Middlesex Guildhall

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Middlesex Guildhall


Middlesex Guildhall, Parliament Square - geograph.org.uk - 1229272.jpg
Middlesex Guildhill
Type: Shire hall
Grid reference: TQ300796
Location: 51°30’1"N, 0°7’41"W
City: Westminster
Address: Parliament Square, London, SW1P 3BD
Built 1906-1913
By: James Glen Sivewright Gibson
Shire hall

The Middlesex Guildhall is today the home of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, though it was built in 1913 as a shire hall for Middlesex County Council and the Justices of Middlesex. The Guildhall stands on the south-west corner of Parliament Square in Westminster.

The style of the Guildhall is an exuberant Gothic style, echoing the Gothic style of the grandest buildings of Parliament Square, Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster.


The site of the Guildhall

The location in Parliament Square was the site of the belfry of Westminster Abbey. The building was known as "the Sanctuary" as it was within the Abbey's rights of sanctuary – many sought refuge here while that right prevailed. The most famous refugee was during the Wars of the Roses: Elizabeth de Woodville, Queen of Edward IV, took sanctuary here twice, firstly in 1470 after King Henry VI was briefly restored, and during this refuge in Westminster she gave birth to the future King Edward VI. In 1482 after Edward IV died she returned, bringing with Prince Richard to protect him from his uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester soon to be King Richard III, but as Shakespeare relates, King Richard confined and slew his young nephews in the Tower. The building was also "the Belfry", a plain description: the bells tolled whenever a King died, and it was said that their tolling "soured all the milk in the town". The Sanctuary lost its original purposes in the modern age. In 1750 the building was demolished and a new meat market built here, which was in turn demolished in 1805, to be replaced by a guildhall, known as the Westminster Guildhall.

Hicks Hall

Until the reign of King James I the Justices of Middlesex had been wont to hold their sessions, administrative and judicial, at the Castle, an inn in Clerkenwell. In 1609 the King gave the justices permission to build their first permanent sessions house in the "High Street of St John's Clerkenwell"; the plot was in the middle of St John Street, just north of Smithfield. Sir Baptist Hicks, a wealthy mercer trading in the City of London, provided the money to build the new house, and in gratitude the magistrates named their new home, built in 1612, 'Hicks Hall'.

Hick Hall served as the administrative and judicial centre of Middlesex for almost two hundred years, and as the scene of many a dramatic trial. Eventually the swelling population of the county and the increasingly dilapidated state of the Jacobean hall become overwhelming and Hicks Hall was closed, and demolished, in the 1780s.

The Sessions House

Main article: Middlesex Sessions House

The Middlesex Sessions House stands on Clerkenwell Green. It is a grand Georgian building in the classical style, built in 1782 to replace Hicks Hall. For a while it was indeed known as “Hicks Hall” like its predecessor.

This grand building is decorated within and without with the arms attributed to Middlesex, which are now recognised as the arms of Essex.

It was a busy place in a growing metropolis a justice swift and often cruel to keep a lid on a fractious urban population. It survived as the home of Middlesex administration until 1889, when the county was administratively divided; the Sessions House was given to the new London County Council (which sold it in 1920), and the rump Middlesex County Council and justices took over the Westminster Guildhall.

The Westminster Guildhall

In 1805 the justices of the City and Liberty of Westminster acquired the site of the Westminster Meat Market, on which had previously stood The Sanctuary. They had a new guildhall built for the city, known as the Westminster Guildhall. It was an interesting octagonal building with a Doric portico by Samuel Pepys Cockerell. Its octagonal tower formed a dome over the court. The Middlesex Justices took over the Westminster Bench in 1844 and sat frequently in the Guildhall. In 1889 the Guildhall became the home of Middlesex County Council and magistrates.

The Second Guildhall

The 1809 guildhall was too small for the new bureaucracies and so it was thoroughly redeveloped; in 1893 F H Pownall extended the guildhall so that barely a trace of the original remained, producing what has been described as a neo-Tudor guildhall,[1] though closer to the standard redbrick civic style of the time.

The Second Guildhall lasted until 1912, when it was demolished and replaced by today's Middlesex Guildhall, a building twice the size in its footprint and of a very different style.

The demolition uncovered huge foundations underlying the old guildhall and long predating it: the foundations of the Westminster Sanctuary or Belfry. Rather than reuse the foundations, they were dynamited out. A large wooden pile, part of the mediæval foundations, was preserved in the new Guildhall.

The building of the Middlesex Guildhall

The Middlesex Guildhall of today was built between 1912 and 1913, designed by James Glen Sivewright Gibson (of Arbroath), one of the leading 'competition men' of the day, who prospered winning bids in competition.

