With thanks to individuals who remember the Assize Court in its last years, Oral Histories have been recorded which are able to tell the stories that surround the Assize Court. The Court played a part in many careers in Devizes. Through the memories of Journalists, Police officers and those working in the justice system, the court is given life before its derelict decline.
A working court:
Up until 1971, the court system looked different from today. The Assize court in Devizes, like elsewhere, held various sessions:
Ø Assize Courts: for the highest level of criminal court with Assize Judge (Red Judge)
Ø Quarter Sessions: less serious criminal matters with a lower judge and magistrates
Ø Magistrate Court: Lower Court mainly summary offences with lay magistrates supported by a legal advisor.
“At Devizes a distinctive feature was the number of magistrates who sat with Lord Devlin [judge], hearing cases or sitting beside him. I mean [it was] nothing to have six [or] more on the bench with him” ~ Nigel Pascoe, Pupil Barrister at Pump Chambers in 1966
Not everyone who entered the court were there to work or there to face judgement for a crime. Jurors, like today, were used in order decide whether or not the defendant was guilty or not guilty, before the judge sentenced them. Several people came forward with memories of being on Jury Service at the Devizes Assize Court
“We had not been in Devizes for very long when I got the first of the three calls [to jury service]… we were given quite strict instructions by the Judge before it all started that “This is your task and you are to listen diligently and … you will be given that task of deciding between “Guilty” and “Not guilty.” ~ Colin Turner
“I was very pleased that I served on the Jury… A man had come out of a Pub in the Marketplace in Devizes having had too much to drink and he ran amuck with a car jack and injured someone quite badly. He was up before the court for Grievous Bodily Harm. I can remember quite a long debate in the jury room…but we found him guilty in the end.” ~ Quentin Goggs.
A Magistrates Court
Assize Court sessions continued up until 1971 when there was a centralisation of the court system. After which, Devizes Assize Court became solely Magistrates Court until its closure in 1985.
The County of Wiltshire was home to the youngest magistrate in the country, Jackie Lampard. Although she mostly sat on the Pewsey Bench, she would on occasion sit at Devizes.
“It was a bit daunting at times because… a lot of it you were sitting on a case in court and you were younger than the defendants… quite a bit younger than the defendants. And you wondered sometimes whether they felt you shouldn’t be judging them” ~ Jackie Lampard, Magistrates
“it was local justice and I think that’s what all of us solicitors liked, they were local people, they knew what was happening in the town and there was a lot of continuity with the magistrates.” ~ Nick Beach, Solicitor in Devizes 1977 to 2004
Visit Wiltshire Museum's website to listen to Oral Histories from the Devizes Assize Court project
The Gazette and Herald worked closely with the Assize Court Building just as the press work with the courts today. Terry Gaylard (1929-2021) was a junior reporter in 1962 and would often be found in court taking notes about cases. He was a very notable figure in the community and worked for the Gazette and Herald until his retirement in 1990.
“We had to behave too. When a judge was summing up…nobody was allowed to move, you just sat there and you daren’t hardly bat an eyelid when the judge was speaking.” ~ Terry Gaylard
Back before the internet, it was a longer process to get the news from the court to the newspapers to print but it would still have to appear in the afternoon or next day’s news.
“I worked for the Bath Evening Chronicle… At 15 I was underage [for going to court] … so I would creep into the courts, collect a sheaf of all the copy [from Mr Kingman] and hurry back to my office and sit at the teleprinter, tap it all through to the Bath Office… and it duly appeared in that afternoon’s paper” ~ Ann Smith
A Police Station:
At one point in its history, the court also became home to the Devizes Police Station which sat on the front, right side of the building. It means the court also held the name “The Police Courts” throughout the 50s and 60s.
“The layout of the Police Station office was not really fit for purpose in those days. There was an open foyer with an enquiry hatch and another door into the enquiry office [where] the desk faced the window so we could look out” ~ Peter Spencer, joined Wiltshire Police force in 1968 and posted at Devizes Police station.
“If the sergeant at Pewsey wanted to send a file to Devizes urgently, he didn’t use the post, he went down the bus station and gave it to the bus driver. The bus driver come in from Pewsey would arrive at Devizes and I would be sent up to meet him and collect the dispatch and take it down to the Police Station” ~ Peter Smith, joined Wiltshire Constabulary at 18 and was based at the Assize Court in the late 1950s.