Guildhalls & The Sessions Houses

Middlesex Guildhalls & The Sessions Houses of the Past

THE building which stands opposite the Houses of Parliament and by the north side of Westminster Abbey is the Middlesex Guildhall and the administrative centre of the County of Middlesex.

The reason why this county hall is in the City of Westminster and the County of London is to be found in the Local Government Act passed in 1888. This Act, among other provisions, established the administrative County of London, which was formed out of parts of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent.

Before the passing of the Act the County of Middlesex had stretched in the east right up to the boundaries of Essex and of the City of London. It has been said that “had its ancient past not been cut off by the ruthless knife of progress there would have been no county in the land that could compare with it”.

(Arthur Mee – “Middlesex”, published by Hodder & Stoughton.) Within it there was a separate jurisdiction, known as the Liberty of Westminster, which embraced the original area under the jurisdiction of the Abbot of Westminster. This jurisdiction, from early times, had headquarters adjacent to the Abbey, whilst the County of Middlesex was mainly administered from buildings in Clerkenwell.

On the establishment of the administrative County of London, it was not thought convenient for the Middlesex justices to remove their sessions hall into the newly-restricted confines of the County and consequently it was agreed that they should surrender their headquarters in Clerkenwell whilst the newly-formed County of London should, upon payment of £10,000, hand over the Guildhall site in Westminster to be the headquarters of the Middlesex Justices and the County Council.



Before dealing with the history of the present Guildhall, it will keep the story in its chronological sequence if, in the first place, the original headquarters of the justices of Middlesex is described.

From 1549, the date of the earliest County records, down to 1612, the justices of Middlesex usually assembled at the Castle Tavern in St. John’s Street, Clerkenwell, except on two occasions every year when a Sessions of the Peace was held in Westminster.

In 1609 the King granted permission for the justices to use a piece of land in the “High Street of St. John’s, Clerkenwell” for the building of a sessions house and prison and Sir Baptist Hicks, a wealthy mercer and justice, offered to build a sessions hall thereon. This offer was accepted and a sessions house was erected and opened in December 1612. There was not, however, sufficient space on this site to erect a prison but the justices took the law into their own hands and built a prison and a house of correction on a piece of land adjacent to the sessions house. Their action was countenanced by the King in 1619. This prison was afterwards known as the New Prison. Hicks was a favourite ofJames I and had acted as his financial advisor. He was subsequently created Viscount Campden.

At their first meeting in the New Hall, the justices resolved that ” for ever hereafter” the hall should be known as Hick’s Hall. This implied ” eternity” was of comparatively short duration, for in 1769 it was reported that the Hall was in a very bad state of repair and was even dangerous, if used as a meeting-place. A committee was formed and, after deliberating various suggestions for over ten years, eventually decided to build an entirely new Sessions House. A special Act of Parliament was passed for this purpose, and the foundation stone was laid on 2oth August, 1779, by the Duke of Northumberland, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, in his capacity as Custos Rotulorum. On this occasion he used a silver mallet, which he afterwards presented to the justices “for the purpose of keeping order in Court”.

Whilst the Sessions House was in course of erection, the Duke offered the justices accommodation in the Guildhall in King’s Street, Westminster. This thoroughfare ran from St. Margaret’s Church almost parallel with Parliament Street until it joined  Whitehall at its junction with Downing Street. The Guildhall was on the west side of this street, opposite to Union Street, and probably about the spot in Parliament Square where the Wilberforce Memorial fountain stood until the reconstruction of the Square in 1951. The justices do not appear to have availed themselves of this offer at all regularly.

The New Sessions House at Clerkenwell was designed by John Rogers, the County Surveyor, and the first Sessions was held there in July 1782. To commemorate this occasion the Duke of Northumberland was invited by the justices to sit for his portrait. It is probable that of the two which now hang in the Guildhall, one by Sir Joshua Reynolds and the other by Thomas Gains-borough, one is the picture in question.



