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The Old Court House at Newcastle

1841 - 1900




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Below: The Old Court-house at Newcastle - State Archives NSW
Old Court House at Newcastle. State Archives NSW
In July 1837 Parliament approved a sum not exceeding £500 to erect a Court and Watch house at Newcastle. [1]

The Court-house was to be situated at the corner of Bolton and Hunter Streets and plans were drawn up by the Colonial Architect. Tenders called for the construction in September 1837 [2]

Work was commenced in 1839 however it was not completed until 1841, and at the same time the lock up on the adjoining site was available for occupation. In June 1840 the Commercial Journal could report that - 'The town of Newcastle may boast of one of the neatest buildings in the colony. The Court house, now nearly finished is a building which alike gives great credit to Mr. Lewis, the Colonial Architect, as Messrs Richardson and Hudson the builders'.

The roof had not yet been covered in as the slates that were ready in Sydney had not yet been forwarded to Newcastle and there was concern that the wet weather would damage the walls. [3]

It was almost a year before the roof was completed, and finally in May 1841 tenders were called for fitting out the interior of the Court-house. [4]

Mortimer Lewis

Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis was a prolific architect and was responsible for some magnificent buildings including gaols, watchhouses, police stations, court houses, schools, customs houses and churches. He also supervised the building of Government House, Sydney in 1838 [5]. However the court house at Newcastle was not one of his best achievements and in the decades following there were many complaints regarding acoustics, useable offices and accommodation for juries and the public. He couldn’t be held responsible for the huge white ant nest that settled under the roof causing the building to almost collapse, however the design was clearly not adequate and from the frequent complaints made by Major James Henry Crummer to the Colonial Architect regarding the condition of the building it was evident that the builders had not done a very good job either.

Major James Crummer had been the first Police Magistrate to occupy the court having been appointed to Newcastle on October 28th 1835. Early officials who filled the position of C. P. S. in this old building were Standish Callaghan (1841), Frederick Becke, (1842-46) (father of Louis Becke, author); A. M. Hutchinson (1847). [6]

Some of the records of the Newcastle Court of Petty Sessions, Letter Books, 1844-1848 and Newcastle Court of Petty Sessions, Bench Books, 1833-1836 and 1835-1838 from Newcastle are available at Ancestry.com.

The following Correspondence from the Magistrate at Newcastle James Crummer to the Colonial Secretary dated 31st May 1844 is an example from the Letter Book


Birrang otherwise known as Jemmy
- I do myself the honour to transmit to you the accompanying correspondence respecting the native Little Jemmy or Birrong who is labouring under disease, is perfectly destitute and abandoned by his tribe at this inclement season of the year.

I therefore beg leave to recommend this unfortunate being to the consideration of his Excellency the Governor as a fit subject for admission to the Colonial Hospital at Newcatle.. signed. J.H. Crummer


Other Uses

The Court-house had many uses other than a Court of Justice. Religious, political, local government and meetings of all descriptions took place there. In the 1850s notices were often issued for all holders of Tickets of Leave for the Newcastle district to attend the muster held in the court-house. Divine worship was held there by Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist denominations before their churches were built [6]. Vaccinations were given at Newcastle Court House by the Surgeon to the Gaol in November 1853 [7]. Various entertainments were held also. Mr. Paxton announced in April 1854 that he would give one of his highly popular entertainments on the Songs of Scotland at Newcastle Court House; and also other events and public meetings such as the farewell to long time resident Dr. John Edward Stacy in 1860 [8]. Hugh Holt was awarded the Royal Humane Society a medal for gallant conduct which was presented to him at a public meeting held in the old Court house [9]

