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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Bow Street bows out
By Rory MacLean
BBC News

Bow St and its famous defendants

Casanova, the Kray twins, Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Pankhursts and Lord Archer have all been reluctant visitors. But this week the historic Bow Street Magistrates' Court closes its doors after some 270 years, to be turned into a hotel.

In the corridor outside Court Two at Bow Street, Frederick is waiting for sentence. He is 76 years old and a self-confessed burglar, hoping for a community-based sentence, but facing the prospect of prison.

Frederick had first seen the inside of the courts, in London's West End, in the late 1940s. He describes it as being like a railway station, with the bustle of police, lawyers, vagrants and prostitutes.

But the street's legal history goes back much further. Its first magistrate was Sir Thomas de Veil who began dispensing justice in 1735. His court was in a house on the opposite side of the road to the present Victorian court building, where the Royal Opera House now stands.

Sir Thomas, credited with four wives and 25 children, was succeeded by Henry Fielding, author of The History of Tom Jones and the creator of the Bow Street Runners, the forerunners of the modern police force.

Blind justice

Fielding was succeeded by his half-brother, known as Blind Jack. And a description of his time as magistrate appears in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, who was accused of intending grievous bodily harm to the "person of a pretty girl".

Bow Street
Since 1735, Bow St has seen famous and infamous defendants
"I went into the hall of justice and all eyes were at once attracted towards me; my silks and satins appeared to them the height of impertinence," wrote Casanova.

"At the end of the room I saw a gentleman sitting in an arm-chair and concluded him to be my judge. I was right, and the judge was blind. He wore a broad band round his head, passing over his eyes.

"'Signor Casanova,' said he in excellent Italian. 'Be kind enough to step forward. I wish to speak to you.'"

Blind Jack released Casanova on the surety of two householders that he would not commit such a crime.

Casanova heads a famous cast list of defendants who have appeared at Bow St. Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, Emmeline and Christobel Pankhurst, William Joyce, the World War II propagandist, and more recently Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Lord Archer and former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken.

Most appeared at Bow St because the courts are a legal gateway to the Old Bailey and the Crown Courts.

Charles Dickens, in a newspaper report, described the appearance of some of the defendants in the 19th Century.

"There were other prisoners - boys of 10, as hardened in vice as men of 50 - a houseless vagrant, going joyfully to prison as a place for food and shelter, handcuffed to a man whose prospects were ruined, character lost and family rendered destitute by his first offence."

Extradition cases

Bow St's business will be transferred to Horseferry Road Magistrates' Courts, which from now on will be called City of Westminster Magistrates' Courts. And the buildings will be transformed into luxury hotel.

Casanova, as played by Frank Finlay
Casanova, charged and released
In the warren of basement corridors beneath the courthouse, archivist Juli Field has been searching out the historic papers that need to be saved and moved. Files bear names from the past. One has "Krays" on it and, by chance, nearby is a file on their south London counterparts the Richardsons.

She, like the other staff, is very sad to be leaving the premises but maintains that the history will come with them to the court's new home.

Also moving will be Bow St's unique jurisdiction in England and Wales for deciding requests for extradition by other countries.

Perhaps the most famous of these (although he never actually appeared at the courts) was General Augusto Pinochet. The District Judge at Bow Street upheld Spain's request to extradite the man accused of being involved in the deaths of Spanish nationals in Chile.

However the home secretary of the time, Jack Straw, had the final say - he ruled that the general should be allowed to return to Chile instead.

Past glories

Chief Magistrate of England and Wales Tim Workman is constantly reminded of Bow St's history.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde faced charges in 1895
The chief magistrate's room is imposingly large. Two dark marble fireplaces stand sentinel at either end of the room. Above one, with a print of Blind Jack Fielding in the centre, a board lists the 32 chief magistrates before Senior District Judge Workman. He is the last in the line here.

Mr Workman accepts that Bow Street is no longer suitable in terms of security and premises for the 21st Century, but, like his staff, is sad to be leaving the buildings.

Outside Court Two, Frederick the elderly burglar is pleased his lawyer's submission, coupled with the probation report, has seen him escape a prison sentence.

He has been given a suspended sentence and a community supervision order. Is he sad that Bow Street is closing? "There are other courts," he replies.

A programme charting the building's last days will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 14 July at 1100 BST.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Having appeared at Bow St many times (as a police officer), I too am sad to see it closing. The police station next door is also closed, the Metropolitan Police having refused to turn it into a museum. The court was always busy and had a special atmosphere and commanded respect with officers turning out in their smartest uniform and even defendants making the effort. Unfortunately with the sate of security more of these old buildings are closing, hopefully the new owners of the building will keep its long history on show for all to see.
Fraser Bishop, Staines, England

I can't believe that such an historic building is going to become an hotel of all things. It would make an ideal national criminal museum. Come on, Londoners, don't let such a national treasure be destroyed.
Mike, Cardiff

You failed to mention Bertie Wooster.
Andy, Hamilton, Scotland

As a police officer I was sworn in at Bow Street Magistrates Court in 1977. It was a tradition to go there for this because of the courts long history and fame.
Stephen Scott, Morpeth, Northumberland

I spent 10 years working at the Court between 1989 and 2000 and though it had its ups and downs, I have some fond memories of my time there. I left when my colleagues were being shifted over to Horseferry Road. I wonder if anyone who knows me still works there? Maybe when I'm rich I'll spend a night in the new hotel!
Sharon Bowe, Barnet, Hertfordshire

Sadly, this seems like just another part of Britain's rich heritage gone to fuel the tourist industry.
Charlotte Sanders, London, England

Bow Street was always good for a bit of a snigger, with all the juicey tidbits about who had been hauled into its court for various sins - "drunk and disorderly", " shoplifting in Harrods", and of course the well-known characters of stage and screen charged with "soliciting for immoral purposes in a public toilet". Halcyon days.
John Bowles (expat Englishman), New Rochelle, New York

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