West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History



Pontefract Sessions House

2007, marks the 200th anniversary of the design process which culminated in the building of a new Court, or Sessions House in Pontefract and reminds us that, even in these days of centralisation, Pontefract has enjoyed a system of locally administered justice for almost 1400 years.


When Edwin, the Anglo Saxon King of Northumbria, established Tanshelf in about AD600, it most probably had a moot mound, a low ring-shaped earthwork, and later a Moot Hall, where the elders of the Hundred (or Wapentake (1)) would meet to decide local issues. A Hundred was the division of a Shire for administrative, military and judicial purposes under the common law and originally contained enough land to sustain approximately one hundred households and was headed by a hundred-man or hundred eolder who was responsible for administration, justice, and supplying military troops.

To look after the king's interests, to see that all the taxes were collected, and to administer justice, were the ealdormen, from where we get the term aldermen, and shire-reeves, who later became known as sheriffs.

Both King Edward the Elder, (899-924), the son of Alfred the Great, and King Ethelred, (978-1016), established the Wapentake Courts as an institution of the Crown and as the fundamental unit in the organization of justice, charged to watch over the workings of the law, to meet every four weeks under a King's reeve, or sheriff, and to punish those who rebelled.

After the Norman Conquest, Henry I, (1100-1135), the son of William The Conqueror, decreed that the law of the King's Court (the Curia Regis) must stand above all other law and be the same for everyone and Henry II (1154-1189) replaced the old Anglo-Saxon feudal law with royal or common law and introduced a jury of 12 sworn men to establish the truth, in place of the older system of a sworn oath or an ordeal.

After Henry's death local government, more and more, became vested in knights of the shires, local men, landed gentry rather than warriors, and it was upon these that the King came to depend as keepers of the peace. This continued on an irregular basis throughout some of the most turbulent times in English history until the Statute of Westminster in 1327, which, for the first time, provided for the formal appointment of Keepers of the Peace and in 1361 by their transformation into Justices of the Peace.


By a statute of 1362, the Justices were required to hold their sessions four times a year, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost and Michaelmas, the beginnings of the Quarter Sessions which would last for the next 610 years. When Richard III granted Pontefract its charter as a borough in 1484 he also gave it authority to hold it's own quarter sessions, independent of the West Riding ones.


The West Riding, and other County Sessions, was made up of two or more Justices of the Peace, presided over by a Chairman, and who sat with a jury.

In County Boroughs, and towns such as Pontefract that were entitled to have their own Quarter Sessions, there was a single Recorder instead of a bench of justices, again sitting with a jury. The Quarter Sessions did not have jurisdiction to hear the most serious crimes, most notably those that could be punished by capital punishment, which were sent for trial at the periodic Assizes. After 1835 they also heard cases that could not be tried summarily by the Justices of the Peace who, like today's Magistrates, sat without a jury in petty sessions. Such cases were sent up to be heard in Quarter Sessions by the process of indictment (see Grand Juries).

Until the advent of the County Councils, the Quarter Sessions had an important administrative function in their respective counties. These functions included:

  • Repair of roads and bridges
  • Highways
  • Construction and maintenance of county buildings
  • Administration of the county gaol
  • Supervision of public and private lunatic asylums
  • Supervision of petty sessions (after 1835)
  • Licensing of public houses
  • Supervision of the Poor Law (pre-1834)
  • The county militia
  • The police
  • Setting county rates

Most of these administrative functions were transferred to County Councils when they were established in 1889 following the Local Government Act of 1888.

Whilst the location of the original Saxon Moot Hall, or mound, of Tanshelf, is unknown, there was certainly a Moot Hall in Pontefract in 1654. George Fox, in his History of Pontefract, reports that at that time it lay in ruins, due to the ravages of the sieges of Pontefract Castle during the Civil War, and that a proposal was put forward for a new Town Hall to be built from materials salvaged from the demolished castle.

I can find no record of this actually being done as, according to its 'blue plaque', the present Town Hall dates from 1785. It was designed by Bernard Hartley to encompass a court, prison, bank, council chamber, fire station and public hall - a true precursor of the multi-functional building.

Although the Quarter Sessions were held in rotation at various towns throughout the West Riding, the Easter Sessions were the most important, being effectively the Justices' AGM, and these were always held at Pontefract in recognition of its historical position as the Riding's largest and most important town during the Middle Ages.


Both the Pontefract and West Riding Quarter Sessions were held in the old Town Hall, which by 1806 had become inadequate, somewhat dilapidated, and in urgent need of repair, such that in March of that year the Justices made application to:

"...enlarge the existing court house (the Town Hall), the property of Pontefract Borough to make it commodious for the purpose of holding the General Quarter Sessions of the West Riding";

although it would seem that this was never actually done.

At the same time the justices embarked on an ambitious program of new court provision, firstly by obtaining an Act of Parliament, (46 Geo.III 1806) being:

"An Act to enable the Justices of the Peace for the West Riding of the County of York to provide convenient court houses for holding the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace within the said Riding".

This Act enabled the Justices to "erect, build or otherwise provide…proper court houses" in Wetherby, Wakefield, Doncaster, Pontefract, Skipton, Bradford, Rotherham, Knaresbrough, Leeds, Sheffield and Barnsley; "Whereas the court houses or buildings in the said towns…are for the most part very ancient buildings greatly out of repair".

The Act gave the Justices the power to raise local rates to pay for the new works and to purchase land for new buildings. It also contained a clause that any person who caused damage to a court building would be guilty of a felony, punishable by transportation for seven years! The justices clearly intended to look after their new court houses.


As required by the 1806 Act, the Justices accordingly gave notice in the Leeds Mercury of 28th March 1807 that application would be made at the Easter Quarter Sessions at Pontefract to both enlarge and alter the existing court house (the Town Hall) and to approve monies out of the rates for a new building including the purchase of land, the notice being signed by Bacon Frank, a Justice of Ferrybridge.

However, it seems they changed their minds about spending any money on the Town Hall for at the Easter Quarter Sessions they resolved: "...that the old court house at Pontefract be abandoned and that a new situation be adopted…".

They went on to appoint a committee of Magistrates to carry out this resolution and declared that: "…the most eligible situation for a new court house is the house and premises late the property of Colonel Ramsden deceased and in so much as a proposition has been made by Mr. Taylor of Pontefract, the purchaser respecting the same, that the said committee be instructed to enter into negotiations with the said Mr. Taylor on the subject and in the event of their not being able to make a satisfactory arrangement with him they find some other new situation for the erection of such new court house…".

It would seem that a deal was eventually done with Mr. Taylor and Colonel Ramsden's house and land became the site for the new court house. What Colonel Ramsden's house was like is unknown to the author, however an interesting aside is that the site had previously been the home of one Dr. Nathaniel Johnson, who was entrusted with the safe keeping of the £1,500 which, in about 1660, was raised for the repair of All Saints' Church after the destruction caused by the Civil War. He promptly embezzled nearly all of the money and, after being accused of poisoning the Vicar, was forced to flee to London to escape the irate townsfolk. He later moved to the estate of the Earl of Peterborough where, being a committed Jacobite, he unsuccessfully plotted the overthrow of the monarchy. It is reputed that he died in poverty in London.

I have been unable to ascertain exactly when building work started at Pontefract, or who the builder was, but the Justice’s Account Books show that at the Bradford Sessions on 23rd July 1807 they approved the sum of £2500 for the new Court House at Pontefract. Over the next five years they approved further annual sums of between £500 and £1000 towards the building costs, the final £500 being approved at the Wakefield Sessions of 14th January 1812, bringing the total expenditure to £6900, or approximately £400,000 in today's terms.

It seems likely then that the court house was finished sometime in late 1812 or early 1813, probably in time for the Easter Quarter Sessions in that year.

We know that the Pontefract Court house was designed in 1807 by Charles Watson, a Wakefield Architect also responsible, amongst other things, for re-modelling the late-18th century Lotherton Hall in 1825; for redecorating Nostell Priory in 1827-29 and for the design of Sheffield's third Town Hall whose foundation stone was laid on 23rd June 1808.

