Saving the Assizes - a new home for the Wiltshire Museum

The Building


The former Assize Courts in Northgate Street, designed by the architect T.H. Wyatt in 1835, was one of a number of prestigious public buildings which were part of the development of Devizes as an administrative centre in the 19th century. The building stands on the north side of the road in a prominent position at the approach to the Market Place and alongside the imposing Wadworth Brewery of 1885.


The building is listed grade II* and described as follows.

Symmetrical group of Bath stone buildings in Grecian style. One storey. High central portico of four Ionic columns on stone base approached by five stone steps between rectangular stone bastions. The columns carry a complete entablature and pediment with carved Coat of Arms in tympanum. The entablature is returned each side over side walls, terminating in projecting pier formation behind outer columns and enclosing lobby with three entrance doors, the outer ones now blocked with windows set in upper part. Very tall central six panel double door framed with pilasters and entablature carried round lobby as string course. The blocked flanking doors have similar surrounds. The outer wall entablature has stele cresting over cornice. The entablature carried round walls of court rooms to rear, all of same height as portico. Flanking portico and in front of courts are lower wings, each with chamfered quoins, cornice and parapet with moulded coping. Three windows each in architrave surrounds with frieze and cornice over. Extensions of similar design and height, slightly recessed, each with arched niche. These wings have a double plinth with moulded sill course.

The interior has a square hall with coffered ceiling, partly glazed. The stairs rise to left and right between solid walls.

Assize and Quarter Sessions Courts 1700-1835

Shire and Town Halls were the main venues for courts during the Middle Ages and they continued to be the principal location for the Assizes and Quarter Sessions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The government of counties and towns shared the same officials, the same buildings and some procedures with the Quarter Sessions courts. Justices of the Peace, who dealt with the administration of the county on one day, served on the bench of county Quarter Sessions on the next. Until 1835 in major towns and cities the Mayor was also the judge of the borough Quarter Sessions. This close association between the law and the government of counties led to multi-purpose civic buildings with a variety of names. Mark Girouard summarised this phenomenon as follows:

Up till the creation of County Councils in 1888, buildings which today shelter somewhat confusingly under the different titles of castle, county hall, shire hall, assize courts and sessions house all had one and the same function. They were the seats both of county justice and county government.

Until the 18th century the courts were normally housed in the main hall, with temporary furnishings, but in the 18th century some civic buildings began to provide separate courtrooms attached to the hall. This allowed courts to sit with less interruption from the public and they could be provided with more permanent furnishings. Rooms were also created for the judges and the jury beside the courtrooms. The earliest example of this new building type was the Guildhall in Worcester (1721-7), the venue for the Assize and the Quarter Sessions of Worcestershire as well as civic and social functions. The ground floor contained two courtrooms behind the hall, while on the first floor there is a large assembly room, reached by the grand stair between the courts. Similar arrangements were adopted for the Shire Halls at Warwick (1754-8) and Stafford (1795-8). This plan type was still employed as late as the 1830s when the Shire Hall in Worcester was built (1834-8). Compared to a century earlier the most fundamental change was the degree of separation between the courts and the hall. In the Guildhall at Worcester there were no substantial walls between the courts and the hall, but by the same the Shire Hall was erected the courtrooms were wholly separate.

By the early 19th century purpose-built law courts were also employing this type of plan. The Assize Courts in Devizes (1835) has a small central hall with the Grand Jury room and a room for counsel flanking it. Behind these were the two courts with rooms for the jury and the judges between them. The courthouse did not require a large hall as local government functions were undertaken at the Town Hall of 1808. A similar plan was also employed in the Shire Hall in Bodmin (1837-8).

An alternative to placing the courts behind the hall was to place them at either end. This created a less compact design but potentially increased the grandeur of the external massing. At Nottingham (1769-72) both types of plan were considered, the linear layout being preferred in this instance because it was cheaper. Frugality was not a consideration when the Assize Courts were built in York (1773-7). Two elaborate courtrooms flank a small central entrance hall. Like Nottingham, the courts were originally open to the hall.

The location and therefore the form of the courthouse within a town were partly determined by its association with other governmental functions. Where new Assizes and Quarter Sessions were combined with a large hall for civic functions, the buildings were invariably located in the centre of towns. However, a number of new courts were built along with a prison, either on an existing castle site or on a new site near the edge of the town. This had obvious advantages in terms of security and was a continuation of an ancient tradition. It was common in the Middle Ages for castles to house the court and provide a place of imprisonment, while a small prison was often included in a town hall. In York, the castle, on the fringe of the city, was sufficiently large to contain the new prison (1701-5). The Shire Hall at Lincoln (1824-8) is also located within the walls of the medieval castle, a short distance from the county gaol, while the County Hall at Oxford (1839-41) was built immediately outside the walls of the prison, which was on the side of the Norman Castle. 

