The Hertford Sessions House

Alan Greening

Attempting to unravel the history of a building long since demolished can be an intriguing but frustrating exercise. Such a building is the former Hertford Town Hall or Sessions House, which stood in the Market Place on part of the site now occupied by James Adam’s Shire Hall.

When was it built? The answer has to be, in several stages over a number of years: perhaps almost a century. Ten years ago [1991]  ascribed to it the date “1627”. That is certainly erroneous, and I have to confess that I can no longer trace how I arrived at that conclusion. The building was both older, and more recent, than that date.

Norden’s Survey of 1621 refers to “The Towne Hall scituate in the Market place there and the soyle within the compass thereof and a certain tolle of Come and Graine brought thither to be soulde by virtue of his Majesties charter [1605]…. and that there is paid for the said Towne hall & the soyle thereof to his Majestie the some of two shillings yearly rent and for the Tolle of Come and Graine the yearly rente of six shillings and eightpence”.

The 1605 Borough Charter refers to “a house, lately built upon the waste within the borough, called the town hall ….. reserving to the King the use of the house at the sessions of the peace to be held for the county [i.e., the Quarter Sessions] as hath been used.” Going back still further, to the 1588 Charter, we again find reference to “town hall”.

Part of Speed's map of Hertford c1610 showing buildings including a chruch in the castle grounds and the current thoroughfares of The Wash, Maidenhead Street, Market Place and Fore Street

Part of Speed’s map of Hertford c1610

John Speed’s map of Hertfordshire published in 1610 in his ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain’ includes in one corner a “town plan” of Hertford. Like all such, it is really a hybrid between plan and picture, and we need to take with a very large pinch of salt the depiction of the buildings thereon. Nevertheless, however stylised the representation of most, those of the two surviving churches and the buildings within the Castle curtilege seem convincing enough, and we might reasonably expect to find a building like a town hall readily identifiable. But what Speed shows in the Market Place is a double row of rather mean buildings aligned roughly north-south in the middle. It is not beyond the bound-s of possibility that one of these may have been the original town hall (it was very rare indeed for towns in sixteenth century England to display the same pride in their civic buildings, in so far as they bothered to provide any at all, as is so evident in contemporary towns in, for example, Germany), but it seems more likely that one row is a butchers’ shambles and the other an example of that not uncommon feature of market places, a row of stalls that had, so to speak, taken root and developed into semi-permanent booths. Moreover, Andrew’s and Wren’s town plan of 1766 – made just before its demolition – shows the Sessions House as aligned east-west along the Fore Street side of the Market Place.

Just because Speed’s atlas was published in 1610 does not of course, necessarily – or even probably – mean that what is shown can be accepted as the status quo at that date. “Lately built”, as in the 1605 Charter, is a very vague phrase, and we have no way of knowing how old the building was in 1588. What Speed’s plan does show, however, is a market cross. We know that this cross existed, one of two, the other one being the “Old Cross” on the other side of the river.

What did the Sessions House look like? Only one purported depiction of it appears to exist dating seemingly from some time in the eighteenth century. It has been reproduced before at least twice in recent years, in all good faith2 and is reproduced here for comparative purposes. I use the word “purported” advisedly, for, artistic licence not withstanding, my doubts were first kindled by attempting to reconcile the background with what is known to have been there and by the difficulty of deciding which elevation we were supposed to be viewing. The drawing does, however, show what looks like the remnant of a market cross.

My suspicions were reinforced when I saw a picture of the old Salisbury Council House, built c1580 and partially destroyed by fire two centuries later following a mayoral dinner. So closely did the “two” buildings tally – even to the details of the framing – that I sought the opinion of Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. They replied, “After careful deliberation and particular attention to the buildings shown in the background we tend to the opinion that the image you sent us is indeed of the old Salisbury Town House or Guildhall that was destroyed by fire in 1780”, enclosing further illustrations in support. I think the evidence is conclusive, and can only wonder how the confusion arose; but it only goes to show the dangers inherent in accepting uncorroborated evidence.

So the appearance of the Hertford Sessions House is anyone’s guess. No plans survive, and the Corporation’s minutes relating to work done on the building are no help in this respect. We know it was timber-framed, as might be expected. We know that it had two staircases, and that both were probably external – which does not necessarily mean that they were uncovered. We know that like most contemporary town halls, it stood over a semi-open market area. We know that it possessed a clock – referred to as “the Town Clock”, so it must have been external, although we don’t know if it was on a tower or “belvedere”, on a bracket or flush with one wall.

