SHIRE HALL, HERTFORD: THE STORY OF ITS CONSTRUCTION, 1768-73

Gill Cordingley

My first visit to Hertford was in the late 1960s. It struck me as a dusty, musty old place that “Time had Forgot.” I had a cup of tea at “Christines” in Fore Street; the interior of the café resembled a neglected film set of the 1930s. I wandered round the town and looked in the shop windows. It was Thursday afternoon and none of the shops were open. Window displays included items of old fashioned underwear for ladies and tools that may have been used by blacksmiths in the 19th century. In the middle of the town stood Shire Hall. It was in a disgusting state; the brickwork was black with layers of grime and the windows were filthy.

During the 1970s, when I was actually living in Hertford, I became familiar with the inside of Shire Hall through my involvement in local societies. On some occasions our meetings were held in the Assembly Room at the top of the building. This was shabby but still elegant. On other occasions, if there was a double booking for events, meetings were held in one of the court rooms. These were very unpleasant to be in for any length of time. They had an unpleasant aroma compounded of sweat, tobacco, beer and bodily odours, which must have accumulated over two centuries. The docks, witness boxes and general fittings were made of cheap wood, which was splintered, greasy and dirty. It must have been an extremely unpleasant place to work in. The successful reconstruction and renovation of the building in the 1980s did not come too soon!

The planning of a new Shire Hall

Curiosity led me to ask: how did such a large and imposing structure come to be built, somewhat inappropriately, in the centre of Hertford in the 18th century? At this time there were three levels of government: Parliament in Westminster made and amended the laws; Justices in the Counties applied the laws; Officers of the Vestries (Councils) controlled what went on in the parishes. The members of the middle group, the Justices, were laymen chosen from the gentry, by agents of the Lord Lieutenant, who was himself appointed by the monarch. The whole group of Justices were known as “ The Commission of the Peace”. In most counties there was only one such commission, but in Hertfordshire there were two. One was responsible for those areas which had formerly belonged to St Albans Abbey, while the other was responsible for the rest of the shire. It was the latter commission which was based in Hertford. In 1801 the total population in this area comprised around 80,000 people.

The Justices were laymen who were paid at the rate of four shillings a day. They appointed professionals for the posts of Coroner, Clerk of the Peace, and Surveyor. An official treasurer was also appointed. The Commission of the Peace performed a variety of tasks, including:

To hold courts for minor crimes four times a year at Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas. These courts were known as the “Quarter Sessions”.
To provide premises for the trial of serious crimes. These were heard by legally trained Judges, appointed by Parliament. These courts were held twice a year and were known as the “Assizes”.
To set the level of rates to be paid by property owners and deal with rate disputes.
To appoint Chief Constables (whose duties included the collection of the rates).
To grant licences to gamekeepers, innkeepers and travelling salesmen.
To control the standards for weights and measures.
To supervise the repair and maintenance of bridges.
To make provision for the poor.
To issue maintenance orders for children born out of wedlock.
To quell riots.
To assist with recruitment for the militia (a citizen army held in readiness to assist the regular army in the event of the country being threatened with invasion).

Some of these tasks were carried out in the drawing rooms of the houses of the Justices themselves and in meetings rooms in local pubs. However, official premises were also needed. The old Sessions House lay in the centre of Hertford, roughly on the site of the present Shire Hall. A mass of small shops and other buildings had accrued round it. At the Michaelmas Session of 1767 the Justices declared that the building was no longer fit for its purpose, as it was “very Ancient and greatly decayed”. They decided that a new building was definitely required.

The first stage in the process was to obtain Parliamentary approval for an increase in the rates, in order to fund the project. A petition containing about 70 signatories was organised and sent to Parliament. This in itself cost £500! An Act of Parliament, allowing the necessary money to be raised, received the Royal Assent at Easter 1768.

A view of Shire Hall from Fore Street in Hertford, published in 1823, James Adam’s “Grand Window” can be clearly seen. The apse fronting Fore Street has always created a bottleneck for passing traffic.

The Justices were now in a position to draw up the specifications for the new building, and so they formed themselves into a committee to oversee the work. They needed two Courts, two Petty Jury Rooms, one Grand Jury Room, and one room for the use of the Corporation of Hertford. Water closets were to be installed! On the west side of the building there was to be a covered corn market. There was also to be an “optional extra” in the form of an Assembly Room “for the Public Use of the County”, which was to be funded separately.

Adverts for tenders from construction firms were placed in various newspapers. The Committee’s preferred choice was the firm of Robert and James Adam, who were the leading architects of their day. However, the Committee wanted to make sure that all the ratepayers were consulted before a final decision was made, and so a public meeting was held on 17 September 1768 where people were invited to give their opinion about the proposed building and its cost. Those attending the meeting accepted the plans and estimate of the Adam brothers, the total cost being set at £4,400. The Committee arranged to meet Mr Adam on 10 November at The Star and Garter Tavern in Pall Mall to finalise the agreement. The “extra cost” of the Assembly Room was agreed at £550.

