1678AD Sessions House and County Hall
in George Row Completed
A great Georgian town eventually grew out of the cinders of the old medieval town destroyed by the Great Fire of 1675.

The Sessions House and what is now County Hall were amongst the first buildings to be completed.

The Sessions House is a rare surviving example of a 17th century courthouse, mainly built to provide a proper place to hold the County Assize Courts. It was also used for the Quarter Sessions, held four times a year, where local Justices of the Peace heard less serious cases and made decisions about a variety of administrative matters throughout Northamptonshire.

Trials were considered excellent entertainment and judges in the 18th century had trouble controlling the "noisy, rude, curious, hardly restrainable low rabble forcing themselves into the court". When the Courts were "in session" it was a very lively time for the building and for the whole town centre, with a real festival atmosphere. Courthouses, like the Sessions House, were also very often used for grand dinners, balls, theatrical performances and concerts, as well as markets, commercial exchanges and general administrative centres, especially at election time. However, the Sessions House is most remembered as the centre of Northamptonshire's rich history of crime and punishment.

County Hall started life in the 17th century as the County House of Correction. This new House of Correction was built to replace the buildings lost in the fire. In the late 18th century a new gaol and bridewell were built south of the County Hall, and the old gaol was made into the turnkey's house. Additions to the gaol were built to the east and south of the old site in the early Victorian Period. This enlarged gaol served the county till 1889 when the buildings were bought by the Salvation Army and former borough gaol became the only prison in the town. The old county gaol was sold to Mr. J. Watkins in 1880 who then sold the portion now used as the museum and art gallery to the Town Council. The County Council purchased the remaining buildings from the Salvation Army in 1914 although the Salvation Army remained as tenants until early 1928.

Use of the Sessions House as a courthouse came to an end in 1991 and for a time no appropriate use could be found for the building. In 2010 the Sessions House was re-opened as a new central access point and resource for anyone wanting to find out more about Northamptonshire. Northamptonshire County Council, in partnership with Northamptonshire Enterprise Limited, worked together to renovate and refit the Sessions House, bringing its heritage value and community importance to the forefront once more. The building now accommodates the reception for visitors to County Hall and Northamptonshire's new tourist information centre.

Want to know more about the restoration project and the history of the Sessions House? Visit the county council website: www.northamptonshire.gov.uk/sessionshouse

See also:
1675: Great Fire of Northampton destroys 3/4 of the town

Glossary:

County Assize Courts

These courts heard the most serious criminal cases, Judges came from London twice a year to try criminal cases on a midlands circuit. Together with the quarter sessions, these were replaced in 1972 by a single permanent Crown Court.

Quarter Sessions

These were heard 4 times a year at Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas. They usually dealt with both criminal and administrative matters. Together with the Assize courts, these were replaced in 1972 by a single permanent Crown Court.

Justices of the Peace

JPs were elected by commission to 'keep the peace', normally dealing with minor offences.

Bridewell

A house of correction for disorderly people, often women.

Gaol

An older spelling of the word jail with its origins in Norman-French. It is pronounced the same way.

Turnkey's house

The turnkey was the keeper of the keys in a prison.