There exists in the Corporation records a letter (HCR33:6) from Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, Lord Treasurer of England and, of course, High Steward of the Borough, to the Mayor and Burgesses. Dated 29 April 1611, it is worth quoting in full both for its content and for its epistolary style:-

“After my harty comendacons, whereas I have been informed that there is a report in the towne of Hartfford that the cross in the markett is to be pulled downe, and not only that but that some officers of myne should be in speech for buying the lead, I have thought good heerby to requyre you to lett me know by what authority the same is ordred to be taken downe, and also to comand you or any other whom it concerns to forbeare to proceed therein before I have made his Majestie acquaynted with it, att your uttmost perill. Next because I have heard of a lewd* report that some of my officers have presumed to bargaine for the lead belonging to the same, which I can hardly believe, because I knoweth none I keep that wold meddle with any such matter without my privity, I thought good to desyre you to lett me knowe truly who they be that have been in speech with you about it, of which I hear Mr Gravenor or Mr Manistee+ of your company can advertise§ you. Hereof I pray fayle not to advertise me.

And so I comitt you to God

From his majesties howse at Whytehall, this 29 Aprill 1611

Your verry loving friend

R. Salisbury.”

*lewd = scurrilous; +Gravenor and Manesty were Chief Burgesses; §advertise = advise. Original spelling retained; punctuation added.

Cecil’s obvious indignation that two of his officers appeared to be doing a deal on the side is comic, but he clearly thought that more was at stake. Why? The cross stood on the “waste” of the borough, but it was also the waste of the Royal Manor of Hertford Castle, and the Corporation paid an annual rent for the land on which it stood. The amount paid was minimal, even by the standards of the time, so it can hardly have been the possible loss of revenue that agitated the Lord Treasurer. It seems more likely to have been the Corporation’s apparent intention to proceed without going through the “proper channels”.

The Corporation replied in the grovelling contemporary standard format, with a “Humble Petition of the Maier and Burgesses”. They “willingly submitted” themselves to Salisbury’s direction in the matter – indeed, they had no option! – but went on to explain that “the Castle of Hertford beinge the usual place for the sittinge of the Justices of Assize for the tyme of every Assize beinge lately pulled downe and the towne by that occasion lyke not to have the Assizes kept ther for want of con­venient roome ….” they were proposing demolition of the old “decayed” cross and its replacement by commodious new premises for the Assizes.”

Sir Thomas Meautys, the Duchy of Lancaster’s then tenant of the Castle, had indeed demolished many of the dilapidated buildings within its curtilage. Although the Corporation constantly complained about the cost of entertaining the Assize judges, they certainly did not want to lose them, for they brought both prestige and – more importantly – trade to the town. .

In the absence of further exchanges in the borough records, we might be forgiven for concluding that neither Salisbury nor King James had any further objections and that the Corporation went ahead, demolished the cross and built the Sessions House. We would, however, be wrong. We have seen that both the 1588 and 1605 Charters refer to a town hall. So what the Corporation – which had its own Quarter and Petty Sessions in addition to those of the County – was proposing in 1611 was simply an extension.

Was it built? Well, something was; but the cross was not demolished – not all of it, anyway. Confirmation that it was still there in 1633 occurs in the mayoral accounts of Christopher Browne (HCR20: 322-323) when the Corporation paid 3s 8d for two hundred bricks to underpin it while extensions were being added to the Town Hall, and eightpence for shoring it up while it was underpinned. There can be no doubt that the extensions, like the original building, were timber-framed, for the accounts also mention “framing the new chamber”. Whether this was, at long last, the accommodation for the Judges, or simply a new room for the borough courts, is not apparent but a great deal of work seems to have been done for £25: an indication of the vast change in the value of money since that time. Three years later, more money was spent on “The little Chamber”, mainly of a cosmetic nature: “whytinge and coloringe” and ”payntinge the Kinges armes and the townes”, although work was also done on the “towne Staires”. The oddest item is a chamber pot costing three shillings (15p), a remarkably expensive utensil for the period – did it, too, perhaps bear “the Kinges armes and the townes”?

