A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.
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THE COUNTY TOWN. (fn. 1)
It is not possible in a history of Warwick to diverge far into the realm of county government; yet it was as the shire town that Warwick achieved much of its prominence. It probably had this function from the early 10th century, when the county was created, (fn. 2) and both before the Conquest and in 1086 the profits from the pleas of the shire were part of the combined royal farm from the borough and the county. (fn. 3) Warwick became the regular stopping place for the justices in eyre in the county from the beginning of the 13th century, though in 1232, 1236, and 1240 they sat only at Coventry, and not at both places, as was more usual. (fn. 4) At the beginning of the 13th century a gaol and a county hall of pleas - sometimes called the common hall (fn. 5) - were built at Warwick and both were used throughout the Middle Ages, (fn. 6) both by the justices in eyre and on the occasional visits of the king's bench, such as in 1326, 1334, and 1352. (fn. 7) Warwick was, of course, the normal meeting-place of the county sessions of the peace. (fn. 8)
During the 16th and 17th centuries the justices of assize on the midland circuit continued to sit at Warwick, either just before, or just after, the sessions at Coventry, with few exceptions. (fn. 9) Regular sessions were suspended, for example, from 1642 for four years, though commissions of gaol delivery were issued in 1644 and 1645, (fn. 10) and the Lent sessions of 1667 for Coventry and the county were both held at Coventry. (fn. 11) The Summer sessions of 1689 were held at Coventry and Warwick on the same day. (fn. 12)
These two divisions remained until 1843 when Warwickshire was re-divided, the justices of assize sitting at Coventry having jurisdiction over the city, and also over the Atherstone and Coleshill divisions of Hemlingford Hundred, and the Risby and Rugby divisions of Knighton Hundred. (fn. 13) Those at Warwick retained jurisdiction over the rest of the county. From the Winter sessions of 1859 civil cases from Warwick division could be heard at Birmingham, (fn. 14) a move unpopular with the town council at Warwick. (fn. 15) In 1884 the county was again reorganized into two new divisions, respectively named Warwick and Birmingham. (fn. 16)
The growth of county government in Warwick as elsewhere during the 17th century through the quarter sessions gave Warwick an increasing importance as the administrative centre for the county. (fn. 17) More responsibilities were given to the justices from the end of the 18th century, (fn. 18) culminating in their appointment as the police authority for the county after 1856. (fn. 19) Among the first additions to the county buildings in Warwick were the police offices, erected in 1882-3, (fn. 20) The establishment of the Warwickshire County Council in 1888 (fn. 21) separated the administrative and judicial functions of the justices of the peace, and created the need for permanent central administrative offices. The clerk of the peace and the Education Office used parts of the gaol, then largely occupied by the militia, (fn. 22) but the increased activities of the county council, particularly after the Local Government Act, 1929, necessitated further accommodation. This was provided by the reconstruction of the old gaol in Northgate and Barrack Streets in 1932 (fn. 23) and the use of other houses in Northgate Street, which form a closely-knit administrative sector in the town.
The present complex of county buildings comprises the Shire Hall, the former county gaol and house of correction, and the nearby Judges' Lodgings. The history of the gaol at Warwick begins in 1200. The site was then bought from Hugh de Loges and a substantial sum spent upon construction. (fn. 24) It was not the first common gaol in Warwickshire, for those at Kineton and Kenilworth had preceded it. (fn. 25) The works at Warwick continued into 1201, when a wicket and two louvers were provided, (fn. 26) and in 1203 a plot of ground was purchased in front of the building 'to hold the pleas of the gaol'. (fn. 27) The plot is by much the earliest recorded site of any county hall of pleas or sessions house.
Further works, though less expensive ones than those of 1200-3, were done in 1210-14, (fn. 28) and in 1220 the gaol began to be delivered by 'four knights' (fn. 29) - one of the very first gaols, so far as the records show, to which that procedure was applied. Further repairs were ordered in 1235, (fn. 30) 1249, (fn. 31) and 1271. (fn. 32) There are grounds for thinking that between 1229 and 1233 the gaol was not in use, for within that period it was not delivered. Kenilworth gaol was used instead, though Warwick was sometimes the place of delivery. (fn. 33)
From c. 1260 until c. 1280 the gaol was sometimes used for housing Leicestershire prisoners, although there was at that time a gaol in Leicester. About 1285, however, Leicester gaol was abandoned and for the next fifteen years or so Warwick served both counties. Then a new gaol was built in Leicester, and Warwick was relieved. (fn. 34)
In 1320 repairs to the gaol and the hall of pleas were ordered, (fn. 35) after the sheriff had made representations about their ruinous state. (fn. 36) They do not seem to have been carried out until 1325 at the earliest, when an enquiry showed that there were still serious defects in both buildings. (fn. 37) Further repairs, apparently to the gaol alone, took place in 1336-7. (fn. 38) Nevertheless the buildings were still in a sad plight in 1344, when dilapidations were estimated at as much as £60, (fn. 39) and in 1376-7 the gaol hall was said to be ruinous. (fn. 40) Accounts surviving for the period 1421-64, (fn. 41) however, imply regular maintenance, and in the years 1452-9 repairs were carried out each year. Maintenance was also careful in the period 1532-71 (fn. 42) and in the years 1541-56 some work was done regularly, almost every alternate year.
