In Session | Old Sessions House
Clerkenwell Green is dominated by the grand old building that is the Old Sessions House. Now a Masonic centre and venue for hire, it was once the busiest courthouse in England.
With the Masons due to move out to new premises this summer, Lucinda Riggs takes a timely look at the building’s intriguing history…
On the west side of Clerkenwell Green, at no. 22, lies Old Sessions House. This imposing Georgian building has an interesting and varied history. It was once the largest and busiest courthouse in England and is currently a Masonic Centre, though will be vacant once more in the autumn, when the Masons move to nearby Lever Street. What lies ahead for the Old Sessions House is currently unknown, but we do know it has a storied and sometimes brutal past.
The Middlesex Sessions House, as it was originally known, was designed by the Middlesex County surveyor, Thomas Rogers. The building was built from 1779-82 and cost a mere £13,000 to complete. The Sessions House was used as a courthouse from 1782 until 1920. The building consisted of two large court rooms, dungeons for holding prisoners, and a grand living space for the resident judges. In contrast to the judges’ lavish quarters, the basement cells were tiny. One of these cells remains today, and is currently used as a linen cupboard – so you can gather how cramped these chambers were.
In its day, Middlesex Sessions House had a reputation for being one of the harshest courthouses in the country. Justice meant punishment and sentences were notoriously severe. A 78-year-old woman once received seven years for stealing a joint of meat. A 20-year sentence was not unknown for stealing a pair of boots. Stocks were positioned on the nearby green, where drunkards were placed to be ridiculed by the public. All types of perpetrators passed through its doors, from petty thieves and protestors arrested on the green, to hardened criminals. If you were convicted and punished with ‘Transportation’ you would be marched in chains down a tunnel to Newgate prison, before being placed on a boat to Australia. The tunnel was actually a mixed blessing for felons – there was no chance of escaping the guards, but it at least afforded them some protection from their victims who lurked outside the courthouse waiting to dole out their own brands of punishment. In one year alone, 200 men, women and children were sentenced to transportation at the Sessions House.
The building was designed in the grand Romanesque style favoured during the reign of King George III. In the entrance hall you will see a large dome which was modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. In 1860 a new courtroom was built above the entrance. There was also a clock which was inserted between this room and the entrance hall and which was handmade in 1780 and rebuilt in 1843. The Sessions House served as the main judicial and administrative centre for Middlesex until 1889, when Middlesex County Council and London County Council were created. The Sessions House became property of London County Council during the subsequent division of assets.
The Old Sessions House held its last court case in 1920. After standing empty for almost a decade, the Sessions House became Avery House – the HQ for Avery, a manufacturer of weighing machinery. Because the building had been listed as an architectural interest, the company were not allowed to make any structural alterations. Avery Organisation stayed in Sessions house for 42 years, after which it sat empty for most of the 1970s, and fell into a state of disrepair.
In 1979, the Central London Masonic Centre (CLMC) purchased the building and was based in it until 2013. The CLMC was created to deal with a lack of meeting places for Masonic Lodges and Chapters in the London area. The Masons restored the once-grand building, but in 1993 there was a large fire in the Old Sessions House, and three quarters of the roof and much of the second floor were badly damaged. The CLMC was able to finish refurbishing the building
by 1994. But due to the growing costs of running the building, the Old Sessions House became a conference and events centre as well as a home for Masonic business. Recent years have seen the Sessions House play host to weddings, fairs and even the occasional film crew.
The Central London Masonic Centre is moving to a bigger venue on Lever Street in September 2013. What lies ahead for the grand old, grade-II listed Old Sessions House is, at time of going to press, unknown.