New life for Norwich court with a dark history

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Thursday, December 20, 2012
9:48 AM

It was once a room where Norwich Castle prisoners learnt whether they were to be freed, jailed or executed.

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But almost 25 years since the last case was heard in the Shirehall, in Market Avenue, Norwich, restoration work to the one remaining court room is nearing completion.

Mock trials, school sessions, lectures, debates, youth justice work, conferences and even weddings are among the future uses being considered for a 19th century room that “drips with history”.

Bill Seaman, assistant head of the Norfolk museums service, said: “The castle was a prison for so long and the court room was part of that, with the prisoner coming from the castle into the court.

“If acquitted, you would go out the door into the street. If not, you came back through the prisoners’ tunnel, back to the prison and possibly execution, depending on the nature of the crime.

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“It’s a space that drips with history and atmosphere. We want to pick that up and also from a commercial income generation perspective, it could be used for weddings or anything else.”

Opened in 1822, the Shirehall court room continued to hold trials after the castle opened as a museum and art gallery in 1894. It is said to have closed in 1988.

Museums staff will have to decide how to light the room, the colours of the walls and how to use the space for activities to best recreate the room’s past, while not ruining the appeal by using too much technology.

Mr Seaman said a roof leak needed fixing before the restoration could take place from the summer.

Norfolk County Council is spending in the region of £250,000 for structural works. Cash from the museum service’s near-£4m Arts Council grant will then be used to finish the restoration.

Mr Seaman said: “This has been a space full of potential for many years but not brought into use. It was a space and stuff got lugged into it and things got dumped in it. To bring it back is very exciting. The most important thing is it works as an integral space and we don’t turn it into something it isn’t.”

Dr Nick Arber, who has studied the history of the Shirehall and court room, said he was a juror during a drink-drive case in the 1970s in the court room.

He said: “When the defence was summing up, there was a thunderstorm and Hollywood couldn’t have written it. The trial was two days long, he got off as there wasn’t enough evidence.”

Dr Arber said the court room first came into use in 1822. He said during that decade there was talk of putting in a privy – a toilet – outside the room as prisoners were so nervous about entering the room ahead of their hearing.

He said: “The court room was going to be up on the mound. William Wilkins designed Shirehall to be on the mound but they wanted a bigger jail so it was brought down the hill.”

Famous cases in the building included James Rush, who was executed in 1849. Tenant farmer Mr Rush was said to have shot dead his landlord and the landlord’s son ahead of a deadline for payment.

Dr Arber said: “He conducted his own defence, a great, long rambling defence, which took days.

“There’s a lot of documentary evidence that has survived.”

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