It is not known where the biennial sessions of the Peace for the County of

Middlesex convened in Westminster, were assembled before 1773, but it may well have been at “The Town Court House next Westminster Hall “, where the Sessions for the Liberty of Westminster were regularly convened. It has been suggested that this was the old “Staple Court” or the Court of Requests, both of which were situated in the old Palace of Westminster.

In 1762 the Westminster justices transferred their court to the Guildhall in King’s Street.

In March 1763 the burgesses of Westminster passed a resolution of thanks to the Duke of Northumberland for his generous benefaction of the “New Court House or Guildhall “. It was not, however, until October 1766 that the Deputy Steward of the Liberty reported that the Duke had purchased the Guildhall and had allotted it to the use of the Westminster justices and “other public bodies “. The Westminster Justices continued to use this Hall until a second Guildhall was built in 1808.

The first reference to the use of the new Guildhall in King’s Street by the Middlesex justices was in October 1773, and from that date Sessions of the Peace for the County were held there at least twice a year.

In 1777 the justices of Westminster commenced negotiations for the building of a new hall, and obtained Parliamentary powers enabling them to buy land and to raise money for the purpose. Little progress, however, was made and in 1799 a further Act was obtained increasing the amount which could be raised for the purpose, but still no definite start was made on the construction of a new hall.

.Just before 1804 the site on which Westminster Market had been built fifty years earlier became vacant, as the market had fallen into disuse, and in that year a third Act was passed authorizing the purchase of the site and the sale to the Speaker of the House of Commons of property which had previously been purchased under the former Acts.



Owing to the “great increase in the price of building materials”, it was necessary to promote a fourth Act in 1807 to authorize the raising of more money. The new hall was completed to the designs of S. P. Cockerell in 1808, and the first sessions there of the Westminster justices were held in July of that year.

Although these Acts had been passed in favour of the Westminster justices, the rights of the Middlesex justices were preserved and provision was made for the cost of upkeep to be paid out of the general rates for the County. The first sessions of Middlesex justices were held there in January 1809. The site of the hall was that on which the present Guildhall stands, and it is of interest to study its history before Westminster Market was built, for it was here that the old Sanctuary building had stood which had been constructed by the benevolence of Edward the Confessor. This had been a building of astonishing strength, and its foundations defied destruction by the builders of the Westminster Market, the Guildhall of 18o8 and the reconstructed Guildhall of 1892. They were not, in fact, finally destroyed until the building of the present Guildhall.

The interior of the original” sanctuary” building was used as a chapel, in which the fugitive had to confess the reason for his seeking sanctuary before he was allowed safe shelter.

The ill-fated Prince Edward, afterwards Edward V, was born here when his mother Elizabeth Woodville sought refuge from the forces of Henry VI. On the death of his father, Edward IV, the Prince was taken into the custody of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and again the Queen took sanctuary with her younger son Richard. She was, however, prevailed upon to hand him over to the Duke of Buckingham, who delivered him into the Tower to join his brother and to suffer the fate so well known to history.

In the reign of Edward I a belfry had been built over the top of the building, the bells being rung at coronations and tolled for royal funerals. ” Their ringings “, men said, “sowered all the drinke in the town.”

The area between the Abbey and this building was within the precincts of the Abbey, and so long as a criminal or debtor managed to reach “sanctuary” in this haven he was safe from arrest. Consequently the ground was covered with shacks and shelters used by such fugitives.

These squalid surroundings were cleared in the nineteenth century when Parliament Square was constructed.

The new Guildhall was a one-storeyed building with an octagonal tower rising from its centre, which held the dome over the court room.

By an Act of 1844, the jurisdiction of the Liberty justices was considerably curtailed and their powers were transferred to the County. The justices of Middlesex had been eligible for inclusion upon the commission of the peace for Westminster until the year 1888, when that commission ceased and the Westminster justices were transferred to the commission of the County of London.

A special badge was authorized by George III to be worn by the justices of the Liberty, and Sir Montagu Sharpe, Chairman of Quarter Sessions from 1909-1934, was the last Middlesex justice to hold one of these badges. He had, before his knighthood, been appointed to the commission in 1883.

