There has perhaps only been one authority on law in Sheffield, and that was Judge David Ronald Bentley Q.C. (1942-2012) who wrote ‘Courts & Court Houses in Sheffield’. The Sheffield-born judge pieced together the city’s judicial history from its days as a manorial court at Sheffield Castle to the opening of the Sheffield Combined Court Centre at West Bar in 1996.
“Sheffield grew up around the castle erected early in the 12th century by William de Lovetot. It was a manor and had its own manorial court. In the 13th century this sat in the castle itself. Unlike the manorial courts of nearby Ecclesall, it was a court leet, possessing both criminal and civil jurisdiction. Minor civil disputes arising within the manor were tried there as was petty crime. Later its place of sitting was moved to Sembly Green (now the Wicker), earning it the nickname of the Court of Sembly Quest.
“By the 17th century criminal jurisdiction had passed to the Justices of the Peace for the West Riding. They sat in the town to try petty offences and to hold preliminary examinations in cases of felony.
“In 1700 a Town Hall was erected at the south-east corner of the Parish (now the Cathedral) Churchyard. This building, which had cells for the detention of prisoners, was for much of the 18th century used by the Justices as a court-house. By 1800, however, they had taken to using a room on the ground floor of the Cutlers’ Hall in Church Street (known locally as Bang Beggars Hall).
“On court days the prisoners waiting to be dealt with would be stood in gangs in the churchyard and then taken across when their cases were called on. Those sentenced to imprisonment or sent for a trial in custody at the West Riding Quarter Sessions were despatched to the Wakefield House of Correction (a journey they made chained together and on foot). Those sent for trial at the Assizes were taken to the county gaol at York. Although having at the beginning of the 19th century a population of 45,000, Sheffield had neither Quarter Sessions nor an Assizes Court.
“The civil jurisdiction of the local manorial courts continued into the 19th century. In 1756, a local Act of Parliament had constituted the Sheffield and Ecclesall courts (Courts of Requests), with jurisdiction to try claims for sums of less than 40/ (later increased to £5). Each had its own debtor’s prison. The Sheffield prison was originally in Pudding Lane (now King Street) but in 1818 was moved to Scotland Street. That for Ecclesall (known as Little Sheffield Jail) stood at the corner of Bishop Street and Tudor Street Moor (later Thomas Street), near Moorfoot. Each court had jurisdiction over claims arising within the area of each other (a provision designed to prevent debtors escaping arrest by moving from one manor to the other).
“In 1808, the Town Trustees demolished the existing Town Hall and built a new one at the corner of Castle Street. From its opening in 1810 this building served as court-house for both the West Riding Magistrates and the Courts of Requests.
“In 1841 a committee of prominent townsmen was formed to petition the Crown for Sheffield (population now 110,000) to be granted a charter incorporating it as a Borough. In 1848 the Borough was granted its own Commission of the Peace. Thenceforth two Magistrates courts sat at Castle Street – a Borough Magistrates’ court trying cases arising within the town and a West Riding court trying cases from the outlying district.
“The incorporation of the town meant that Sheffield acquired its own Borough Coroner. Inquests at this date were commonly held in public houses (in 1876 the inquest into the Banner Cross murder for which Charlie Peace was hanged was held at the Stag Inn, Sharrow Head), and this unsatisfactory practice only ended with the building of a public mortuary and coroner’s court in Plum Street in 1884 (replaced in 1914 by a new building in Nursery Street and in 1977 by the present Medico-Legal Centre). In the meantime, the Small Debts Court Act, 1846 had been passed providing for the establishment of county courts throughout England and Wales. Sheffield got its own court in 1847. At first it sat in Castle Street but in 1854 a County Court Hall was erected in Bank Street. The coming of the County Court meant the end of the Courts of Requests.
“In 1864 both Manchester and Leeds were made Assize towns (belatedly following Liverpool in 1835). The Borough Council promoted a Bill to make Sheffield an Assize town in 1867, planning to erect a new court-house in Castle Street on the site of the existing court-house and the adjacent Black Rock public house. The West Riding was scandalised, particularly Doncaster Borough Council, not wishing to fund a new public building in Sheffield, and the Government made it clear that it would not grant its status.
“In 1880 Sheffield sought and was granted its own Quarter Sessions. Its first Recorder was Alfred Wills Q.C., who fifteen years later, would try and jail Oscar Wilde. Its court-house was the Castle Street building. In 1888 Sheffield became a County Borough and was created a city in 1893, and by the early 20th century, was the most populous city on the North-eastern Circuit with no Assize.
“In the 1930s the Council took up the question asking the Royal Commission on the Despatch of Business at Common Law. In its Third Report (1936) the Commission urged that the city’s claims be given ‘the most sympathetic consideration’, and later the same year the Circuit Towns Committee recommended that Sheffield become an Assize town. The City Council busied itself with plans for a new court-house. Initially the site of the old Albert Hall (Cole Brothers) in Barker’s Pool was considered.
“Eventually, the Council plumped for a site in Eyre Street close to the Central Library. A compulsory purchase order was obtained but WW2 brought the scheme to a halt.
“In 1953, Lord Chief Justice Goddard declared that Castle Street court-house would serve as a temporary home for the Assizes. Alterations to the place were made, and Whirlow Court, which had been acquired as judges’ lodgings, converted to its new purpose (pre-war the Council had contemplated acquiring nearby Parkhead House).
“In 1955 an Order in Council was made creating Sheffield a new Assize Division, and on June 23 the first Assize was held. In 1962 the Sheffield Assize Division was by Act of Parliament made a separate judicial county (Hallamshire) with its own High Sheriff.
“Sheffield’s Assize so long in gestation had only a short life. On January 1, 1972, it was, together with the City Quarter Sessions, swept away and replaced by the Crown Court.
“The Castle Street court-house served as the home for the new court. In 1978 the City Magistrates moved out to a new court-house a few hundred yards away, releasing more court rooms for use by the Crown Court. But even this proved insufficient. In 1984-85 the County Hall Court was provided with cells and courtrooms capable of taking criminal cases as an overflow building for the Crown Court.“
It wasn’t until 1996 that all these were closed and moved to the new Combined Court Centre at West Bar. The Castle Street court-house (more commonly referred to as the Old Town Hall) has remained empty, but never out of the news, ever since.
© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.