When most prisons were built or rebuilt in the late 18th or 19th centuries, the castle or other town centre site was not large enough and extensive, empty sites, outside the town or city centre, were sought. However, such sites were unsuitable for local government or civic functions and therefore when new court buildings were erected along with prisons the large public hall was omitted. If these new courthouses were to hold the Assizes as well as the Quarter Sessions, there would only be one courtroom. With the creation of the Model Prison at Pentonville in London, which opened in 1842, the link between courthouses and prisons was broken. No new courthouse was built along with a prison until HMP Belmarsh and Woolwich Crown Courts opened in the 1990s.


The Assize Court in detail

The main entrance to the building is under the projecting Ionic portico, which leads to the central entrance hall, originally via three doorways. Also accessible from the entrance portico, through side doors, are two large rooms to the east and west front of the building. The west room was the Grand Jury room and the east room a records room prior to its later subdivision into four separate spaces. Beyond the main entrance hall was a series of four ancillary rooms that were situated between the two courtrooms. These ancillary rooms have since been demolished. The southernmost of these rooms had direct access to both courtrooms and appears to have been used by advocates as the doorways into the courtrooms were about halfway along the side walls. The central, easternmost ancillary room also had access to the side of the east courtroom. This may have been the jury retiring room. The central, western ancillary room did not have similar access to the western courtroom. The northernmost of these ancillary rooms had access to both judicial benches and may have been a shared judges' retiring room.

The west courtroom was the original Crown Court. The bench was at the northern end and alongside and recessed in the west wall was a small grand jury gallery. This was accessible from the grand jury room via a corridor running along the western side of the building. The dock was centrally placed within the courtroom and had originally had direct access to the basement cells. There were two levels of public seating to the south end of the courtroom. The upper gallery was accessed from the central hall via a corridor and staircase. The rear of the lower gallery could also be reached from this corridor. It is unlikely if members of the general public would initially have been allowed to enter the central hall and so the upper gallery would probably have been reserved for those spectators of a higher social standing. If this was the case, the general public would probably have entered the building through a door in the west elevation that also provided access into the grand jury corridor and from there into the courtroom via another side door.

The east courthouse was the original Nisi Prius courtroom. Its layout was similar to the west courtroom in that the bench was at the north end, the upper and lower public galleries at the south end and the dock in the centre. The upper gallery was accessed via a similar corridor and staircase to the rear of the courtroom and the lower gallery was entered via an external door in the east elevation. Both courtrooms were double-height and lit by windows in the upper parts of the north, east and west walls. 


Alterations and modifications

There is no evidence to suggest that the building has undergone any major alteration or extension from its original form except that the interior has been stripped out completely since the Courts were closed. Also the single-storey section between the courtrooms, which housed ancillary rooms, and the former records room to the east, have been demolished. 


According to a report prepared in 1984 by Caroe & Partners, Architects, for Wiltshire County Council the Courts appear to have undergone some minor alteration about 1890 when the judges' rooms were provided with new fireplaces. In addition new panelling was installed together with canopies over the judges' dais. 

The original access to the basements cell was via an outside rear staircase, which also served the boiler room. From the cells was a narrow brick tunnel that provided direct access to each dock. It appears that this basement access was extended when the cells were moved into the former ground floor record store sometime before 1934 and it may be assumed that at this stage the basement cells were abandoned. A small single storey detached female cell building is shown on the 1934 plan

The glass rooflights over the entrance hall appear to be a later addition as there is evidence of alteration to the roof structure to accommodate them. The installation of the rooflights caused deformation of the roof structure which survives in part under later accretions but its condition is now perilous.

Additional work was undertaken in the 1960s to modernise and improve the accommodation including the cells and at the time the Victorian panelling in the Courts was concealed with plywood. The most recent work then reported (1980s) was related to maintenance of the fabric with various attempts made to eradicate repeated attacks of dry rot.

At that time the high roofs of the Courts and of the wings were reslated in a mixture of asbestos and second-hand Welsh slates and the lower flat roofs covered with mineral felt and spar chippings. Parapet and back gutters to the higher roofs were felted and turnerised. Minor repairs to the stonework, including repairs to the portico, were undertaken in 1980.

The Courts and the Town

The town of Devizes had held Quarter sessions from 1383 until 1872 and Assizes were held at odd times during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Assize Act of 1833 enabled the Crown to appoint new Assize Towns and this provoked a petition to the Privy Council. In 1834 a subscription was held by townsmen and local gentry for the building of a new law court. Whilst Salisbury remained the principal Assize town in the county, Devizes was granted the Summer Assizes upon completion of the new Assize Court. By 1852 the Assize Court in Devizes was also hosting County Quarter Sessions. In 1857 the Summer Assize returned to Salisbury and Devizes was granted the Spring session. By 1899 the County Court had moved from Devizes Town Hall to the Assize Court building, where it was held on a monthly basis. By 1923 the Assize Courts were holding the Autumn and Winter Assizes every alternate year and the Epiphany Quarter Sessions. By 1939 both the Borough and County magistrates held their Petty sessions at the Assize Courts. The building also continued to hold the County Court on a bi-monthly basis and the Police Station had also moved into the premises. Following the Courts Act 1971 Devizes became a third-tier Crown Court.

Information from Colin Johns, Architect to the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust