This week #clerkenwellcuriosities explores Old Sessions House which sits on the west side of Clerkenwell Green. This imposing Georgian building with its magnificent dome, inspired by the Roman Pantheon, saw thousands of trials take place. It was once the largest and busiest courthouse in England with a storied and often brutal past.
The building was completed in 1782 and cost a mere £13,000! Used as a courthouse until 1920, it is mostly remembered as the location of Charles Dickens’ early employment as a cub reporter, reporting on court cases. Subsequently, he wove the location into his novels and this where Oliver Twist was tried after being caught stealing a pocket watch on Clerkenwell Green.
Joseph Merceron, the corrupt magistrate and gangster, known as the Boss of Bethnal Green once held court here, sentencing those who displeased him to Cold Bath Sq prison, a mile to the north.
The building consisted of two large courtrooms, dungeons for 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 used as a linen cupboard – so you can gather how cramped these chambers were.
Sessions House had a reputation for being the harshest courthouse in the country; sentences were notoriously severe. A 78-year-old woman received 7 years for stealing a joint of meat. Stocks and a whipping post were positioned on the nearby green, where drunkards were ridiculed by the public. Meanwhile, prisoners who were to be executed were taken around the corner to the Hangman’s Cottage in Sans Walk where portable gallows were routinely employed.
If you were convicted and punished with 'Transportation' you would be taken from the building through tunnels in the basement to Newgate Prison, where the Old Bailey now stands, and from there down the River Fleet to transport ships on the Thames and on to Australia. A complex of tunnels under the building once linked the court not just to Newgate but also Clerkenwell House of Detention, the cellars of adjacent Marx Memorial Library and The Crown and The Horseshoe pubs.
In one year alone, 200 men, women and children were sentenced to transportation at the Sessions House.
Legend has it that a female ghost haunts the building - sitting on the main stairs, crying and waiting for her boyfriend, who was presumably killed or sent to a penal colony.
Now filled with people again and restored to life as a place for meetings and transactions both business and social, no longer inhabited only by the ghosts of former days, perhaps you'll step inside and explore for yourself!