The Adam brothers were renowned for the way in which they embellished their neo-classical buildings with fine stucco and ornamental features, and they no doubt assumed that Shire Hall too would receive this treatment. The Committee, however, were anxious to keep costs to a minimum and so, in drawing up the specifications, they stipulated that the new Shire Hall was to be built in “a plain and neat manner divested of superfluous ornament.” The building thus came to be little more than a brick box, in which the only architectural features were a curved apse-like projection on the north and south fronts, and a “Grand Window” on the first floor of the east front. Below the “Grand Window” there was a triple arch entry which was open and fitted with iron gates.

One can imagine that the Adam brothers would not have been pleased about leaving one of their buildings with a plain undecorated brick finish, and this may have underlain some of the disagreements which occurred later in the construction process.

The construction of Shire Hall

A number of steps had to be taken before work on the new building could begin. First of all, the owners of the “stalls, sheds and messuages” that clustered round the old Sessions House, had to be compensated for the loss of their property and trading. Secondly, a temporary court house had to be provided.

It was decided that a large barn in Bacon Yard near the Lumbar House (the present Lombard House or Hertford Club) should be fitted out for this purpose. Mr Gillman, the owner of the barn, was paid £21 for the use of his premises. It was also agreed that, once the new building was complete, the barn would be re-instated to its former use.

It would appear that the main construction work was finished by Easter 1771. The Committee were then able to go ahead and choose the colours for painting the interior. The courts were to be painted in a straw colour and in white, whilst the Council and Assembly Rooms were to be decorated in pink and pea green. Also, as an afterthought, “four stone cisterns for Pissing Places” were to be installed in the covered corn market.

At Midsummer 1771 Mr Palmer, a surveyor from Westminster, was engaged to inspect the finished building. Unfortunately, he found that several parts of the building were defective, “particularly the girders of the Floors”, and he stated that, unless the roof was slated with “Westmorland Slate”, it would not be safe. The cost of this remedial work was estimated to be £230.14s.7d. This sum was to be met by Mr Adam.

In January 1772 James Adam was paid £1,200 while Mr Palmer was paid £52.10s.0d for his surveys and reports. The Treasurer was also asked to find a “proper person to Air the new Shire House” and also to provide “Grates and Coles for that Purpose.” The cost of fitting out the Assembly Room had been met by public subscription, and there was now found to be a surplus of £250 left in the fund. The Committee decided that the MPs for the County and for its two Boroughs (Hertford and St Albans) should be asked for their views on how this money should be spent. By Easter the furnishings had been ordered for the Grand Jury Room. The items included “a large fire grate with a shovel, poker and tongs and four pairs of large candlesticks and snuffers.” The finest furniture was ordered from Mr Adam himself. The items included a mahogany desk, three chairs for the courts and a “press” (or cupboard) for the use of the Mayor of Hertford.

At their Midsummer meeting the Committee decided to appoint two doorkeepers who would ensure that no-one except the Justices and the “Gentlemen of the County” were able to gain access to the Bench. These duties were to be carried out by the petty constables of St John’s and St Andrew’s Parishes in Hertford, as well as those of Bengeo, Hertingfordbury, Little Amwell and Brickendon. The constables would be paid for their services, and they were directed to attend “with their Staves of Office on this Service.”

Victorian alterations

Shire Hall in 1920s or early 30s? The attic storey was added as part of the alterations carried out in 1885, at which time the “Grand Window” was removed. The clock was installed in 1824 and given a slated turret in 1866.

Over the following years Shire Hall became not only a focal point for the administration of the county and county town, but also a venue for grand social occasions. Nonetheless, during the 19th century the building itself was not held in high regard and a great many alterations and adaptations were made to James Adam’s original design.

The market use ceased when a new Corn Exchange was built in Fore Street in 1849. Thereafter the arcade was filled in with windows and the space formerly occupied by the market was taken over for Magistrates’ rooms and cells. A drastic remodelling of the courts was undertaken in 1885. This work included the removal of the “Grand Window” on the east front, so as to create an intermediate floor for use as a caretaker’s flat. The triple arch entry below the “Grand Window” came to be filled in with timber doors and fanlights, above which was erected a canopy normally associated with railway stations.

Thankfully all this was swept away in the major refurbishment of Shire Hall which took place in 1989-1990. Many of James Adam’s original features were restored, including the “Grand Window”. The building now looks very fine, both inside and out. It certainly looks a lot better than it did when I first came to Hertford over 40 years ago!

Sources of Reference

Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies:

Hertfordshire County Records: Records of the Quarter Sessions Volume VIII

Adams, H. Hertfordshire Local Government 1700-1832 (An academic thesis)

This page was added on 06/01/2023.

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