In 1637 the Corporation, no doubt impelled by what all too frequently went on in the market beneath them, decided to install what they described as “a place for People to make water in”, but which was described thereafter with seventeenth century directness if not delicacy as “the pyssinge place”. Compared with the chamber pot the provision must have been somewhat spartan, the whole job apparently being accomplished for no more than 5s 8d (28p). The intention was good, but unfortunately little thought seems to have been given to the problem of keeping the place clean. By 1649 it had, unsurprisingly, become a “great annoyance”, and was removed.

T he town clock is mentioned as early as 1647. Humphrey Clarke, clock-maker of Ware, was made a freeman by redemption on condition that he maintained the clock free of charge for seven years in 1673. The sons of Chief Burgesses, who obtained their freedoms by “burgess right”, paid 3s 4d towards the maintenance of the building upon admission. Ah important accessory was the Town Chest, in which were kept not only Corporation money and valuables but also the borough records. Access was strictly limited, but this did not prevent the records at least from going a-wandering from time to time.

Sporadic references to the building and work done upon it recur through the remainder of the century. A borough “cage” or lockup was added at the eastern end, while in 1649, despite having previously disburgessed him for his refusal to accede to the Solemn League and Covenant, the Corporation were quite happy to allow Joseph Browne to continue using the vault he had made under that end as a store for his grocery stock, provided he paid a yearly rental of two shillings (IOp) for it. In 1655 boys were seemingly as mischievous as ever: there is reference to a payment “to keepe the boyes out of the leades”, which suggest that at least part of the roof was flat. There is reference; too, to a “magazine room”, presumably used for the storage of militia weapons and powder.

No major additions or alterations seem to have been made to the building until 1749, when the Mayor and Aldermen decided that “the Lower Court” was too dark. In order the better to “enlighten” it [sic]  it was ordered that the upper storey of the cage be pulled down and two additional windows be inserted. In 1751 there is reference to the “Oat Market Cross”, said to be in a very decayed and dangerous condition. It was decided to demolish it, the proceeds from the sale of the lead and other materials to be devoted either to rebuilding it or “making some other convenient place for an Oat Market Place”. There is no indication of the location of this cross. Whether it was still, after all these years, the one referred to in 1611, or the Old Cross over the river, is not apparent.

One might reasonably expect some reference in the minutes of the Months Court to the impending demolition of the old Sessions House and the proposed Shire Hall to replace it, but there is not a word, leading perhaps to the conclusion that it was the County Justices who were insisting on it, and that the Corporation had little option in the matter.

The demolition and replacement required a private Act of Parliament and the petition for leave to bring in a Bill (11 January 1768) “sheweth that the Shire House… a very Ancient Building and so greatly decayed, and is also too small and otherwise so inconvenient …” The resulting Act (8 Geo Ill c.58) cost the County £494. 17s, which cost was defrayed by a tax on property not exceeding eightpence in the pound, not more than threepence in the pound to be raised in any one year. Since James Adam’s Shire Hall covered a great deal more ground than the old Sessions House, the owners of the “Stalls, Sheds or Shambles” in the Market Place had to be compensated, the majority agreeing to accept “eighteen years purchase for those that are freehold, and fifteen years for those that are copyhold”.

Following the demolition of the Sessions House, and whilst the new building was being erected, “Mr Gillman’s Barn in his Bacon Yard” near Lombard House (presumably in Bircherley Green) was to be used for holding the Assizes and Quarter Sessions, at a rent of £21. The regular meetings of the Borough Months Court were held in rather more comfortable locations: either members’ houses, or the Bell Inn or the Red Cow. The Shire Hall was substantially complete by early 1771, but much wrangling over costs and bad workmanship delayed its occupation until the following year,


1. In ‘”Needful and Necessary Men” Hertford Borough Freemen, 1640- 1715″ in Hertfordshire in History: Papers presented to Lionel Munby (1991).

2. Ibid., also in Cyril Heath, The Book of Heirtford, (1975).


Hertford Corporation Records, Vols. 5, 20, 21 & 33, in Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies.

Hertford County Records, Sessions Books, Vol.VIII, 1752-99.

John Chandler and Adela Goodall, “Salisbury Guildhall” (Salisbury & South Wilts Museum, 1994).

Correspondence with Salisbury & South Wilts Museum, assistance from whom is gratefully acknowledged.

The wording of the Charters is taken from Lewis Turnor, “History of the Ancient Town and Borough of Hertford”.











This page was added on 28/11/2021.

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