The Shire Hall, Nottingham, in the 17th and 18th centuries

By Mr H Hampton Copnall

A Prospect of Ye County Hall as it Appeared in the Year 1750.
A Prospect of Ye County Hall as it Appeared in the Year 1750.

King Henry VI., in 1448, gave a charter to the town of Nottingham, in which it was enacted that, from a date mentioned in the charter, the town of Nottingham was to be for ever separated, distinct, divided, and in everything utterly exempt, as well by land as by water, from the county; and that the town of Nottingham so exempted was to be a county by itself, and not a parcel of the county of Nottingham. But the king excepted from this charter "our Castle of Nottingham and our Messuage called the King's Hall wherein is our Gaol for our Counties of Nottingham and Derby."

The King's Hall was the County Hall or Shire Hall, and stood on part of the site of the present Shire Hall. It is still in the county and outside the town of Nottingham, and for parochial and other purposes is part of the parish of Wilford. It was the building in which assizes and quarter sessions were held. Here also the county court was held, and here, by the suffrages of the freeholders, the knights of the shire were chosen to serve the county in parliament. Here coroners of the shire were elected, as well as the verderers for the forest of Sherwood.

The gaol was at the back, overlooking Narrow Marsh, and is believed to have been a building in the form of a tower, with cells or dungeons underneath and a keeper's house above. Some of the cells were hewn in the rock, and are still in existence.

The date when the High Pavement site was acquired for county and judicial purposes is lost in the mist of antiquity. So far as is known there is no record of its acquisition, though probably something might be found if a search were made at the Public Record Office. Suffice it that in the middle of the 15th century, in the reign of Henry VI., there was a King's Hall, or Shire Hall, on the site of the present Shire Hall, of such importance that it was specially excepted from the charter constituting the town of Nottingham a separate county. It may be assumed that there had been a hall on the same site for years, perhaps for centuries, before that.

The county records in reference to the Shire Hall begin in the reign of James I. At that time there appear to have been on the present site—

(1) The building known as the Shire Hall or King's Hall; and
(2) Two houses adjoining it, on the west, belonging to Mr. John Boun, one of which he gave to the county, and the other he sold to Sir Thomas Hutchinson.

Mr. John Boun was the father of Mr. Gilbert Boun, a sergeant-at-law. Mr. Gilbert Boun was a county magistrate, Recorder of Newark, and the father-in-law of the famous Doctor Thoroton; in fact it was Mr. Gilbert Boun who commenced the history that was afterwards completed and published by his son-in-law, Doctor Thoroton. The Bouns are referred to by Cox as being "not only men of eminency, but great benefactors to the Town."

Sir Thomas Hutchinson was a county magistrate, the father of Colonel Hutchinson of Nottingham Castle and Civil War fame.

The gift of a house to the county by Mr. John Boun is recorded by Thoroton, who informs us that some years before the Civil War, Mr. John Boun gave the house between the common hall of the County or King's Hall and Sir Thomas Hutchinson's house to be used by the country people for the more convenient trials of Nisi Prius. It may be assumed that before this there had been only one hall for both crown and civil purposes. Mr. John Boun's gift enabled the erection of a second hall, a Nisi Prius court for civil trials. Deering gives the date of the gift as 1618. This is probably right. A document, dated 1622, has recently been found among the County Records, signed by a number of county magistrates (including Lord Haughton, who was afterwards created first Earl of Clare), referring to the fact "that the new Hall lately built is very inconvenient for the Freeholders in respect of the straitnes thereof," and it goes on to say that "Mr. Boun, who afforded the place whereupon it is built, had so far endeavoured with the Town of Nottingham that it may be enlarged twelve foot into the street upon pillars which, as his paynes hath contrived the matter, will be performed for the sum of £100, or thereabouts." This sum was afterwards collected in the county. Thoroton states that the new hall "was made with arches to the street."

Deering tells us that Sir Thomas Hutchinson's house continued in the family of the Hutchinsons till Mr. Julius Hutchinson sold it to the county justices at the persuasion of Sir Thomas Parkyns, Bart., of Bunney, who had a scheme for pulling it down to enlarge the County Hall. The house was called the "County House," and for some years was let at a rental by the county justices.

Referring to the purchase of it, Sir Thomas Parkyns, in a printed document published by him in 1724 (more particularly referred to later on), says "he is ready to be a lunatic and Felo de Se when he considers that he had buried part of his Talent £4,000 under his Park Wall, while some as South Sea Merchants have amassed prodigious Estates, but he is pleased in his thoughts as being well assured that his County cannot say he was extravagant 17 years ago or bought a bad bargain for them in his purchase which cost £300 and now [in 1724] is worth £500." This fixes the date of purchase about the year 1707.

Appended hereto is a copy of an old print which shows the Shire Hall that existed before the present building was erected, and the arches mentioned by Thoroton. The house called the "County House" would probably be that partly shown on the right hand side.

The alterations and additions to the old King's Hall in 1618 evidently caused a confusion in regard to county boundary. Sir Thomas Parkyns, Bart., writing in 1724, states—

"At this very day the Judge on the Nisi Prius side for the County of Nottingham sits in the County and all the Counsel and Jury sit in the Town and County of the Town of Nottingham. In truth the Judges had need be as upright and good men as they all are; for as oft as any one of them stands up in that Court and leans over his cushion to direct the Jury, his head is out of the County of Nottingham and within that of the Town."

The question of rebuilding the County Hall was apparently the subject of discussion for years after the purchase of the County House.

Sir Thomas Parkyns tells us that he was entrusted with projecting and contriving the design and plan for the new hall, and he attributes it to the opposition of the "Gentlemen of the North Clay Hundred" that the plan was not proceeded with.

Matters were brought to a crisis in 1724 by an incident, of which the following account appears in the Nottingham Courant:—

"On Friday last [March 17th, 1724] Sir Littleton Powis, Judge of the Assize, came in here, being met as usual by the High Sheriff, attended by a good number of gentlemen on horseback, though a very rainy day.

"On Saturday was Commission day for the County of the Town but there was no business worth mentioning.

"On Monday morning after his Lordship had gone into the County Hall, and a great crowd of people being there, a tracing or two that supported the floor broke and fell in and several people fell in with it into the cellar underneath, some of whom were a little bruised; but one Fillingham was pretty much hurt, and skin and flesh of one leg being stript up from the bone and thought to be in danger. This occasioned a great consternation in Court some apprehending the whole Hall might fall, others crying out fire &c, which made several people get out of the windows.

"The Judge being also terribly frightened, cried out 'A plot,' 'A plot," but the consternation being soon over, the Court proceeded to business: however his Lordship told the Grand Jury and gentlemen he would lay a fine of £2,000 on the County for not providing a better Hall, not doubting but if they built a new one, or got the old one well repaired, but on their Petition His Majesty would remit the fine. At the request of the hon. foreman of the Grand Jury, we are told, the fine was suspended."

The county magistrates met in quarter sessions at Nottingham on the 13th April, 1724, and decided to hold a public meeting on the 24th April, 1724, at the house of Mr. William Parkinson at Rufford Inne, "that place being thought the most proper place in the middle of the County."