To Bank Street, and a forgotten Grade II listed building, that was almost lost before it had even been completed.
This is the Old County Court, built in 1854, to replace court sessions that had previously been held at the Old Town Hall on Castle Street.
It was designed by Charles Reeves (1815-1866), an architect and surveyor to the Metropolitan Police from 1843, and from 1847 architect to the County Courts in England and Wales, designing 64 new courts across the country.
County Courts, as now, dealt with civil cases, including those about personal debt. They were not there to decide whether someone was ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty, did not issue fines, and neither did it imprison anyone in debt.
Work started on the new County Court in early 1854 and was due to be completed by October. However, one night in September, just as it was nearing completion, a serious fire broke out.
A young man called Henry Bradshaw noticed smoke coming out of one of the windows and climbed over the builders’ hoardings to investigate.
In one of the back offices, he found wood shavings on fire in several places. He tried to stamp the fires out but scorched his feet. The fire spread to stacks of wooden floorboards and Bradshaw was forced to raise the alarm at the offices of the Sheffield and North of England Insurance Companies.
The fire engines arrived within five minutes, but until a supply of water could be obtained from the main, the small engines were worked with water brought in buckets from adjoining houses.
The fire quickly spread, and the back suite of rooms became one mass of blaze.
Floorboards on the upper rooms had not been laid and this hampered efforts to fight the fire, with several firemen injured by falling between joists. The heat became so intense that roof lead melted, and with no floor intervening, it fell onto firemen below who were severely burned.
However, the blaze was prevented from reaching the front of the building, but the whole of the woodwork of the back rooms and the roof of that portion were destroyed.
It was suspected that a group of boys had broken into the building, setting fire to wood shavings by lighting matches.
The damage amounted to between £300 and £400 (about £35K-£45K today)- the cost falling on the contractor, Miles Barber, who was not insured. (Barber was later responsible for the widening of Lady’s Bridge in 1866).
The opening was delayed until 1855 and the property rebuilt.
The last County Court sitting at the Old Town Hall was on 12 July 1855 and the first session in the new building, presided by Judge Walker, was on the 18 July.
The building was in Italian style, with two entrances in Bank Street – one a private entrance for the judge, etc, and the other entrance for the public.
On the ground floor were offices for the high bailiff and clerks’ rooms for the entering of plaints and the payment of money, and a strong room for storing books and records, fitted with slate shelves, and iron fireproof doors with Chubb patent locks.
On the basement floor were water closets, etc, and four rooms for the office keeper.
The court room was on the second storey (revolutionary for its time) – 43ft long by 27 wide, and 22 feet high. On the same floor was a private room for the Judge, barristers and attorneys’ consultation room, jury room, and a large entrance hall or waiting room for parties attending the court.
While Sheffielders considered this a ‘fine’ building, it seems not to have been popular with those who worked there.
In 1901, Judge Waddy K.C. criticised the acoustic properties of the County Court. “The building was erected under exceptional circumstances, which I do not want to go into because the people are dead; but the result of it is, that a very considerable amount of money was spent, and I think not wisely.”
When it was built, Bank Street had been a quiet street, but by now had become a regular thoroughfare, so full of noise and disturbance, that it was impossible sometimes for them to get on with their work.
The stench from the main court by the middle of the day was said to be “perfectly shocking,” while the sanitary arrangements were “not fit to be used by considerable bodies of people.”
Poor acoustics were also mentioned in 1923 when Judge Lias and officials complained of difficulty in hearing evidence and suggested that the front of the Judge’s desk should be lowered.
Alterations to the court were eventually completed, including an annexe at the rear, and it functioned as the County Court until 1996 when it moved to new Law Courts at West Bar. The building was sold, and its interiors converted into offices, the configuration altered, but the stone cantilevered staircase survived.
It was acquired by One Heritage Group in January 2021 for conversion into 22 one- and two-bedroom single storey and duplex apartments that will be split over four floors. The developer says these are carefully designed to showcase the building’s inherent Grade II listed features such as high ceilings, deep skirtings, and original architraves. Planning permission was granted in August 2021.
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