Quarter Sessions

For many years there were repeated applications for Courts of Quarter Sessions to be established at Newcastle, however there were always excuses from headquarters for not complying with the public wish, mostly that the building was not sufficiently commodious and that the want of accommodation for barristers, solicitors, witnesses etc was inconvenient. At last in 1866 an attempt was made to have the Court house made respectable in appearance - Lately some great improvements have been effected in the Newcastle court room; the room, which formerly had a dull and gloomy appearance, now looks light and handsome. The back wall has been removed, and the space at the rear, formerly occupied by the verandah, has been enclosed. The bench which formerly was at the left of the entrance, has now been placed opposite to it. At each side of the bench doors have been placed, communicating with the magistrates court-keeper's and other rooms. A fire place has been added to the room. The fittings include a handsome canopy or sounding board over the bench. The other fittings of the room, such as the jury, reporters' and witnesses boxes, and dock, have been renewed or partly renewed, and replaced to suit the change in the position of the bench. A semicircular railing encloses all these fixtures and gives to the whole a near appearance besides serving the purpose of keeping the public from pressing upon the officers of the court. A porch has been erected at the entrance of the court room. These improvements, which were planned by Mr. Lewis, Clerk of Works (Mortimer Lewis junior), have certainly effected a pleasing change in the appearance of the court room, which now be considered almost a model room. [10]

Unfortunately the improvements did not result in Quarter Sessions being established in the town.

In 1870 a Visitor to Newcastle mentioned the court-house.....The Court-house is built upon, possibly, the most valuable part of the leading thorough-fare, and is rather a capacious building, but, I am afraid, none too large, if the number of people generally about the front, during 'court hours,' is any indication of the police court requirements. Adjoining are the police station and telegraph office, the latter a very busy department of that branch of the service, next to which is a vacant plot of valuable ground, where for years past the 'post-office' has been going to be built ! Now that a change in the 'representation' for the ensuing parliament has occurred, the objection to the building of a good post-office, where it should have been years since, has disappeared ! The new member should look to this matter sharp, and some hundred or more per year will be saved to the colony.

Improvements

Court House Gas was being laid on in September 1872 [11], however the lack of facilities at the Court-house was felt by all, from the Judge in the District Court to the ordinary police court loafer. In 1876 it was announced that steps were being taken to provide better accommodation. New plans were drawn up by the contractor Mr. Vaughan. It was intended to run the building back a distance of 32 feet, and increase its height by 8 feet. A new roof was to be put on and the Hunter street front to be the kind known as pediment and was intended to be moulded and nicely decorated. The main room would be extended back a distance of 20 feet and then be in length 60 feet 3 inches; in width, 40 feet 3 inches; and in height 28 feet. The side rooms were not raised and formed wings at the side of the main room. An entrance to be made to the Court-house from Bolton street and a verandah put round the back and Bolton street sides of the building. [12]

By June 1877 the Court-house was in use however hopes that the accommodation for judges, juries, lawyers, reporters, witnesses and the general public would be adequate to the requirements of all or at least an improvement on the miserable provision previously endured, were not realised and although the main court room was doubled in size, the same furniture still remained to the great discomfort of all concerned. [13]

The September sittings were before Judge Wilkinson and the wretched accommodation afforded was much felt by everyone including judges, lawyers, reporters, litigants and the public who were crowded into a small room on the north west corner of the building which was badly ventilated and lighted with inadequate acoustics. [14]

1879

Small Debts Court and the Police court and Petty Sessions were still held at the Court-house, however in September 1879, thirty-seven years after the Court house was established and thirteen years since the court-house was improved, there were still no Quarter Sessions held in Newcastle. The old Newcastle Gaol had long fallen into a crumbling ruin and the lock-up adjacent to the Court must not have been adequate. One of excuses for not holding Quarter Sessions was the want of accommodation for prisoners awaiting trial. The Newcastle Herald brought attention to the ridiculous state of affairs - We ask, in the name of common sense, whether it would not be cheaper in the long run to erect some additional buildings available for such a purpose, than to go on year after year putting the country to the enormous expense of sending troops of witnesses, police, etc., to attend at the Maitland Court ? If it were only isolated cases, that had occasionally to be adjudicated upon; if a criminal or civil action were necessitated only at long intervals - then the circumlocutory and expensive process of taking twenty men twenty miles, in order to have one man tried, instead of bringing one man the same distance for the same purpose, might be winded at! As it is, the absurdity of the affair is so glaring that we wonder any of our highest legal luminaries can go through the solemn farce of lending their judicial sanction to it.. In the calendar of cases to be heard at the present Maitland Quarter Sessions, out of sixteen on the list, ten are from the Newcastle district and ought by all the laws of reason, economy and common sense to be tried in the district in which the offences were committed. Instead of this, on the lowest average, allowing only five persons (including witnesses and police) to each case, there will be at least seventy-five persons compelled to sojourn in Maitland away from their homes, in this district for two or three days, to their own loss and inconvenience as well as putting the country to at least five times the expense. [15]

