December 11 2013 Latest news:
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Norwich’s historic Shirehall courtroom has been reopened to the public, a quarter-century since sentence was last passed.
One of Norwich’s most recognised landmarks, the stone keep was completed in 1120 by Henry I.
In 1345 it was sold off by Edward III, and began life as the county jail.
It continued as such until 1792, when a new jail was built around it, butt this quickly became outdated. The outside block was demolished around it between 1822 and 1827, and redesigned by William Wilkins.
The new prison included a chapel and governor’s house, with cell blocks off to each side in a panopticon design, meaning each part of the prison could be seen from the centre. Prisoners also began to be separated by gender and crime, where previously they had been mixed together.
The prison was linked securely to the Shirehall courtrooms, which came into use in 1822.
Prisoners on trial would be led from their cells, down the 58 steps of the spiral staircase and through a dark, dank tunnel to holding cell outside the courtroom door.
“Prison was a very new concept as a place of punishment, as it had been used as a holding place prior to the 19th century,” said Kimberley Nelson, a member of the learning team at Norwich Castle.
Petty sessions were overseen by magistrates four times a year, but assize courts – equivalent to modern-day crown court – were held twice a year.
Miss Nelson added: “If cases were put off, prisoners could be held for 12 or 18 months without trial. They would be in a great deal of fear, because the assize courts dealt with capital punishment.
“If prisoners found themselves in that holding cell, they were on trial for their life.”
The county jail was moved to Mousehold Heath in Norwich in 1883, though the courtroom remained in use until 1988, when cases were transferred to the new complex at Bishopgate.
Murderers, brigands and bandits passed through the doors of the courthouse during the 186 years it served as the county’s court, but it has lain empty and derelict since its closure in 1988.
A £75,000 facelift has seen the room restored to its original condition, and it is now set to play a starring role in a educational ‘living history’ performances at the Norwich Castle Museum.
Under ambitious plans outlined by the museum, the imposing wood-panelled venue could even be used for weddings, conferences or dramatic performances.
Central to the new plans will be theatrical guided tours, allowing school groups and visitors to walk in the footsteps of prisoners on trial in Victorian times – when the county jail and courtroom were linked – as they descend the spiral staircase to meet their fate in their courtroom.
Rachel Kirk, Norwich museums manager, said the reopening of the refurbished courtroom, marked on Tuesday by a historical reenactment of the notorious James Blomfield Rush trial, was “a very exciting development”.
“This will allow us to develop a whole new offer for our visitors,” she said.
“We want to do a number of different things as well as court reenactments, but we hope to develop many more things now that this is up and running.”
The museum hopes to link up with schools to help bring to life history and citizenship courses, but is also looking for creative ideas from the public for uses for the new space as they examine the commercial potential of their buildings.
Mrs Kirk said: “The economic pressures are significant and we all know that local authorities have smaller budgets, but rather than just cutting services we are looking at how we can generate income from our activities.
“We want to make sure we still offer a great service to our customers but we have to work our buildings a lot more.”
After securing heritage funding from Norfolk County Council, work began 18 months ago on restoring the courtroom to its former glory, removing damp from the roof and mould from the basement, and repairing structural problems.
Museum conservation officers even researched the precise colour the courtroom was painted in its heyday – a tone the Victorians named ‘drab’ – and the authentic fixtures and fittings.
Colly Mudie, learning manager, said seeing the project realised was “a dream come true”.
“I never thought when I came here six years ago that we would have a court room up and running, so really we are delighted,” she said.
“We have some ideas for what we could do in the spaec but we’re really keen to hear what ideas the public have as well.”
Norfolk county councillor John Ward said returning the room to use opened up a host of possibilities.
“I’ve been involved with the museum for many years and I remember this room being used as a storage room, which I always thought was rather a waste. I was one of the ones who asked for something to be done about it and we can now see the fruition,” he said.
“I’m absolutely delighted. I think it will offer huge possibilities as a venue for weddings, educational purposes and for drama.”
Theatrical tours of the courtroom must be booked in advance. To find out more, contact the bookings line on 01603 493636.