The Sessions House, Northampton

It is very easy to walk around your busy hometown and overlook its history – I know that I have been guity of this. So many towns have become almost homogenised by the familiar chains of coffee shops, clothing outlets and betting offices I always try to look above the gaudy fasciae and see the architecture that exists above street level. I am neither a student of architecture nor an historian but I do enjoy seeing the craftsmenship that went into buildings in days gone by.

In the centre of Northampton stands the magnificent All Saints church which was built after the Great Fire in Northampton in 1675 and, for the construction of which, King Charles II gave 1,000 tons of timber from the nearby royal forests of Salcey and Rockingham.  Just a few paces from All Saints is another building that was also built soon after the Great Fire and which I have walked past many times but never entered – maybe that is because I knew it as a courthouse though its correct name is The Sessions House and was built to hold the County Assize Courts.

Passing The Sessions House the other day I noticed that it is now also the home to the tourist information centre (though the courts are still utilised for training and other purposes). I went in and was fortunate enough to be able to see around the building and take some photographs which are shared on this page.

The first set of photographs (below) show some of the detail on the building’s exterior. It has been suggested that some of the faces that appear on the exterior of the building may represent those who are called to court.

Sessions House
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I mentioned my habit of looking up at buildings to see the craftmanship and I did the same when I entered The Sessions House and what I saw was breathtaking.  The plasterwork on the ceiling in the lobby and (as I later discovered) in the courts is magnificent. I later learned that the plasterwork was created by Edward Goudge between 1684 and 1688. While there was some restoration in the mid-70’s the plasterwork is in pristine condition.

While the architect for The Sessions House was Henry Bell, (as described on the Woodcarvers Guild website) Goudge was generally more associated with the gentleman-architect  Captain William Winde who, speaking of Goudge in a letter of 1690, said “Mr Goudge will undougtedly have a goode deall of worke for hee is now looked on as ye beste master in England in his profession as his worke att Combe, Hampstead, & Sr John Brownlowe’s will Evidence.”

But what of the work of Mr Edward Goudge?

The following gallery shows some detail of the plasterwork on the ceilings within The Sessions House.

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Now…everybody loves a good tale and The Sessions House has one of its own. As will have been seen in the preceding gallery there is a frieze depicting the Angel & Devil.

SH14 - Angel & DevilIn the centre is a cherub seemingly in the role of Lady Justice. In the one hand are the scales of justice depicting the weighing of evidence and in the other hand the sword depicting punishment for any that are found guilty. But doesn’t Lady Justice usually have a blindfold to show that justice is blind and that evidence is taken objectively? Does this apparent omission of the blindfold have anything to do with the tale regarding the frieze?

On the left hand panel can be seen the angel to represent the honest and the innocent…

SH16 - Angel & Devil - Angel…but on the other side, is the devil representing the dishonest and the guilty.

SH17 - Angel & Devil - DevilThe tale is that, should anyone who was in the dock tell a lie then the devil would wag his (very prominent) tongue. Surely this would never happen? Yet some time ago, story has it, that renovation work was taking place in the roof space and a mechanism that could make the tongue wag was discovered!

As would be expected, an appearance before the court would be a sombre experience and the last gallery shows the courts, the dock (including the route to the cells), the cells themselves and – for the most unfortunate – the route that would have been taken by those sentenced to ‘the long drop’.

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If you have the opportunity, pay a visit to The Sessions House in Northampton. I hope that you enjoy looking at these photographs as much as I enjoyed taking them and I would like to thank the staff at The Sessions House for the kindness that they showed me during my visit.