Mike Ingram reveals why the sale of the old County Hall buildings is another critical moment for Northampton’s heritage…
Northampton’s historic County Hall has been the centre of county justice and administration for over 340 years. Throughout its history, it has been the site of many trials including those accused of witchcraft as well as a place of persecution of non-conformists and execution. It is now about to have the noose tighten around its own neck.
On 11 June this year, Northampton County Council announced plans to sell these important buildings which include the Sessions House, incorporating a rare surviving example of a 17th century courthouse, the remains of four gaols dating the from the early 17th century, a fine early 18th century townhouse and the Judges Lodgings. It also ridicules the boroughs plans for Northampton to become a city of culture, as there will be almost nothing left of the towns past, and what does survive such as the 727 year old Queen Eleanor Cross crumbling fast.
Only four short years ago, when parts were sold to the Borough Council, the then leader of Northamptonshire Council, Jim Harker said “The site is such an important one in Northampton town centre and carries with it such history that I am delighted that its use at the centre of the town and county life will be continued.”
The importance of the buildings was reiterated in 2015 when NCC appointed International property and construction consultancy, Gleeds, to lead a multi-disciplinary team to carry out feasibility studies for County Hall. Darren Crocker, Gleeds Director for Asset Management said: “I am delighted to be working with Northamptonshire County Council again on the future of the County Hall site and am confident in our ability to replicate the success of Project Angel. We intend to preserve the heritage of the buildings whilst optimising their value to the Council and the local community”.
Councillor Jim Harker, then Leader of Northamptonshire County Council added: “This project is a great opportunity to give something back to Northampton. By adopting sustainable and alternative uses for the site we protect its heritage while identifying a variety of income generating opportunities.”
It is shocking how quickly their opinions changed and they are now willing to tear the beating heart out of the town just to reduce the effects of their financial mismanagement.
So why are the buildings important?
Throughout the medieval and Tudor period prisoners were kept in the castle. However, by 1630, a house of correction had been set up in in or near the old Bell Inn opposite the south-east corner of All Saints’ Churchyard. It was here that Quakers were confined in a tiny airless cramped prison twelve steps underground. It was also here where they wrote many nationally important tracts. Many died in their prison, several of them, “of their hard usage.” In 1664, Quaker, Joseph Maidwell was held in a cell for 70 years for not swearing allegiance to the monarch. His graffiti was discovered when a new toilet was added to the eastern extension of the Sessions House shortly after 1900. It still remains carved in stone in the back yard, “Joseph Maidwell in prison for not swearing 1664.”
In 1671 many of the county’s elite, including the Earls of Northampton & Westmorland, entered into an agreement with Barron Hatton of Kirby to purchase the freehold of the Bell Inn for £100. The building was to be held in trust as the House of Correction with the use of part of building as the County Gaol. Plans for a new County Court and House of Correction were already at an advanced stage when disaster struck the town In September 1675. Sparks from an open fire in St. Mary’s Street near the castle caused a fire that devastated the narrow streets of the town centre. In six hours, the fire destroyed around 700 of its 850 buildings including All Saints church. Eleven people died, but many escaped the fire by going through Welsh House on to the market square to safety.
In its aftermath, local people and businesses raised £25,000 towards re-building the town centre based around the Market Square. Streets were widened to help prevent a re-occurrence. King Charles II donated 1,000 tons of timber from Salcey Forest. Almost fifty years later, Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, described Northampton as the “handsomest and best built town in all this part of England…..finely rebuilt with brick and stone, and the streets made spacious and wide“.
The ‘L’ shaped Sessions House and what is now County Hall were amongst the first buildings to be completed. The present County Hall was erected between 1676 and 1678 from the designs of Sir Roger Norwich, 2nd Baronet of Brampton in Northamptonshire, by Henry Jones, who designed the new All Saints’ Church. The Sessions House was built to provide a proper place to hold the County Assize Courts. It was also used for the Quarter Sessions, held four times a year, where local Justices of the Peace heard less serious cases and made decisions about a variety of administrative matters throughout Northamptonshire.
It is built in the Classic Renaissance style of the day, a simple single-story building, with a high-pitched hipped roof. The main front, facing north to George Row, is a well-balanced composition with a balustrade and curved pediment at each end containing the Royal Arms. Inside, the plasterwork on the ceiling which was created by Edward Goudge between 1684 and 1688 is simply stunning. In the centre is a cherub in the role of Lady Justice. In the one hand are the scales of justice depicting the weighing of evidence and in the other hand the sword depicting punishment for any that are found guilty. On the left-hand panel can be seen the angel to represent the honest and the innocent and on the other side, is the devil representing the dishonest and the guilty. Legend has it that if anyone in the dock told a lie then the devil would wag his tongue. According to one account, a mechanism that could make the tongue wag was discovered during renovation work in the roof space. Trials were considered excellent entertainment and judges in the 18th century had trouble controlling the “noisy, rude, curious, hardly restrainable low rabble forcing themselves into the court.”