The Guildhall was opened in December 1913 by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Strathearn, in a grand opening event.

Design of the Middlesex Guildhall

Detail of the tower with lions, unicorns, yales and angels

The Middlesex Guildhall of today was built between 1912 and 1913, designed by James Glen Sivewright Gibson (of Arbroath) in what Pevsner called an "art nouveau gothic" style. It is decorated with mediæval-looking gargoyles and other architectural sculptures by Henry Charles Fehr. Gibson and Fehr had previously worked on County Hall in Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and much of the styling is reflected from that building. The council chamber, now stripped out, was a copy of Wakefield's (the records of the council include expenses claims for a railway journey to Wakefield to inspect that building, resulting in an order a replica council chamber).

The new Guildhall has a footprint of 17,170 square feet, with a 120-foot frontage to Broad Sanctuary facing Westminster Abbey and 160 feet to Little George Street. Placed in Parliament Square, the building is surrounded by grand Gothic buildings: Westminster Abbey, St Margaret's Church and the Palace of Westminster, and so it reflects the style but in its own way. Architecturally it is designed to act as a foil to neighbouring buildings without competing (as it could not): <cquote>giving a picturesque variety of features and delicacy of detail was felt to be the most appropriate treatment, and the building should be considered a dainty piece of ornament set among the austere and formal buildings of the neighbourhood. The detail employed, while preserving many of the features and mouldings of the later Gothic, has been imbued with a modern spirit of freshness in precisely the same way as the original Gothic must have been kept virile by the introduction of more detail.</cquote> The Guildhall incorporates in the rear a doorway dating from the seventeenth century which was a part of the Tothill Fields Bridewell prison and moved to the site to be incorporated in the building.


The carvings provide a rich set of symbolism and fancy: the front entrance, below a vast carved representation of the arms of Middlesex, show three tableaux in stone: King John granting Magna Carta, King Henry II granting of the charter of Westminster Abbey, and the coronation of Lady Jane Grey, parted by statues representing Justice and Prudence. Other virtues are represented around the building in stone and stained glass

The South Front richly traceried balcony at 1st Floor level supported by corbel figures of Law and Justice, and above are the Royal Arms, as it was a court of law. The West Entrance has figure of Truth in the niche while below are Figures of Justice and Honesty: this was a court of law as well as a den of politicians. Over the Ground Floor windows is a series of figures illustrating the Toils of the Sea, Shipping, Labour of Land and Agriculture, Literature, Metalworkers, Engineering and Electricity, Commerce & Culture, Architecture, Painting & Music. On the upper part of the Tower there is a richly carved band of old English Heraldic Yales, Lions, Unicorns, with Tudor Roses, Thistles, Shields, Arms, while the gargoyle figures show the four angels of the Winds and the four Angels of Protection. In a niche in the parapet of the Tower is a figure of Government. In the Interior figures representing Law, Justice, Counsel, Government, and Heraldry comprising the coats of arms of the Lord Lieutenants of the county and others connected with the business of the County Council and Quarter Sessions. Bench-end portraits of Kings and Queens by Fehr.

Refurbishment from 2007

The county council and the Middlesex sessions were abolished in 1965 and the Guildhall continued to be used by the Greater London Quarter Sessions. After the abolition of the Quarter Sessions it was used as a Crown Court centre.

The Middlesex Guildhall was closed for refurbishment in 2007 in order to convert it for use as the site of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom[2] and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Supreme Court, established in law by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, came into being on 1 October 2009.

The Justices' Library

After the government chose the Middlesex Guildhall as home for the new Supreme Court, it was realised that a great deal of work was required to renovate the building and adapt it to the new use. Renovation plans were developed by architects Feilden+Mawson LLP, supported by Foster & Partners.[3]

These plans attracted much controversy from conservation groups, which claimed that the conversion would be unsympathetic to such an important building. The Middlesex Guildhall is a Grade II* listed building,[4] and the statement of importance by English Heritage classed the three main Court interiors as "unsurpassed by any other courtroom of the period in terms of the quality and completeness of their fittings" on 26 August 2004.

The conversion works involved the removal of many of the original fixtures and fittings. SAVE Britain's Heritage stated, "No other owner of a Grade II* listed building would be allowed to strip out interiors of this quality on the basis of a vague promise to display a few key pieces in the basement and find a home for the rest in some other building not yet designed or built."

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Middlesex Guildhall)


  • The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: History, Art, Architecture Chris Miele ed. (Merrell) ISBN 978-1-85894-508-8