The Old Town Hall remains in predicament after failing to sell at auction. It was to be sold by Allsop auctioneers but attracted no bids – despite a sale figure of £750K, a big drop on the original asking price of £1.35m.
The Grade II listed building was put up for sale by receivers appointed after the collapse of Aestrom OTH Ltd, the company set up to restore the building.
The Old Town Hall was commissioned to replace the original one next to the Parish Church and designed by Charles Watson in 1807-1808. As well as housing the Town Trustees it also accommodated Petty and Quarter Sessions.
The building was extended in 1833 and again in 1866 to designs by William Flockton and his partner George Abbott, linking the courtrooms to the neighbouring Sheffield police offices by underground tunnels. When the current Town Hall was built in 1891-1897 it was extended by Flockton, Gibbs & Flockton to become Sheffield Crown and High Courts. New court buildings were built during the 1990s and the Old Town Hall has stood empty ever since.
The Old Town Hall is significant to Sheffield’s history and its demise has been shocking. The fabric of the building has rapidly worsened and water damage has caused considerable damage to its interiors. Restoration costs are likely to cost millions of pounds.
Its location next to the Castlegate development, recently awarded Government funding, might have made it an attractive acquisition, but developers are at a loss as to what function it might be used for. Until the Castlegate project gets underway the Old Town Hall will stand shrouded in misery.
There are now calls from heritage groups for Sheffield City Council to step in and make good the building, as well as seeking out partners to develop a practical and feasible solution.
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.
Here’s a Sheffield building that you’ll have seen on TV, but its interiors are seldom seen. The Law Courts, at West Bar, don’t attract much passing traffic and pedestrians rarely have reason to venture here.
However, the building is significant as being an important contribution to Britain’s scales of justice.
The fate of the Old Town Hall at Castle Street, and its latter role as a Crown Court, is well publicised and has stood empty in favour of this purpose-built complex since 1995.
In the 1990s, HM Courts Services accepted that the old Crown Court was unsuitable, and that new facilities were needed.
A slightly sloping site was acquired at West Bar, once a thriving thoroughfare, and which had fallen on hard times. The construction of new Law Courts was seen as ‘an expression of confidence in the rehabilitation of the area’.
The Court Service’s requirement for the new Law Courts was for a building with ten Crown Courts, three County Courts, all ancillary facilities, and the Sheffield Probate Sub-Registry.
An integrated team was created under the management of TBV Consult, comprising the client, design consultants, and contractor.
The building was designed by The Napper Partnership (which also designed law courts at Greater Manchester, Bournemouth, Gloucester, Newcastle, Bradford, and Teesside), and construction undertaken by Laing Yorkshire. It took 30 months to complete, coming in three weeks ahead of schedule, and opened for business on programme on 1 November 1995.
The result was a five-storey rectangular building planned around a central courtyard. At second floor level a broad public concourse looking out into the courtyard gave access to the ten Crown Courts. The building was designed to utilise the sloping site which allowed the custody vehicle lock to be provided at lower ground together with the custody area and staff secure covered parking.
The courts had pale maple joinery, high ceilings and extensive windows, a far cry from the dark court rooms of old.
The aim of the design was to establish a tradition by using local materials within an understandable architectural language.
The structure of the building and its organisation in plan and section were clear and distinct, with the column grid forming the basic module for the design of the elevations. The courtrooms situated at second floor level were expressed externally as projecting stone bays supported on robust stone pillars.
Harman and Minnis, in Pevsner’s Architectural Guide, weren’t impressed: –
“A large and forbidding complex built 1993-96, they display a disconcerting mixture of Postmodern elements as though the architects were hedging their bets. The disparate elements simply do not add up, and the result is a building that is as pompous as it is graceless.”
The Law Courts were officially opened by the Right Hon, The Lord Peter Taylor of Gosforth, Lord Chief Justice of England, on 17 May 1996. He was seriously ill at the time and died a few weeks later. Princess Anne made an unannounced visit to the Law Courts in July 2021 to unveil a plaque marking the 25 years since the building was first opened (it had been postponed from 2020 due to the pandemic).
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.