County Hall also has a fabulous art collection which reflects the county’s judicial and political history and dates back to 1689. The collection falls into three parts: those relating to the authority of the courts, those reflecting the County Council’s role and history, and the more eclectic group furnishing the Judges’ Lodgings. Two of the oldest paintings in the collection are the full-length portraits ‘William III (1650–1702)’ and ‘Mary II (1662–1694)’ by Wolfgang William Claret of 1689. They hang in the Prius Nisi Court and symbolise the rising judicial authority of Northampton’s Sessions House
The County House of Correction was rebuilt behind the Sessions House at the same time as the Sessions House, looking south across Angel Street into the open country of Cow Meadow. A house built by Sir William Haselwood on a piece of land to the west was used as a gaol and bought by the county in 1691.
In 1777, when John Howard visited the site, some new cells had been built, but there was still an underground dungeon like that in which the Quakers had suffered. Howard reported that “This Gaol is also the County Bridewell [a mid-16th century term for a petty offender’s prison named after St. Bride’s Well in the City of London] but Petty Offenders are kept separate from Felons. Mr Scofield has a salary of £36 10s 0d as Keeper. Two courtyards; but that for the felons is too close. No straw. The County have lately built seven commodious rooms for one felon each; yet there is still a dungeon eleven steps underground, which might have been disused if they had doubled the number of new rooms. There is ground enough in the keeper’s yard or garden. The chapel is in the upper rooms in the Gaoler’s House. It is painful for Prisoners loaded with irons to go up and down stairs”.
In 1792–4, a new three storey gaol and bridewell to hold 140 criminals and 30 debtors were erected to the south of the County Hall. The redundant old gaol was made into the turnkey’s house, with a day-room for debtors on the ground floor and a Grand Jury Room on the first floor.
The condemned were normally taken from gaol, through the town on a cart and down the Kettering Road to the Racecourse for execution at a temporary gallows. With the noose around their neck, the cart would be driven away leaving the victim to swing and die from slow strangulation.
Although there were a number of poor unfortunates to be tried and executed for witchcraft in Northamptonshire’s history, in 1705, Elinor Shaw and Mary Phillips from Oundle were two of the last women to be burned for witchcraft in England. Before their trial, they were kept below ground at the gaol, as one account records: “One day Mr. Laxon and his wife coming by the Prison, had the curiosity to look though the grates [On Georges Row], and seeing of Ellinor Shaw, told her, that now the Devil had left her in the lurch as he had done the rest of his servants.” The two were taken to the Racecourse and were first hanged until nearly dead then burned.
It was not the last burning however. In 1715, Elizabeth Tresler from Badby was burned at the stake on the Racecourse for murdering her husband. Then in August 1735, 20 year old Elizabeth Fawson daughter of the landlord of the Red Lion at Helmdon, was convicted at the assizes for the murder of her husband and burnt at the stake on the Racecourse, watched by a crowd estimated to be 12 to 15,000 strong.
Between 1735 and 1799, 249 death sentences were passed in the assizes which led to 66 executions. The last executions on the Racecourse were James Cobbett and George Wilkin who had been found guilty of passing forged bank notes, took place on Friday 27 March 1818.
After this time, felons were executed at the ‘New Drop’ at the back of the Sessions house in Angel Lane. It was said that the ‘New Drop’ was so big it could accommodate 20 at once. Unlike previous executions, here the platform had a trap door which suddenly opened. In theory, death came instantly from a broken neck, although this was not always the case. As before, huge crowds would gather in Cow Meadow to watch the executions. It was first used on 19 March 1819 when five men were executed at the same time for a burglary in Preston Deanery. The last public hanging took place there in 1852. In 1889, the thick wooden door to the place of execution was moved from the centre of the building and shifted it to the far right to shake off the stigma.
The gaol served the county until 1889 when the buildings were bought by the Salvation Army and former borough gaol became the only prison in the town. The old county gaol was sold to Mr. J. Watkins in 1880 who then sold the portion now used as the museum and art gallery to the Town Council. The County Council purchased the remaining buildings from the Salvation Army in 1914 although the Salvation Army remained as tenants until early 1928.
Use of the Sessions House as a courthouse came to an end in 1991 and for a time no appropriate use could be found for the building. In 2010 the Sessions House was re-opened as a new central access point and resource for anyone wanting to find out more about Northamptonshire. Northamptonshire County Council, in partnership with Northamptonshire Enterprise Limited, worked together to renovate and refit the Sessions House, bringing its heritage value and community importance to the forefront once more.
With all that history, County Hall must be saved for our descendants, if for no other reason as a reminder of our past barbarity. Now, with the town going for the city of culture, perhaps with a bit of joined up thinking, it would make the perfect museum of crime and punishment with the old court making an ideal lecture theatre. Many other towns and cities such as Leicester and Kings Lynn all make great use of their judicial past as tourist attractions, bringing thousands of visitors each year. Neither are so complete or as important as County Hall. So, it is not that difficult – is it?