Destroyed by white ants

The Quarter Sessions would be a long time coming as in April 1880 Mr. William Dart who held a contract for repairs to the building reported to the Colonial Architect that the upper part of the structure was completely rotten and destroyed by white ants and it would be necessary to replace it with new work. An examination of portions of the timber removed revealed that it was of touchwood, and not strong enough to sustain the slightest weight. [16] By May 1880 the pillars at the front of the building were declared dangerous and Government Architect Mortimer Lewis (jun.,) caused notices to be affixed warning the public to use the side doors. Although the Police Magistrate had appealed to Government, nothing had been done. The entire superstructure had commenced falling in and threatened to crash in altogether. A large visible crack extended along the upper portion which had parted from the supporting pillars. During one night alone the fissure had increased by an inch. The offices occupied by Mr. Sub-inspector Thorpe and the Deputy Clerk of Petty Sessions were not safe for occupation. [17]

In June 1880 a deputation consisting of the Mayor of Newcastle Mr. S. Chapman, with Aldermen Wallace and Creer left for Sydney to interview the Government with regards to the condition of the court house and the proposition to secure another site instead of the inadequate and ill fashioned building. [18] They also petitioned again for the Quarter Sessions to be held at Newcastle however were informed that couldn't happen until an adequate building had been found!

Refurbished

The Court-house was practically rebuilt. The whole front of the building was strongly faced with stone.

In July 1880 it was reported that massive stone girders that had been an eye sore and public nuisance while being prepared opposite the Court-house had finally been placed in position. While this was happening the cause of the decay of the Court-house was identified. In one corner of an unoccupied garret over the Clerk of Petty Sessions office, a white ants nest four feet in height and about a yard in thickness was found, the white ants having eaten a passage into the wooden beam recently removed from above the entrance pillars. The nest was to be removed and the beams coated with tar etc., [19]. The repairs had cost over £500.

Accident

The difficulty in repairing the old building was brought to public attention when a dangerous accident occurred at the works. That no one was injured was a miracle. It appears that the contractors for the new Government offices there had erected a set of lofty triangular wooden shears, about thirty feet in height, formed of timber about a foot in diameter, and used for placing into position the massive blocks of freestone with which the buildings are being constructed. A number of these having been tilted on to the footpath in the way of passers by, the derricks were called into requisition to lift one (weighing some three or four tons) into a handier spot, for which purpose ropes had been passed around it, and drawn considerably out of the angle of elevation to the top of the derrick. When the stone had been poised some three or four foot from the ground a sudden falling of the whole concern was noticed, and almost immediately after two of the three huge beams parted from their foundations (large piles of weighty stones)-one in the roadway, and the other adjoining the entrance to the lock-up-and sank bodily downwards with a heavy crash. In their passage they caught the whole bunch of lines leading into the central telegraph office, snapping many of them, and twisting insulators and posts in all directions. The jerk was so severe as to bend into an arc : the tall, iron post facing the Post Office, fully fifty yards off. A contractor's cart containing stone that happened to lie close under was saved through the instinct of the horse attached; which made a plunge and got away, but a second cart was damaged to the extent of having one side knocked out. Seeing the large a number of workmen employed, as well as the number of police and the public, who have continual business in the vicinity, it is little short of a marvel that some serious fatality did not ensue. A large crowd, including several magistrates soon assembled, and the police under Sub-inspector Thorpe, kept the spot clear of passers-by until all danger was at an end. Mr. Gross, telegraph repairer, speedily restored communication with Sydney by means of a line stretched to an opposite verandah at Messrs. Knaggs and Company, and the whole of the colliery and other branch lines intercepted were one by one got into working order again. The latter included the Newcastle, Waratah, Ferndale, Wallsend, Plattsburg, Minmi,, and other special lines. On examination it was seen that the base of two of the shear legs or struts, had been but flimsily secured with three iron bolts and nuts fastened through ordinary pine timber, and that so heavy was the falling mass that in coming into contact with the mixed wires large slices had been shaved off as though dressed off with an adze [20]

By November 1880 sittings of the District court had been commenced, Judge James Sheen Dowling presiding, however the court was still considered inadequate and there was nowhere juries could retire to consider their verdict, other than the private rooms of the Judge. And it was still considered inadequate for Quarter Sessions. Three years later it was announced that the Colonial Architect had been instructed to make certain alterations to the Court house to render the building fit for Quarter Sessions purposes and that the Sessions would commence as soon as the alterations were finished [21]. However still nothing was done.