Gaol and gaol hall appear to have formed a single structure, the two parts being separated by a party wall. (fn. 43) They were built of stone and roofed with tiles, brought in 1449 and 1452-4 from Berkswell. (fn. 44) In 1344 a room for jurors existed in the hall. The gaol proper contained a 'pit', presumably for suspect felons, and a separated room for prisoners held for trespass. (fn. 45) Later there are references to the 'chamber' (1434-5) (fn. 46) or 'house' (1449) supra prisonar'. (fn. 47) It seems as though this 'chamber' stood above the pit, which, with its stone-lined sides, (fn. 48) was wholly or partly underground. The hall was on a different level from the 'chamber', for a flight of stone steps was built in 1462 to connect the two. (fn. 49) In 1449 either the hall or the gaol contained a scaccarium, with benches in it. (fn. 50) In 1541-2 a new floor was constructed 'over half the hall', with a 'gallery for men to stand in', and the walls of the hall were lime-washed. (fn. 51)
Both gaol and hall stood from the outset in the eastern suburb (fn. 52) and probably in Gaolhall Lane (now Gerrard Street), a street so named in Henry VII's reign (fn. 53) and marked on Hollar's plan of 1654. (fn. 54) This being so, it is curious to find it sometimes stated or implied that the gaol was in the castle. (fn. 55) Thus the enquiry of 1325 (fn. 56) was entrusted not to the sheriff but to the constable, in 1367 and 1368 commissions were issued to deliver the castle gaol, (fn. 57) a financial document of 1449 expressly places the gaol within the castle, (fn. 58) and in 1497, 1501, 1502, and 1507 (fn. 59) further commissions, similar to those of 1367 and 1368, were issued for the delivery of the castle gaol. In some of these instances the scribe may have fallen into error. It may, however, be that the castle was indeed sometimes in use either as the sole or an additional prison. Certainly a purpose-built prison existed in the base of Caesar's Tower. For a part if not for the whole of the period 1497-1507 the castle was in the Crown's hands, (fn. 60) and possibly at this time the true gaol and the castle were used concurrently. Certainly in 1501, 1502, 1507, and 1508, years in which the delivery of the castle gaol was ordered, commissions were also issued to deliver, in the conventional phrase, the 'gaol of Warwick'. (fn. 61)
Whatever all this may mean it seems reasonably clear that by 1590 the castle was being used as a gaol. It was stated in 1601 that a building that was obviously the castle had been 'a common gaol these ten or twelve years', (fn. 62) and it so remained until it was granted by the Crown to Greville in 1604. (fn. 63) The castle had escheated to the Crown on the death of Ambrose Dudley in 1590 (fn. 64) and could have served as a prison from that time, which agrees well with the assertion of 1601.
