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Historic court closes

Closing of Aylesbury's old crown court

From petty criminals to cold-blooded killers, Aylesbury Crown Court has seen its fair share of gruesome and notorious cases over the years. However, the pounding of the judge’s gavel hammering down in judgement on those stood in the dock is a sound that will no longer be heard as the court has closed its doors for the last time.

The ceremonial closing of the court took place on Friday 2nd March in the presence of invited dignitaries and guests. The Grade 2 listed building in Market Square has been home to judicial proceedings for the county of Buckinghamshire for close to 300 years.

The building was constructed on the site of a privately owned house which was rented out for use as a county gaol. Construction of the new County Hall, as it was to be known, which was to house a new gaol and courtrooms began in 1722 but was not completed until 1740 due to lack of funds.

Built in a Palladian style with some baroque features, the building had three entrances. The left door led to the gaol but this was later bricked up and replaced by a window when the gaol was eventually moved to its current site in Bierton (now the Young Offenders Prison). The central door led to the Magistrates Chamber and the door to the right was and remained until the recent closure, the entrance to the main court.

A balcony once wrapped around a central window on the first floor which was used for public hangings. Crowds would gather in their thousands to witness the macabre spectacle.  The last public hanging to take place in Aylesbury was in March 1845 when John Tawell, convicted of murdering Sarah Hart, was executed before a crowd of several thousand people.

The doors through which defendants exited the courtroom following the verdict still bear the insignia of a neutral, happy face and frowning unhappy face. Defendants who were  convicted and sentenced to death were led out through the door bearing the wooden carving of the unhappy face in a foreboding of the fate that awaited them in punishment for their crime. The doors were locked for the final time on the abolition of the death penalty in 1965 and remain locked to this day.

Not all those who were tried at the court faced such exacting punishments but children as young as nine would find themselves in the dock for crimes such as stealing fowl, for which they often faced a punishment of up to three months’ hard labour. Other common crimes included body-snatching (grave-robbing), highway robbery and horse stealing. Many of those in the gaol were often female debtors forced behind bars for family debts as it was easier for their husbands to earn the money to gain their freedom.

One problem facing prison officials was that for those sentenced to a term of hard labour, there was no obvious work for the prisoners to do. To solve this issue a 20 foot diameter treadmill was installed to grind corn and pump water. Prisoners worked in gangs on alternate shifts of 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off.

Other famous cases to take place in the court include the sentencing of the Great Train Robbers in 1964 and the trial of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who was charged with drug offences.

The building has also found fame on both the big and small screen. It was the setting of the TV series Judge John Deed staring Martin Shaw and has also been used for a number of feature films including The Medusa Touch, starring the late Richard Burton.

Speaking at the closing ceremony county council chairman Patricia Birchley said: ‘There is no doubt, the Crown Court/County Hall building holds a wealth of history within its walls. Its time as a house of law may now be over but we can rest assured that its future as a historic landmark of Aylesbury Town Centre will long continue. Any proposed development of the site must take into account the building’s listed status and will need to be sympathetic to the original character and purpose of the building.’

All future crown court proceedings will now take place in the new premises next to the Magistrates Court in Walton Street.


March 13, 2018