Reproach to the City

The Newcastle Morning Herald let fly with a damning editorial in February 1884, however it had no effect at all:
The Newcastle Court House is a byword and reproach to the city. It is a great brick barn, devoid of architectural beauty, as desolate as a desert, and as uncomfortable as a cushion frescoed with upended tacks. Its acoustic properties are represented by the figure O, and if a fair-sized cannon were discharged from the magistrates' bench the magnificent heights would absorb all the sound. When the P.M. speaks one has to guess what he says by the action of his mouth - a species of dumb scrambo infinitely annoying to lawyers and reporters, and perplexing to defendants and witnesses. Even Mr. Creer's loud-resounding voice can scarce be heard; and there is a dismal echo living in this wilderness of space that does more to depress the visitor than the inspection of a dead-house. What wonder that dark despair seizes a culprit when he is tried in this gloomy vault, or that, from the P.M. and the attorney to Policeman X, a drowsiness settles upon all concerned? Surely the time has arrived when something might be done to alter the existing state of things, and to make the Newcastle Court House worthy of the city, instead of letting it remain what it is - useless, and a laughing stock. Over two years ago a strong effort was made to induce the Government to alter the building, so as to convert it into a Court of Quarter Sessions, as well as a Police Court. The attempt was so successful that the then Government wrote stating that plans had been prepared for the work, which would be begun forthwith. Nothing came of this, however ; but six months afterwards - that is eighteen months ago - another communication was received, advising that the Colonial Architect for this district had been instructed to prepare the plans and have the conversion of the building into a Court of Quarter Sessions proceeded with at once.

Two years have elapsed since we were assured that the work would be done forthwith, but we have found to our cost that this was only a Governmental formula, the "forthwith" meaning any period within ten years. Meantime witnesses and plaintiffs have to waste valuable time at Maitland when they have to attend the District Court or Quarter Sessions. Newcastle prisoners have to be taken there, Newcastle policemen have to give evidence there, and altogether there are such loss and delay over the red-taping of the Government that the people are becoming exasperated. Surely Newcastle is of sufficient importance to have a Court of Quarter Sessions of its own, and, above all to have a Court-House that is worthy the name. If no steps had been taken it would not have mattered so much, but, as we stated above, the Government have distinctly said that orders for converting the barn into a suitable law court have already been given, and this statement was repeated six months after that notification had been received. We think the matter should be inquired into closely, and the work begun at once. If the fault does not lie with the Government, it must be in the Colonial Architect's department; but whoever is to blame we trust no more delay will arise over this simple affair
. [22]

In October 1887 it was reported that the outside badly needed painting and had the appearance of an ancient Greek ruin of the time of Diana of the Ephesians [23]

It was possibly around this time the Newcastle Bicycle Club began their club road race from the old Court-house. The route was from the Court-house and then to the Glebe then through Adamstown and home via Hamilton finishing at the Court-house. Ground covered nearly eight miles. [24] Perhaps the following photograph from the Newcastle Morning Herald collection was captured at this time:

Cyclists in front of the old court house at Newcastle

There were still no waiting rooms or accommodation for witnesses and litigants in June 1888. The female witnesses had to wait about for hours in the court or its precincts sometimes with children in arms until the cases they are interested in were called. In the bitterly cold weather not even a fire was lit and the damp and cold atmosphere of the Court-house was sufficient to lay the seeds of disease in all whose duty compelled them to spend all day in it. Plans were submitted to the Minister of Justice but were rejected [25] The health of J. Delaney who worked at the Court-house was in a precarious state because of the position of his so called office in which he was required to transact his official duties. It was little better than a large cupboard with no ventilation or light in the daytime. There were no windows and he had been working there for years. [26]

1889

After much agitation by the citizens of Newcastle new plans for a new Court house were decided by the Minister for Justice in July 1889. [27]

In May 1891 the Minister for Justice expressed his approval for the progress of the new court house and gave approval for repairs and alterations to the old court house [28]. These alterations may have been drawn up under Government Architect Walter Vernon.

