Tracing the old impressive seats of local justice

Morpeth has had at least seven different courthouses or courtrooms over the centuries.

Sunday, 15th October 2017, 15:37 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 12:11 pm

With the closure of the County Court in Newmarket in 2016, it now has none.

The Morpeth petty sessions, the manorial courts of the Manor and Borough of Morpeth, and the Easter quarter sessions for the whole of the county used to be held in the Tollbooth. It was demolished in 1714, to make way for John Vanbrugh's Town Hall.

His courtroom was probably where the Ballroom is now.

John Wesley wrote in his Journal for May 1788: “I went on to Morpeth; but was informed the town hall was totally engaged; the lower part by a company of players, the upper by a dancing-master.”

Hodgson, writing in 1832, confirms that it was sometimes used as a ballroom, but later that year William Cobbett saw it quite differently.

He said: “From Newcastle I came to Morpeth, in order to lecture here on Saturday night, which I did to a very respectable audience in the Town hall, sitting, for the first time in my life, where the judge used to sit, and where the chairman of the Quarter Sessions sits now, I believe.

"Being thus seated on the bench, (he found himself) looking down upon the big table around which the lawyers used to sit...”

It seems that the courtroom was a large chamber, with a dais and other court furniture at one end.

Reforms in the 1840s took away all but the customary functions of manorial courts.

In 1845 the Grand Jury of the Court Leet made its last “presentment”, of the footpath at the north end of Forest's Buildings.

The Court Baron tried its last "causes" in 1846. There were 26 complaints of trespass. They were probably all frivolous. People knew it was the last time.

The Town Hall was rebuilt in 1870 to a different internal layout so nothing of the old courtroom survives.

Morpeth Courthouse, completed in 1831, was designed by John Dobson. It was the magistrates’ court until about 1980, after which they removed to Bedlington. It was similar to the one at Carlisle, with tiered public benches rising up in concentric semi-circles.

Our most ancient court was the baronial court of the de Merleys. It was first held in the castle on Ha’ Hill, of which nothing remains. The present castle was probably built in 1216, after King John burnt the old one.

The gatehouse, circa 1350, was not defensible, but residential and administrative. It is now a luxury holiday flat, of which the kitchen and dining room occupies what was probably a courtroom. It has two entrances off the same corridor, and possible evidence for a dais where the steward of the court sat.

Our picture shows the door into a garderobe, or medieval toilet. The sill is about 2ft 6ins above floor level. This strongly suggests a dais. Otherwise, why wasn’t the garderobe at floor level?

However, another room, not thought to have been a courtroom, also has a garderobe door about 2ft above floor level. That being so, the height of the sill does not prove the existence of a dais.

During this year’s Heritage Open Days, I went to see the Guildhall in Newcastle. It was built in 1655-60 by Robert Trollope. His rather quaint exterior was later given a classical makeover.

It was partly rebuilt by John Dobson, but with such sympathy for Trollope’s interior that the experts are not always sure who did what.

The Merchant Adventurers’ Court is not a court in the usual sense. It was where the richest and most powerful merchants of Newcastle upon Tyne met to discuss business, and is suitably magnificent.

The Great Hall is pure Trollope, with its hammer beam roof, gallery, round-arched doorways, and black and white marble floor. The windows were altered in the 18th century, and then double-glazed by Dobson to keep out the noise from the Sandhill and the river.

The borough court takes up about half of it. Pevsner says that the fittings “seem to be mostly mid-c 18, with some early c 19 additions”.

The flimsy structure on the left was the public gallery, though perhaps used more by intrepid newspaper reporters than the public.

In the view from the judge's seat, you can see a big table, like the one that Cobbett saw at Morpeth.

The gallery, with banisters in front, was for the grand jury. It had at least 12 and up to 23 jurors, whose duty it was to decide if there was a case to answer. If they found a “true bill”, the accused went forward to trial. If not, they went free.

Grand juries were superseded by committal proceedings before magistrates and were abolished in 1948.

At the back left is the dock. Behind it, you can just make out the curved spikes that surround the holding pens for the prisoners. The witness box is on the right. The thing like a wooden cage is simply a table.

Except that it is bigger, the Great Hall gives us a reasonable idea of what Vanbrugh’s courtroom was like in Morpeth Town Hall. The fittings would have been similar, but perhaps not so extensive.