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, an architectural historian 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.
Information from Colin Johns, Architect to the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust