Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead. Originally published by Mackenzie and Dent, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827.
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THE COUNTY COURTS.
The Moot Hall was long used for the keeping of assize, sessions, and gaol-delivery, for the county of Northumberland; (fn. 1) but in the progress of modern improvements, it became so extremely inconvenient, and the prison in the Castle was so frequently condemned for its inconveniency and unhealthiness, that the gentlemen of the grand jury, in 1808, proposed the erection of a new building, which might do honour to the liberality and humanity of the county. Accordingly, an act of parliament was obtained in the following year, by the exertions of the Right Hon. Earl Percy, "to enable his majesty to grant the Moot Hall, Grand Jury Room, and certain grounds and buildings adjoining thereto, in the Castle Garth, within the scite of the old Castle of Newcastle upon Tyne, to the justices of the peace for the county of Northumberland, for building courts of justice, and also a gaol for the said county, and for other purposes relating thereto." (fn. 2) At the assizes this year, various plans were laid before the grand jury, when that presented by Mr. William Stokoe was finally adopted. This was truly a gigantic undertaking. Before even the foundation was dug, it was necessary to remove an enormous mound, surrounded by what was called the Half-moon Battery. This vast accumulation of ashes, dung, &c. was about 32 feet high, above 100 feet in length, and of great breadth. After its removal, the digging of the foundation took place, when several antiquities were discovered, which clearly proved that this was the scite of a Roman station before it was occupied by the Saxons. About 14 feet from the surface, two copper coins of the emperor Antoninus, and two Roman altars, were found. The workmen also discovered two sets of stags' horns; a bone or ivory pin, by which the Romans fastened their mantles; a small hatchet, and a number of oak beams and posts of framed work. When at the depth of five feet from the surface, a well was found (filled up) which was walled with excellent hewn mason-work, to the depth of nine feet. At the bottom were two buckets with their iron chains, and several other things.
On Monday, July 22, 1810, the foundation of this noble fabric was laid by the Right Hon. the Earl Percy, as representative of his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, the Lord Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of the county. The magistrates, and a considerable number of gentlemen of Newcastle and the county, assembled in the Guild-Hall at eleven o'clock. The procession was there marshalled, and walked up the streets to the scite of the courts, in the following order:—
The space for the procession, in the streets, was kept by the Newcastle Volunteer rifle-company. The ground in the Castle Garth was paled off, and accommodations erected for the ladies. On the arrival of Earl Percy and the procession on the scite of the courts, the Percy Tenantry and the Newcastle Volunteers, who were drawn up in a square, presented arms, and a salute of twenty-one guns was fired from the old Castle. The magistrates then drew round the stone, and the adjourned sessions being opened, Thomas Clennell, Esq. the chairman, with a short and appropriate speech, presented the silver trowel to the noble earl, in the name of the justices, to lay the foundation of a building, which, he trusted, would be an ornament to the town of Newcastle, and a credit to the county of Northumberland. The following inscription, engraven on a plate of brass, was then read aloud by the clerk of the peace:—
"Under the Auspices of the most noble Hugh Duke and Earl of Northumberland, Earl and Baron Percy, Baron Lucy, Poynings, Fitzpayne, Brian, Latimer, and Warkworth, and Baronet, Lord Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of the County of Northumberland, and of the Town and County of the Town of Newcastle upon Tyne; Vice-Admiral of the same and the maritime Parts thereof; General of his Majesty's Forces, Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards Blue, and Knight of the most noble Order of the Garter, &c. &c.
"This Stone was laid by The Right Honourable Hugh Earl Percy, his eldest Son, and One of the Representatives in Parliament for the County of Northumberland, in the Presence of a Bench of Justices of that County, on the 23d Day of July, in the 50th Year of the Reign of his Majesty King George the III. A. D. 1810.
The plate, which was inclosed in a case of glass, was then deposited in the stone, as were various gold, silver, and copper coins, of his late majesty. The stone was then raised by pulleys, and laid by Earl Percy, who spread the mortar with his trowel, and tried the level with the plumb rule. His lordship then addressed the spectators as follows:—
"Gentlemen,—I cannot lose so favourable an opportunity of expressing the regret which my father feels at being prevented attending this ceremony in person; and could any thing add to the feelings which I must naturally have in laying the foundation stone of such a building, it is the number and respectability of the gentlemen who have honoured the ceremony with their attendance.
"To Mr. Stokoe, the architect, the warmest praise is due; and in offering the sincere wish of myself, I trust I may be allowed to add those of the gentlemen present on this occasion, that complete success may attend his exertions.
"Within this building, may British justice, in all its purity, be administered to succeeding ages, and may our latest posterity enjoy the benefit of trial by jury, that palladium of British liberty— that proudest boast of the British constitution."
