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Famous Bow Street Magistrates Court to close

One of London's most famous courts, which saw the trials of Oscar Wilde and D.H. Lawrence, is closing Friday.
Bow Street Magistrates Court Closes
Some of England's most notorious criminals have appeared in London's Bow Street Magistrates Court, which opened in 1881.Scott Barbour / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of London’s most famous courts — where suspected terrorists, petty thieves and prostitutes mingle with the ghosts of Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence and generations of killers — is closing Friday.

With the end of Bow Street Magistrates Court goes a living monument in the development of British justice and a tangible link to the genesis of the capital’s police service, descended from a posse created in 1749 by a former magistrate, the novelist Henry Fielding.

“We range from the very trivial offenses — begging, prostitution, and the sort of very low-level crime ... to the highly dangerous, and allegations of mass murder and all sorts of things,” Chief Magistrate Timothy Workman said Thursday, sitting among packing boxes signifying his imminent departure to new quarters.

That breadth of responsibility will remain the hallmark of the new City of Westminster Magistrates Court, which will absorb Bow Street’s functions and staff.

The old court and police station at Bow Street, opened in 1881 opposite the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, has been sold and may become a hotel.

Workman, 63, the 32nd magistrate to preside at Bow Street, says he hopes to take with him the dock from Court One. A padded bench enclosed by iron railings, the dock stands at the center of the wood-paneled room, facing the magistrate and his clerks. The two-seat press box, near the witness stand, has been known to accommodate nine squashed reporters. The public sits in a glass-enclosed pen at the back.

Seats for suffragettes and a Nazi propagandist
The dock accommodated Wilde, the suffragettes Christabel and Emmline Pankhurst, the wife murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen, the Nazi propagandist William “Lord Haw Haw” Joyce and, more recently, the novelist and perjurer Lord Jeffrey Archer.

Charles Dickens placed the Artful Dodger in the dock at Bow Street — in an earlier building — in “Oliver Twist.”

The court was frequently in the news for handling extradition cases, including terrorist suspects wanted in the United States, Spain and elsewhere.

The former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, arrested in London on a Spanish warrant, was excused from appearing at Bow Street in 1999 because of illness. The court ordered his extradition but was overruled by the British government, and Pinochet went home.

Lawrence’s novel “The Rainbow” was declared obscene by a Bow Street magistrate in 1915. In 1928, “The Well of Loneliness,” by the lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall, suffered a similar fate.

The first Bow Street magistrate, Col. Sir Thomas De Veil, began dispensing justice from a house across the street from the present court in 1735. His successor, Fielding, commissioned half a dozen constables known as the Bow Street Runners in 1749.

Fielding, the author of “Tom Jones,” was dismayed by the squalor he found on Bow Street where, he said, “taverns and houses are kept by persons of the most abandoned character such as bawds and thieves, receivers of stolen goods.”

Criminal voice recognition
Fielding was succeeded by his half brother Sir John Fielding, “the Blind Beak of Bow Street,” who was reputed to recognize 3,000 criminals by their voices. He created the Bow Street Horse Patrol, arming his men with truncheons, cutlasses and pistols.

The libertine Giacomo Casanova appeared in Sir John’s court, accused of abusing a prostitute. Casanova was grateful to be discharged but confused his Fieldings, saying in his memoirs that it was an honor to appear before the great novelist.

The Bow Street Runners vanished in 1829 with the creation of the Metropolitan Police, who put their headquarters at Scotland Yard.

Bow Street’s celebrities are vastly outnumbered by the forgotten losers and thugs and who are the bulk of the court’s business. More than 95 percent of England’s criminal cases originate in the magistrates’ courts; only the most serious cases are referred up for trial by jury.

Reflecting wistfully on the end of a judicial era, the last chief magistrate at Bow Street said he believed its reputation was secure.

“I would like to think that most people don’t look upon it in awe, but do look upon it with great affection,” Workman said. “There is a certain sense of security and history. Really, that goes on.”