Some of the Middlesex justices had the privilege of being included in a commission of Gaol Delivery and Oyer and Terminer, a privilege restricted in other counties to the judges of Assize. The Sessions of Oyer and Terminer were held at Clerkenweli, but the Sessions of Gaol

Delivery invariably took place at the Old Bailey.



When much of the administrative work hitherto carried out by the justices was taken over by the newly formed County Council in 1889, it was realized that the building erected in 18o8 was inadequate to meet both requirements.

The construction of a new building was ruled out on account of the cost and it was decided to convert the old building by superimposing two new floors on the existing foundations. The result of this architectural phenomenon is to be seen on this page. The architect employed to carry out this work was F. H. Pownall.

The renovated courts were first used on 18th February, 1893, and the administrative work of the County Council was transferred to the reconstructed building in September of that year.

It was anticipated that the building would provide ample accommodation for years to come, but this Guildhall was pulled down in 1911 when, at last, the remains of the vault which had formed part of the old sanctuary building and which was still being used for prisoners at sessions, was demolished.



J. S. Gibson was the architect of the present Guildhall, the decorative stone carving being designed by Mr. H. C. Fehr and executed by Senor Carlo Magnoni, an Italian by birth. Around the front entrance, just below the first-floor windows, is a frieze carved in stone depicting the granting of Magna Carta by King John, Henry III granting a charter to the Abbey of Westminster, the Great Hall at Hampton Court, and Lady Jane Grey accepting the Crown of England.

The foundation stone was laid in 1912, by the Duke of Bedford, as Custos Rotulorum and Lord Lieutenant of the County.

The Guildhall was formally opened on the 19th December, 1913, by His late Royal Highness Prince Arthur of Connaught, K.G., G.C.V.O., accompanied by Her Royal Highness Princess Arthur of Connaught. It cost over  111,000 pounds. The site is one of the finest in London, and wonderfully situated for the historic ceremonies which take place at the Abbey; at the Coronations in 1937 and 1953 the building was used as a relaying centre for broadcasts to the whole world.

The building contains two courts where Quarter and Intermediate Sessions are held and Appeals heard, several committee rooms, and a beautiful council chamber and ante-room.

In the basement now are about fifty improved cells for prisoners and accommodation for warders and police.



Some very fine pictures are to be seen in the Guildhall, and amongst others may be mentioned those of Sir Baptist Hicks, the donor of Hicks Hall (attributed to the Flemish artist, Paul van Somer); the 11th Duke of Bedford, Lord Lieutenant of the County, 1898-1926 (by John Collier); two of Sir Ralph Littler, chairman of Quarter Sessions, 1888-1908 (by Herkomer and Beatrice Offer); Sir Montagu Sharpe, chairman of Quarter Sessions, 1908-1934 (by G. Spencer Watson); two of Sir John Fielding, the blind magistrate and prison reformer, a Middlesex justice from 1754 to 1780 (by Nathaniel Hone (1773) and W. Peters); Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland (by Rymsdyke); the 2nd Duke of Wellington, Lord Lieutenant of the County, 1868-1884; the Marquis of Salisbury, Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex, 1876 (by Eddis); two of the 1st Duke of Northumberland, Lord Lieutenant of the County, 1762-1768 (by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough); Henry Pownall, Chairman of Middlesex Sessions, 1861 (by Eddis); Sir Francis Brockman Morley, Chairman of Middlesex Sessions, 1878 (by John Collier); William Main-Waring, Chairman of Middlesex Sessions (by Thomas Gainsborough); the 3rd Earl of Strafford, Lord Lieutenant of the County, 1884-1890 (by Percy Bigland); William Regester, Chairman of the County Council, 1909-1919 (by John Collier); Sir Howard Button, D.L., J.P., Chairman of the County Council, 1933-1936, and Sheriff in 1937 (by Margaret Lindsay), and numerous water-colours and prints of Middlesex in earlier days.