This speech was received with a burst of acclamation. The clerk of the peace then handed to the chairman a letter from his grace the lord lieutenant, in which was inclosed £3000, as a donation towards the erection of the Court, in aid of the county-rates, which his grace observed would naturally fall heavy upon the less opulent freeholders.
The chairman, mounting the stone, and displaying the three bank notes of £1000 each, explained the purport of the letter, and observed that this magnificent donation was a confirmation of the generosity which the county had often before experienced of the noble house of Percy. The gift was received with cheers; and, on the proposition of the chairman, the letter, and the thanks of the magistrates, were immediately entered in the archives of the county. Another salute of twenty-one guns was fired from the Castle, the Newcastle Volunteers firing a volley after every seventh gun. The court being adjourned, the procession returned in reversed order to the Guild-Hall. In the afternoon, about 90 gentlemen sat down to a sumptuous dinner, at which Earl Percy presided. His lordship gave £50 to the workmen employed in building these courts.
The foundations of this noble building are constructed of the most massive and durable materials. It is of an oblong form, being 144 feet in length by 72 feet in breadth. The south portico consists of six fluted pillars of the Grecian Doric, each pillar being 28 feet in height, and five feet in diameter. The shafts of the columns are placed on three steps, proportioned to the magnitude of the edifice. The capitals of the pillars, the architrave, the frieze, and the cornice, are formed after the best examples of the pure Doric. The north portico, consisting of four pillars, conducts into the grand entrance-hall, beyond which is a large room for the grand jury. On the right of the entrance-hall is the crown court, and on the left the nisi prius court. The length of these courts is equal to the breadth of the building. The bench is at the south end of both the courts; and from each are communications with the grand jury room. The prisoners are brought from prison to the bar by a small, private stair-case. The north division of each court consists of a low gallery, which is separated from the court by an open iron railing, and rises gradually by stone steps. A door at each end of the north side opens upon stairs that conduct into this place, which is calculated to hold a great number of spectators. This ample accommodation for the public is much more consonant with the spirit of the British constitution, than many of the exclusive, confined closets, which in the metropolis are called open courts. In each wing are convenient rooms for the judge, the petty jury, witnesses, &c. Above these are suites of other apartments for the gaoler, &c.; and above the grand jury room is a commodious apartment for the councillors. (fn. 3) The prison is beneath the courts, and consists of a great number of cells, which are dry, well lighted and ventilated, and furnished with fire-places. Their deep, strongly secured windows face the south. The cells are arched over by massive stones, nicely jointed; and as they support the superincumbent buildings, prisoners are as safe within these walls as if they were confined in the centre of the earth. Their erection has removed the reproach from the county, which arose from the dismal and horrid prison in the Castle. These cells are at present used as the felons' gaol for the town and county of Newcastle. The whole fabric is enclosed partly by walls and buildings, and partly by ornamental gates and iron palisadoes.
While these courts were being erected, the assizes for the county of Northumberland were held in St. Nicholas' church; but the building was so far finished, that temporary benches were fitted up in the crown court, and the assize held there on August 7, 1812. The Honourable Judge Bayley, in his charge to the grand jury (on opening the commission), remarked that the excellence of the accommodations of the new Courts had afforded him greater satisfaction than any similar erection he had ever seen.
This building is certainly one of the grandest public structures that have been erected in modern times in the north of England, and is amongst the finest and purest specimens of ancient architecture ever attempted in this kingdom. The classic simplicity and sublimity of the design accords with the dignity and importance of a hall of justice, and reflects honour on the judgment of the architect, and the taste and spirit of the gentlemen of Northumberland. The whole building is formed of large blocks of polished stone, and emulates the stability and grandeur of a Grecian temple. In short, it is one of the proudest ornaments of this metropolis of the north, and is conspicuously seated upon a lofty eminence that rises about 90 feet above the level of the Sandhill. It is discoverable from many parts of the town, but appears to singular advantage when viewed from the Tyne Bridge, and must impress strangers coming from the south with a favourable idea of the taste and magnificence displayed in our public buildings. The effect would be greatly heightened were the dwelling-houses opposite the north end of the Tyne Bridge pulled down, so as to expose this bold eminence and the whole fabric to view, with the terrace in front of its fine portico. (fn. 4) The stairs from the street to the terrace might, if properly con structed, add considerably to the beauty and imposing character of this building. But as the county of Northumberland possesses no immediate interest in this improvement, it will perhaps never be effected, unless patronized by the corporation of the town. It was also proposed to make a convenient coach-road from the Sandhill, to wind round the hill on which the Castle stands, and to leave open the south front of the new Courts; but though the levels were taken, and its practicability demonstrated, yet the project was viewed generally with coldness and indifference, as all despaired of the practicability of reconciling conflicting interests. The building of the new courts cost the county nearly £52,400.