The Court House was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in his 'The Buildings of England' as being, "Neo Grecian, (built of) stone, (with) Ionic Portico and Pediment" (although Pevsner inaccurately dates it as circa 1825). An interesting feature of the new Court House is the Royal Coat of Arms within the pediment. These are heraldically inaccurate, being an amalgamation of those that preceded the Act of Union of 1801 and those that came afterwards.

Many people will remember that the Court House once incorporated a police station on the ground floor, but it was actually designed purely as a Court House, although much different internally from what it is today.

The main Court Room was on the ground floor and extended the full internal height of the building with access directly from the main entrance and with a public gallery at first floor level. There were two jury boxes, for both Traverse (2) and Grand Juries (3), with the dock in the very centre reached via a stairway from the six cells below, which still exist. The Justice’s bench ran along the curved back wall, in which the present door and ground floor windows were 'blind' ie, filled in to present a harmonised fenestration while still providing privacy, and the present Court 3 was the Grand Jury Room. The old Magistrate’s room survives in its original form, although it is now the Clerk’s office. Court Number 2 occupies the position of the second court but is much smaller than the original. There were two additional cells on the first floor alongside the Sessions House Yard frontage and the present Magistrate’s Room was the Gaoler's office!

The rear yard was much bigger than it is today, extending northwards some 150 feet. Enclosed by a high wall it contained a row of outside toilets and a cottage, presumably for the caretaker, alongside Sessions House Yard.


Quarter Session Courts continued to be held until 1972 when, together with the Assize Courts, they were abolished by the Courts Act 1971. These two courts were replaced by a single permanent Crown Court of England and Wales and the Justices' Petty Sessions Court became the Magistrates Court, which today sits in one of the jewels in Pontefract's architectural crown, administering local justice in a building approaching its 200th birthday.

Eric A. Jackson.

(1) A Wapentake is a term derived from the Old Norse vápnatak and dates back to the period when Yorkshire was within the DaneLaw, and occupied by the Vikings. While a Wapentake was generally the rough equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon Hundred, in Yorkshire it usually replaced several Hundreds. The word Wapentake denotes an administrative meeting place, typically a crossroads or a ford in a river where attendance or voting would be denoted or conducted by the show of weapons. The Wapentakes of the West Riding were Agbrigg and Morley, Barkston Ash, Ewcross, Claro, Osgoldcross (which included both Tanshelf and Pontefract), Skyrack, Staincliffe, Staincross, Strafforth, and Tickhill.
(2) The Traverse or Petit Jury consists of 12 Jurors and is the jury that tries cases, hears the evidence, decides the disputed facts and finds the accused guilty or not guilty.
(3) A Grand Jury consists of 12 to 23 persons convened in private session to evaluate accusations against accused persons and must first decide whether there exists reasonable or probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and to then determine whether the evidence warrants a bill of indictment; ie that there is a case to answer.
Grand Juries are today unknown outside the United States and are not universal there, fewer than half of the states employing them. The United Kingdom abandoned Grand Juries in 1933 and instead, for the more serious offences, uses a procedure whereby a Magistrate commits an accused person to stand trial at the Crown Court.

In the preparation of this article I have referred, amongst others, to:
The papers of the West Riding Quarter Sessions, held in the West Yorkshire County Archives.
'The Leeds Mercury' and 'The Wakefield Star & West Riding Advertiser' held at Balne Lane Library.
George Fox's 'History of Pontefract' (original manuscript)
'Architects and Architecture of West Yorkshire' by Derick Linstrum.
'The History of the Justices of the Peace, vol 1' by Sir Thomas Skyrme.
'General Principles of Law' by Clive R Newton.

I am indebted to Mr. Richard Van Riel, Curator of Pontefract Museum, and to the staff of the West Yorkshire County Archives and the Pontefract and Balne Lane Libraries. Any mistakes are, as always, the responsibility of the author.

© Eric A Jackson 2006

Also by Eric Jackson:

The Barnbow Lasses
Reports from the Courts
A Pontefract Battalion


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