1891

Although the photograph below of the old Post Office at corner of Hunter and Bolton streets, from the University of Newcastle, photographer Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Collection, is undated, it is possible that it was taken on the day of the nominations mentioned below:

The old Court house at corner Hunter and Bolton streets Newcastle

In April 1891 a large crowd of over 1500 people assembled in front of the hustings at the old Newcastle Court house. It was expected that four candidates for election would be nominated for the Parliamentary vacancy and expectation was at the highest pitch. At noon the returning officer Mr. F. J. Shaw, J. P. appeared on the hustings and read the Speaker's writ convening the election and requested nominators to continue their speeches to five minutes and candidates to half an hour. The nominations were William Grahame, auctioneer, nominated by Messrs Henry Buchanan and John Beveridge; John Lionel Fegan, miner, by Messrs. A. H. McVity and Jacob Martin; and Peter Benett, architect by Messrs Thomas Garrett and William Case. Mr. Thomas Hungerford was not nominated [29]

By November 1891, the new Court house in Church Street had been completed and the employees who had been engaged on the work met at a dinner to show the goodwill and fellowship which had existed between them during the course of the building. The catering was carried out by Mr. J. F. Connelly of the Grand Hotel, Church and Bolton street. An article in the Newcastle Morning Herald dated 2 November 1891 mentions the names of some of the men who worked on the construction of the new court house

Newcastle Court House, Church Street c. 1908


In February 1892, after many years of weary waiting, Newcastle had at last got a court-house worthy of the name. It had been two years since the Government decided to build in Church street facing Bolton street. On the 29 February 1892 it was to be opened and Quarters Sessions held under Judge Alfred Paxton Backhouse.

When completed the building would have cost £14000. The two acres of land on which it stood were part of the old police reserve. Great difficulty had been experienced in obtaining foundations owing to the fact that the building was erected over what was once a very deep pond. An article in the Newcastle Morning Herald on 13 February 1892 described the new Church street court-house.

High Hopes for a Town Hall

Before 1894 it had been a policy of the government of the day to sell city lands belonging to the Crown. The old Court-house on the corner of Hunter and Bolton was on the list to be sold, however Mr. James Nixon Brunker, the Colonial Secretary and a native of Newcastle having been born there in 1832, had been instrumental in having it withdrawn from sale, leaving the way open for a Town Hall to be constructed on the site, it being considered to be in one of the best positions in the town. [30]

Afterwards a deputation from Newcastle Council waited on the Minister of Lands and urged the Government to grant the old Newcastle Court-house to the Council so that the land could be used for a Town Hall. A Town Hall was long wanted in the city. There was no place for entertaining public men who might visit the city or for holding other functions. The Minister of Lands would not give his approval without first looking into the case more thoroughly as the township of Newcastle was extending in the direction of Wickham and it was thought that the old court house site would not meet future requirements for the suburbs [31]. Newcastle Centenary Celebration Old Court House 1897Approval was not given for a new Town Hall and the old Court-house continued to be used in various public ways.

In 1896 a ball was held in connection with the laying of the foundation stone of the Benevolent Asylum. The building was splendidly decorated and the walls of the building were covered with a rich profusion of flags and foliage together with a large number of coloured lamps. At the end of the building a platform was built for the Band of the 4th Regiment, the members of which were hidden from view by palm branches [32]



The photograph above was taken in September 1897 when the Newcastle Centenary Dinner was held in the Old Court House and gives a rare glimpse of the interior - University of Newcastle Flickr, Ralph Snowball Collection

In September 1897 the military forces used the old building as an orderly room.