The castle, however, was not used for long, for by 1625 the gaoler had converted his own house into a prison. It was then apparently repaired out of a county rate. It long remained in bad condition, but does not seem to have housed many prisoners in the early years of the century. Later on it was crowded with dissenters; in 1661, for example, George Fox reported that 140 Quakers were confined there. (fn. 65) Jonathan Cooke, gentleman, keeper of the gaol by Easter 1663, (fn. 66) used his house in High Pavement as the gaol, and returned 12 hearths for tax in that year. (fn. 67) It was returned in 1670 with 18 hearths by John Hipsley, and again in 1671, 1673, and 1674. (fn. 68)
The medieval gaol hall was abandoned earlier than the gaol. After 1541-2 there are no references to its repair and it seems that by 1571 a building called 'the Shire Hall' was being used instead. This lay in Northgate Street on or near the site of the Shire Hall of today. (fn. 69) It had been called 'the Steward's Place' since at least 1479-80, and is known later to have been the official residence of successive manorial stewards. (fn. 70) This building the burgesses asked the Crown and the Earls of Warwick and Leicester in 1571 (fn. 71) to convey to them in exchange for the Guild Hall. In 1576 their petition was granted, (fn. 72) on condition that the justices and sheriff could keep their sessions there. (fn. 73) In 1590 it came into the hands of the Crown as part of the castle. (fn. 74) In 1595 the Crown let it to the corporation, along with St. Peter's Chapel and the Cross House for 40 years. (fn. 75) In 1600 the Crown granted the freehold to Richard Dawes and Thomas Wagstaffe. (fn. 76) They, in turn, in the same year, sold it to William Spicer who sold it to the corporation. (fn. 77) The corporation kept it until 1676. Here the election of the bailiff took place in 1573, 1574 and 1581; and here commissioners of enquiry into charges against the corporation held their sessions in 1583. (fn. 78) Some of the burgesses then considered it too public to be convenient. After transfer to the burgesses in 1576 it seems to have been rebuilt, for it was described as 'lately builded' in 1581. (fn. 79) Not until after about 1590 did the burgesses use it as their common hall for regular meetings of the corporation, (fn. 80) but the condition of grant in 1576 indicates its regular use for assizes and quarter sessions. It was furnished for this purpose, for by 1583 there was a bench, a bar, and a 'cheker', within which the clerk of the court could sit and lay out his books on a long table. (fn. 81) The parliamentary election for the borough was held there in 1620. (fn. 82)
The Warwick house of correction is first mentioned in 1625, when the quarter sessions records begin. Until the erection of a special building late in the century, it seems that the county rented a house to be used for this purpose. From at least 1676 the house used was in Wallditch, adjoining the site of the new building. (fn. 83)
In 1676 the county assumed full responsibility for the upkeep of all three buildings, Shire Hall, gaol, and house of correction. The corporation conveyed the Shire Hall to trustees for the county and a house and land in Northgate Street and Wallditch (later Bridewell Lane, now Barrack Street) were bought for the erection of a new gaol and house of correction. Some adjoining property was also acquired, including a house which was probably the existing house of correction. Work on the rebuilding of the Shire Hall began almost at once, under the supervision of William Hurlbut (fn. 84) who may have been the architect for all these buildings. The work appears to have been almost complete by 1686 and the house of correction was ready for occupation in 1687, but repairs were necessary during the following few years, especially at the Shire Hall. The Shire Hall escaped the fire of 1694 with only minor damage; the house of correction and the gaol were destroyed, but within two years they had been rebuilt. In 1705 the buildings were described as lying on the west side of Northgate Street, the house of correction being the most northerly and the Shire Hall the most southerly. The known expenditure on the buildings between 1675 and 1705 was over £2,800, and constant attention was given to their repair during the earlier 18th century. (fn. 85)
The most illuminating description of any of these buildings is that given in a report on the management of the gaol in 1719. There were then eight chambers let to prisoners for rent ('the master's side'), and a women's ward and various chambers and garrets which were occupied rent-free by debtors ('the common side'); a debtors' hall and a dungeon hall were also mentioned. (fn. 86)
The first major alteration to the buildings of 1675-1705 came with the erection of a new Shire Hall in 1753-58. (fn. 87) Rebuilding had been agreed upon in 1749 and the Market Hall was taken over while work was in progress. A private Act was obtained in 1757 to provide for meeting the expense of the new building. The design was by Sanderson Miller, the amateur architect, the surveyors and builders being William and David Hiorn of Warwick; (fn. 88) they used local sandstone quarried near the Butts. The facade of the building has since been re-faced but little altered and only slight interior reconstruction took place until 1864 when accommodation for officials and witnesses was added on ground at the rear. (fn. 89)
Urgent repairs were necessary to the gaol and house of correction in 1758, but it was not until after the visit of John Howard in 1776 that large-scale reconstruction was decided upon. Howard found that the building then housed 57 prisoners. Debtors and male felons had one courtyard, with a day room and a 'close, damp and offensive' dungeon as a night room, while female felons had a separate courtyard, with one day and two night rooms; a second dungeon housed the condemned. Later in 1776 the house of correction was presented by the justices as inadequate, and in 1777 they similarly presented the gaol; in the latter year they obtained an Act which authorized both to be rebuilt and considerable reconstruction was in fact carried out during the next 20 years. (fn. 90)
