailey itself and the Royal Courts of Justice, which we will discuss a little later on.

With several decades of experience reporting on many of the most high-profile cases to have passed through the Old Bailey, Tim and Joe were a natural choice to tell us more about the history of this wonderful old building and, we think you will agree, it makes for quite extraordinary reading!

“The Old Bailey is probably the most famous court in the world and has been a sink of human misery for hundreds of years.

“Built on the site of the old Newgate prison, the area has been the scene of floggings, mutilations, pressings (if a defendant refused to plead guilty), burnings at the stake and hangings. One man was boiled to death.

“Up to 20 people could be hanged at a time, attracting up to 100,000 spectators.

“A small bribe to the hangman could ensure a quick death, with him pulling down on the legs of the condemned man to ensure the neck snapped without too much suffering.

“Local pubs, such as the Magpie and Stump, would hire out rooms offering views of the scene. But in 1868 public hangings were abolished due to civil unrest.

Old Bailey

“There was no specific courthouse in London until 1539; rooms were hired close to Newgate Prison to hear cases. The prison itself was riddled with disease and inmates were serviced by a stream of prostitutes. If you were rich your life in prison could be made quite comfortable. One man who was held there for 40 years brought up six children behind bars. But for the poor it was a living hell - more people died of disease than were executed.

“The Old Bailey as we know it today was first opened in 1907. In 1972 a new block of 12 courts was built, bringing the total number of courts to 18. The building takes its name from the Old Bailey road that runs along the front of the court. The correct name for the courthouse is the Central Criminal Court. It is one of several Crown Courts across the country that deals solely with criminal cases.

“There is said to be an Old Bailey ghost, which appears when travesties of justice occur. The black-cloaked figure is believed to be the spirit of a man wrongly accused of being a highwayman, who was hanged and buried in lime on the site where the court now stands.

“The oak-panelled courtrooms have been the setting for some of the most infamous trials in world criminal history. Daniel Defoe, Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Kray Twins, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and, more recently, Soham murderer Ian Huntley have all faced their nemesis in the Old Bailey dock.”

Royal Courts of Justice

Royal Courts of Justice

Only marginally less famous than the Old Bailey, the Royal Courts of Justice is another impressive architectural achievement which – as it holds the Court of Appeal and the High Court – has been the scene of many dramatic legal episodes over the years.

Tim and Joe at Old Bailey Insight & Legal London Tours were again on hand to educate us about some of the finer points of this grand old building:

“The Royal Courts of Justice, commonly known as the Law Courts, is revered as a Gothic masterpiece of pinnacles, turret-topped towers, and is very much the epicentre of Legal London.

“It was proposed in 1866, when it was decided that a number of London courts should be brought together under one roof. A competition was launched to find the best design. It was won, ironically, by a trained solicitor, George Edmund Street.

“Work began on Street’s Victorian Gothic design in 1873 and it took more than eight years to build the structure, largely because of a masons’ strike that caused a temporary stoppage of work. Supplies came in through a secret underground tunnel.

“The finished building contained 35 million Portland stone bricks, more than three-and-a-half miles of corridor and over 1,000 clocks (many of these have to be wound by hand; a man dubbed ‘The Dawn Winder’ by BBC Radio 4 comes in a couple of mornings every week to do this).

“Queen Victoria opened the building in December 1882. Unfortunately, Street had died a year before his masterpiece was completed; it was said that it was the stress of overseeing the project that killed him.

“In total, it cost about £2.2 million to purchase the land, clear the 400-odd slum houses that occupied the site and then build the structure. 4,000 people were displaced by the project.

“The Royal Courts of Justice is divided into a number of divisions, each of which has its own courts. The Royal Courts of Justice building accommodates both the Court of Appeal and the High Court.

“The Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) truly is at the heart of legal London – it lies at the centre of the ‘Inns of Court’, which are, in effect, the training and trade associations for barristers in England and Wales.”

It is also worth noting that Old Bailey Insight & Legal London will be hosting a special ‘Crime and Punishment’ seminar on 28th November in the capital, which looks like it will be a fascinating event. Featuring talks from and question and answer sections with one of the UK’s top criminal barristers, a former chief constable and a businessman who claims he was framed by the police, it promises to be an evening of entertainment unlike any other you will have experienced this year. More information is available here.

Palace of Westminster

Palace of Westminster

It goes without saying that the Palace of Westminster (home to the Houses of Commons and Lords), commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, is one of the most important and widely recognised institutions in the UK, not just in terms of its place in legal history but in public life in general.

Most of the UK’s important laws are first put forward in either of the palace’s two chambers – usually the House of Commons – before being debated (often fiercely) by members of both Houses.  

