Saturday, 11 November 2017

Clerkenwell Old Sessions House


In 1782, the Middlesex Quarter Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green opened. It replaced the courts' earlier home on St John Street, Hicks Hall, which had become too small and decrepit. The new location was also more suitable for solemn proceedings: the old site was on the path of livestock heading into Smithfield Market, with all the noise and congestion they produced. 



The quarter sessions was the predecessor of today's crown courts, hearing criminal cases too serious for a single magistrate to deal with (although the most serious were reserved for the assizes courts). Quarter sessions cases were heard by a panel of three magistrates and a jury. So keen were the magistrates to build a suitable home for these proceedings that they adopted an unnecessarily convoluted process for its design. They first considered plans drawn up by the county surveyor, Thomas Rogers, and rejected them. They then heard Rogers' request for the design job, and rejected it. Instead, they held a competition; eleven entries were submitted, and they chose one by ... Thomas Rogers. Once his building was completed - somewhat altered from the original design, since the magistrates kept interfering - cases would be heard in its grand surroundings for over a century. 


The heart of the building is its central hall, rising the full height of its two original floors and topped by a dome. Behind it, reached by the sweeping staircase, was the courtroom itself. The pillars are original, but the screen between them was added when the magistrates discovered such 'open justice' resulted in poor acoustics. 


This double flight of stairs was another alteration made by the magistrates. Originally, rather tighter and more modest staircases were planned - they were reused instead as back stairs. 





The sessions house was remodelled in the nineteenth century, partly in the hope of improving poor lighting and ventilation. Extra court space was also needed as the area served became more populous, and the magistrates' dining room was converted into a second courtroom. 


Further height was added to the building to accommodate an additional floor, complete with new dining room. The hall was also remodelled, giving extra balcony space to cope with the number of people using it. 



Such provision of extra court space must have been timely: a few years later, in 1868, the Metropolitan railway opened at the building's feet, with Farringdon station a short walk away. Clerkenwell Road was built soon after, freeing up some space in the process which was used for an extension to the Sessions House. 


However, its fortunes changed when the County of London was created in 1889. They took over both Clerkenwell and the sessions house at Newington; to save money, they decided to use only the Newington site and sell Clerkenwell. The court moved out of the building in 1921. Ten years later, it took on a very different role as Avery Scales moved in. (They used it as their headquarters, not for manufacturing weighing equipment!) After the weighing machine manufacturers left in the 1970s, the building became a masonic lodge for a while.  


The Sessions House is about to begin a new life as a food venue and restaurant, but there was a chance to enjoy its faded glories during Fashion Week, when it hosted Burberry's photography exhibition Here We Are




1 comment:

Stephen Barker said...

Thank you for another interesting blog.

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