Between 1779 and 1783 the gaol was much enlarged by Thomas Johnson, the Warwick architect; the facade which remains is considered 'remarkable as one of the earliest attempts to adapt Greek Doric to the purposes of an English public building'. (fn. 91) A new house of correction was next built, designed and executed by Henry Couchman, between 1784 and 1787. Couchman then fitted up parts of the old house to enlarge the gaol and began extensions to the gaol in 1790. (fn. 92) Hornton, Grafton, and Warwick stone was used, some of the last being taken from the site itself. The present Barrack Street frontage was completed in 1793 but further work was done in 1796-8. The total cost of Couchman's work between 1784 and 1798 was nearly £21,400. (fn. 93)
Constant repairs and alterations were necessary after 1798, one notable step being a plan for the separation of boys from men in the gaol in 1808. This had not been implemented when Neild visited the prison. (fn. 94) The dungeon commented upon by Howard ceased to be used in 1797, though deserters were still occasionally house there. (fn. 95) At that time the gaol had a large room, 27 lodging rooms, and a courtyard for master's side debtors; 3 rooms, a dayroom and a courtyard for common side debtors; 2 rooms and a courtyard for female debtors; 2 rooms, a courtyard and 103 cells for male felons; a room, a courtyard, an infirmary and 4 cells for female felons; together with a chapel, 2 work-rooms, and a condemned cell. Neild reported that all the rooms were clean and in good condition. (fn. 96)
The buildings were abandoned in 1860 (fn. 97) in favour of a new prison at the Cape which had much increased accommodation: in 1865 there were 2 yards, 4 dayrooms, and 309 cells for criminals; and 4 yards, 5 dayrooms, and 43 sleeping rooms for debtors. (fn. 98) The Cape prison was used until c. 1915, but after 1884 only for the Warwick Division of the county. (fn. 99) Most of it was demolished in 1933 and houses have been built on the site. (fn. 100) It was decided in 1861 to use the site of the gaol and the house of correction for barracks for the 1st Regiment of the Warwickshire Militia and for cells for prisoners awaiting trial at the Shire Hall. Work on the demolition of the old and the erection of the new buildings began in 1862, but little alteration was made to the existing frontages. (fn. 101)
Most of the premises were used for the militia for many years. In 1905 they were leased to the government and in 1914-18 were used as an army record office. The War Office finally gave up the buildings in 1930, but in the previous year the foundation stone for new county council offices on the site had already been laid; these were opened in 1932. The outer walls of the old buildings were retained, the original frontages to Northgate Street and Barrack Street again being little altered. At the same time new accommodation for those attending courts in the Shire Hall was provided in place of some of the rooms added in 1864. (fn. 102) Extensions completed in 1966 provided new accommodation including committee rooms and office space, with a new main entrance from the Market Square. (fn. 103) The house known as Abbotsford was at the same time restored and incorporated into the new structure. Alterations and additions were also made to the council's offices occupying the Georgian houses on the east side of Northgate Street. The Judges' Lodgings, to the south of the Shire Hall, which is used as a residence for judges on circuit, by justices, and by the county council, was built at the cost of £8,000 in 1814-16 by Henry Hakewill. (fn. 104)
The public buildings on the west side of Northgate Street begin with the Judges' Lodgings at the south end. Set back from the road, this house has an ashlar facade with a rusticated lower story and angle pilasters above; the central porch is flanked by Ionic columns. Extensions to the south were built in 1955 and 1963. (fn. 105) Next comes the Shire Hall. The building of 1753-58 was completely re-faced with Hollington stone in 1948. It has a nine-bay front consisting of one tall story above a rusticated plinth. The three central bays project slightly and have attached Corinthian columns surmounted by an entablature and pediment; the Warwickshire coat of arms in the tympanum was carved in 1948. The central roundheaded entrance is flanked by niches. The remainder of the front has a pedimented window to each bay. The bays are divided by flat Corinthian pilasters with double pilasters at the angles. The entablature is continuous across the whole facade and in all the bays there are carved swags between the capitals. The interior of the front range comprises a large stone-faced room with a coffered ceiling, pilasters, columns, and a frieze with garlands. Behind are two octagonal courtrooms with freestanding Corinthian columns; one room has an ornamental ceiling and an octagonal lantern. The west side of the street is completed by the long two-storied front of the former gaol, (fn. 106) built in 1779-83 with additions at the northern end of 1790-93. The main facade, which is of the same height as the Shire Hall but more severe in style, is of ashlar with a modern plinth of Hornton stone. The central three of the eleven bays project slightly and are crowned by a pediment. The three arches which lead through the centre of the range were inserted in 1862. Along the whole facade massive unfluted columns of the Greek Doric order support an entablature with a triglyph frieze. The Northgate Street front was adapted as part of new buildings for the county council in 1930-32. Extensions facing the Market Place, completed in 1966, were the work of G. R. Barnsley (county architect, 1957-9). (fn. 107)