As anyone who follows current affairs in the UK will be aware, this is rather simplifying the dramatic and passionate nature of creating and passing legislation but, whether or not you have a love of politics, the Palace of Westminster itself is well worth a visit.

All manner of guided tours are available around the palace, which will enlighten you as to its colourful history and that of its two law-making chambers. More information on how and when you can visit is available here.  

The Speech House

The Verderers' Court at The Speech House

One historic location which you may not have heard of before but which is more than worthy of a place on our list is The Speech House in the Forest of Dean.

Now an idyllic hotel and wedding venue, this quaint yet impressive location is a fascinating example of how UK justice worked in the royal forests in the days before a fully integrated, nationwide criminal justice system was introduced.

The team at the hotel were on hand to tell us more about Speech House’s unique history, as well as that of the ‘Verderers’ – the name given to judicial officers of the royal forests – who are still appointed today, although they happily no longer tend to mete out their historically draconian punishments!

The building

Oak chair in the Verderers' court

“The Speech House was originally built as a Hunting Lodge for Charles II and was built in 1669. It became an Inn in 1841 and was extended in 1861. It was known as the King’s Lodge before being renamed the Speech House.

“The Speech House obtained its name from being the House at the centre of the Forest (the Parliament), where the court was held and afterwards the King’s Speeches and proclamations were announced to the inhabitants of the forest.

“Speech House’s four heavily carved oak chairs which date back to 1820 were donated by the Crawshea family, who were mining engineers and lived locally in Gloucester. A few years ago the dark oak chairs were stolen from the hotel and were moved around the country before being returned to London where they were placed in an auction house. The auctioneer recognised the logo and quality of the chairs and checked with the police to see if they had been stolen. They were subsequently returned to the Speech House some years ago where they continue to be displayed but are now secured and alarmed.

“In the Court there are two spades hanging on the wall. The spades were first used in April 1957 by HRH Queen Elizabeth II when she visited and planted two oak trees across the road in the forest near the hotel. Theses spades were used again 57 years to the day when HRH Earl & Countess of Wessex (Edward and Sophie) planted two oak trees out at the front of the hotel.


Royal coat of arms in the Verderers' court

“The word Verderer comes from the French ‘vert’, meaning ‘green’. They were originally appointed by Canute the Dane under Forest Laws which were passed in 1016. Under Canute, the Verderers had the power to strip a man of his skin and nail it to the door of the Court House as a warning to all transgressors.

“The Verderers were the custodians of the Greenery (the forest and everything within).

“There are only two Verderers Courts in the UK - the other is in the New Forest at Lyndhurst.

“To become a Verderer one must be from within the statutory Forest, male, over 21 and of good character. To be elected the candidates give a short presentation. At the end of the presentations the audience vote for their favoured candidate. Once selected the candidate’s details are sent to London to be ratified by the crown.

“A Verderer is a position granted for life. Verderers do not get paid but are entitled to one doe and buck a year from the forest plus a bag of coal and a bundle of wood.

“In the old days the Verderers had the power to try the people brought before them for such things as poaching, stealing and general misdemeanours within the forest. They had power to:

  • Hang people. There was a gibbet outside the hotel.
  • Flog people. There is still a whipping post in one of the bedrooms.
  • Transport people. In the 1800s Warren James was sentenced to be transported to Tasmania. He was pardoned five years later but decided to stay there.

“Very few people brought before the court escaped without punishment.”

St George’s Hall

Court at St George's Hall, Liverpool

St George’s Hall in Liverpool is included in this list both because of its reputation as a particularly wonderful example of neoclassical architecture, and because it is one of the more unusual buildings to have functioned as a criminal court.

The building – which is officially recognised as part of the city’s World Heritage Site area – was built in the 1840s and 1850s, initially as a venue for the regular music festivals which Liverpool used to hold.

However, it was later decided that St George’s Hall would also be a fitting location for the assize courts which the city needed, meaning that the building would soon hold the very unusual dual roles of being Liverpool’s centre for both entertainment and criminal justice!

Although the building ceased to be used as a court in the mid-1980s, its heritage is still very much recognised by locals and visitors and it is also often used as a substitute filming location for television programmes set in London’s Old Bailey.

Regular tours of St George’s Hall are held throughout the year (more information is available here), whilst the building also now doubles as one of Liverpool’s most popular wedding and conference venues.

Judge's gavel

So, whether you are currently browsing legal vacancies in London, are a student of law in the UK or overseas, or are just interested in fine architecture, we are sure you’ll agree that there are plenty of historically fascinating buildings with a distinctly legal flavour for you to discover, both in the capital and beyond.

Image Credits: Brian Turner, Ryan Baumann, Cristian Bortes, Maurice, The Speech House Hotel, Michael D Beckwith, Ben Sutherland, Joe Gratz