Recently yet another interesting chapter has been added to the history of the Guildhall. In the second World War the Governments of Poland, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands and Greece were one by one obliged, for the time being, to make their headquarters in this country.

The British Government then, for the first time in the history of England, authorized the setting up of foreign courts, staffed with foreign judges, to deal with maritime and military offences committed by foreign nationals.

In August 1941 the use of the First Court at the Guildhall was offered to the Belgian Judge-Advocate-General for a Military Court Martial. On 3rd November, 1941, the first Netherlands Maritime Court was held in the Second Court, followed in January and March 1942 by the Polish and Greek Maritime Courts respectively, when the Lord Chancellor, then Lord Simon, attended the inaugurations. The first Norwegian Court, a Maritime Appeal Court, was held in July 1942, and many similar Courts continued to be held at the Guildhall until, one by one, the respective Governments were able to return, upon the termination of the war in Europe, to their own countries.

On 2nd June, 1947, this historic international link with our allies was commemorated by the unveiling at the Guildhall by the Right Honourable The Viscount Jowitt, P.C., then Lord Chancellor, of illuminated panels designed and prepared by Mr. A. S. Bartholomew, a past member of the staff of the County Council. On the centre panel the Middlesex Standing Joint Committee was honoured with the signature of His late Majesty King George VI and of the then reigning monarchs or prime ministers of these nations during the war years: His Majesty King George of Greece, Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands, His Majesty King Haakon of Norway, Monsieur Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, Prime Minister of Poland in 1944, and Monsieur H. Pierlot, Prime Minister of Belgium in 1944, and of many other distinguished representatives of Great Britain and the five foreign nations.



In the courtyard of the basement of the Guildhall to-day is a stone doorway removed from the old Westminster Bridewell, and in the wall is set the old tablet on which is an inscription which reads:—

“Here are several Sorts of Work

For the Poor of this Parish of St. Margaret’s, Westminster,

As also the County, according to

LAW, and for such as will Beg, and

Live Idle in this City and Liberty

of Westminster. Anno 1655.”



The ancient records of Middlesex, to which constant reference has been made in previous pages, have for many years been collected and stored in the muniment rooms below the Guildhall and are catalogued and generally cared for by trained archivists.

The growing interest which is being taken in the information to be gleaned from records of the past as, for instance, in the study of local history, together with the realization gained during the war years of the need for tracing ancient records and storing them in safe custody, are resulting in steadily increasing acquisitions of collections from private owners and elsewhere.

It was therefore decided that the accommodation at the Guildhall was insufficient both for storage purposes and for accommodating the archives staff and the students who wished to consult ancient maps and documents relating to various subjects, and the County Record Office is being transferred to more spacious accommodation close to the Guildhall and where the necessary precautions as to the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere in which the records are kept can still be ensured.



Before concluding this short history of the Middlesex Guildhall it will be of interest to outline the more recent changes in Parliament Square itself. The plan on the opposite page shows the layout of this famous square after the clusters of houses intersected by the Old King Street, Union Street, Little Sanctuary and Bow Street had been demolished. Various changes took place in subsequent years until, by 1939, a start had been made on the demolition of some properties which faced Great George Street and stood upon the Canning Enclosure site.

It was then that Parliament Square faced a new danger. The site of the building (known as Westminster House) on the Canning Enclosure was acquired and a proposal for the erection of a nine-storey block of modern office buildings was approved by the authorities directly concerned.

The Middlesex County Council, fearing for the spoliation of Parliament Square, the very heart of the Empire, proceeded to oppose the new proposal by every means in its power and to that end obtained leave of the House of Lords to promote a Private Bill in Parliament to enable the County Council to acquire the site by way of compulsory powers. Having succeeded so far, and acquired the site, the immediate danger was averted and after years of protracted negotiations the County Council secured contributions from the Government, the Pilgrim Trust, the London County Council and the Westminster City Council and the site was at last handed over to the Crown to form, in perpetuity, part of the open space.