The historic Warwick Crown Court closed its doors this week. Brett Gibbons looks at the history of the building and the site where justice has been administered for more than 500 years.
If walls could talk the ancient stone structure of Warwick Crown Court would be able to offer an illuminating insight into some of the country’s most fascinating criminal cases.
But final verdicts were reached and sentences passed in the tiny wood-panelled courtrooms this week as the judiciary moved from dated Shire Hall, Northgate, to a new £30 million complex in nearby Leamington Spa.
Shire Hall was home to Warwick Assizes from the late 15th century until 1972, when the justice system was re-organised to be replaced by the crown court.
For hundreds of years, villains have seen their freedom snatched away by fearsome judges determined to preserve the highest standards of law and order, while others have faced the gallows for crimes which today would not even warrant a community order.
Besides serious offences, misdemeanours such as rustling, theft and assault prompted judges to don their Black Caps to issue the ultimate punishment.
Sailor Philip Matsell was one of the last criminals to be publicly hanged in the UK when he was sentenced to death at Warwick Assizes in 1806 for shooting a “peace officer.”
More than 40,000 onlookers saw him strung up in Birmingham after the judge in Warwick refused to believe his alibi that he was drunk and incapable of murder.
During the 1880s a group of Midland bankers were sentenced to years of hard labour for defrauding customers and causing the collapse of a financial institution.
The miscreants would have been squashed into a dungeon measuring just 21ft in diameter situated directly under Court One. It was built as part of the original jail that adjoined the court and often housed more than 40 chained prisoners at once.
Life was not pleasant for criminals waiting to appear before the judge. Felons were kept without food, water and basic hygienic facilities as they were forced to walk for hours on a giant Victorian treadmill to pump water into the nearby prison and avoid further punishment in the cells which adjoined the court.
Nowadays, prisoners are kept relatively comfortably in six male cells and one female cell directly underneath the court complex.
High-profile Warwick Crown Court cases have involved Colin Waite, who was jailed for life in 2003 for the murder of Nicola Dixon on New Year’s Eve 1999; ex-Specials singer Stan Campbell, who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after being found guilty of sex offences against a young girl; while former soldier Jeffrey Lendrum was jailed for 30 months earlier this year for attempting to smuggle 14 rare peregrine falcon eggs through Birmingham Airport.
Resident Judge Christopher Hodson, flanked by Judge Marten Coates, the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire and the High Sheriff, marked the end of an era in a packed courtroom one as the court closed on Tuesday.
Judge Hodson said one of his favourite memories explains why some members of the judiciary have shown such insight when summing up cases.
The judge’s retiring room for court one faces the windows of the cell block, and “it has not been unknown for an accused in custody to explore his defence” with friends in the gents’ toilets, which also face the cell windows.
“Alas, no such aid to summing-up will be available in Leamington Spa, but it has to be accepted this is no longer a suitable forum for criminal trials in the 21st century,” he said.
Among those leaving the court will be senior listings officer Jane Beckett.She said: “Like the majority of people who work here, I’m sorry to be leaving the history of the building and the beautiful court rooms.
“Having worked in a modern court and an old court, I feel the aura in the crown court at Warwick is much stronger – and more intimidating for defendants.
“But from a practical point of view I know the court is unfortunately no longer ‘fit for purpose.’
“It’s sad to be leaving this court – but it’s going to be a new challenge.We’re all going to be working in a different way in a new environment, working with colleagues from other agencies and the magistrates court much more closely.”
Daily listing manager and former court clerk Tess Trinder, who has worked at the court for 23 years, said: “Of course not every day here has been a pleasure, but by and large I have loved it, and will be extremely sad to see it go. The new building may have lots of facilities, but we will miss the old place.”
Nicholas Palmer, of Warwickshire County Council, said the interior of the court complex would remain untouched.
“It has stayed this way for generations and will not be altered because it is Grade I-listed.
“However, the courts must be moved because they are too tiny for today’s justice system. More room is needed to contain the high-tech audio and visual systems needed for trials and extra space is required to enable a modern trial to run smoothly.’’
A final decision has yet to be made on the future of the splendid building, which is also home for the administration nerve centre of Warwickshire County Council. A recent poll of residents suggested that Shire Hall be converted to a hotel and shopping mall or handed over to English Heritage as a tourist attraction.
The jury is still out on its future.