A New Post Office

For many years the people of Newcastle had complained bitterly of the lack of accommodation provided at the local Post and Telegraph office and finally in October 1898 it had been decided to abandon the old site. Plans were drawn up to build a new Post Office on the land where the old Court house stood for so many years. The Government architect had designed a two-story building in the Italian style with domes at each end. The arcade on the ground floor was wide with a corresponding pillared balcony on the first floor etc. [33]
Newcastle Post Office c. 1905
There is little mention of exactly when the old court-house was demolished however by October 1900 building was well underway of the new Post Office on the site. Residents and businesses in Bolton street were seriously inconvenienced by the smoke and whistling noise of the steam cranes used in the construction. [34]. By March 1902 the construction was taken over by Federal Government and a considerable portion of the internal brickwork had been done and the masons were engaged dressing the stones for the walls etc. The offices were expected to be completed within another twelve months. [35]

The above post card of the Post and Telegraph Office is dated c. 1905 nine years before the outbreak of World War 1; the impressive Gardner Memorial familiar to so many Novocastrians was not yet even thought of. During the war the Memorial was erected outside the Newcastle Post Office in gratitude to fallen soldiers. It was presented to Newcastle by Commander Frank Gardner V.D. The foundation stone was laid on 28th March 1916. The marble figure of the life size soldier was carved in Italy and wasn't placed on the foundation stone for several months however on 25th April 1916, Newcastle paid tribute to the fallen soldiers of Gallipoli in the first ever Anzac Day March. The procession was formed up at the junction of Porcher-street and Hunter street West, and marched up Hunter Street, passed the Gardner memorial in front of the Post Office where Mayor M. J. Moroney, Commander Frank Gardner, senior military officers, and relatives of deceased soldiers were impressively saluted.

Notes and Links

1). Helenus Scott had been Police Magistrate at Newcastle for many years when he passed away in 1879. He was known to show little mercy to the seamen who frequented the town and his reputation for severity was said to be known throughout England's mercantile navy. He was Police Magistrate in September 1879

2). In the late 1860s - 70s former steamer Captain Robert Lorn Pattison was employed as custodian of the Newcastle

3). Clerk of the Bench Ensign Ormsby dismissed. Complaint made by William Anthony 15 November 1841. Volume or Surname Range: Letters addressed to Benches of Magistrates and Police, 16 Jun 1841-4 Feb 1845. (p. 129 of 893)

4). What happened to a saved item from Newcastle's original courthouse? Newcastle Morning Herald, by Mike Scanlon

5). Court House c. 1891

References

[1] The Sydney Times 29 July 1837

[2] NSW Government Gazette 6 September 1837

[3] Commercial Journal and Advertiser 3 June 1840

[4] Sydney Herald 25 May 1841.

[5] Morton Herman, 'Lewis, Mortimer William (1796–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lewis-mortimer-william-2355/text3081

[6] Journal and Proceedings, Newcastle Historical Society, vol 1, 1947, p.13-14

[7] Government Gazette 4 November 1853

[8] Sydney Morning Herald 10 November 1860

[9] Australian Town and Country Journal 23 November 1872

[10] Maitland Mercury 3 April 1866

[11] Freemans Journal. 21 September 1872

[12] Newcastle Morning Herald 29 June 1876

[13] Newcastle Morning Herald 12 June 1877

[14] Newcastle Morning Herald 6 September 1877

[15] Newcastle Morning Herald 5 September 1879.

[16] Newcastle Morning Herald 12 April 1880

[17] Newcastle Morning Herald 21 May 1880

[18] Newcastle Morning Herald 10 June 1880

[19] Newcastle Morning Herald 31 July 1880

[20] Newcastle Morning Herald 13 August 1880

[21] Newcastle Morning Herald 23 June 1883

[22] Newcastle Morning Herald 14 February 1884

[23] Newcastle Morning Herald 29 October 1887

[24] Newcastle Morning Herald 26 November 1887

[25] Newcastle Morning Herald 6 June 1888.

[26] Newcastle Morning Herald 1 May 1888

[27] Evening News 2 July 1889

[28] Daily Telegraph 15 May 1891

[29] The Daily Telegraph 11 April 1891

[30] Sydney Morning Herald 15 August 1894

[31] Maitland Daily Mercury 30 August 1894

[32] Newcastle Morning Herald 29 May 1896

[33] Newcastle Morning Herald 24 October 1898

[34] Newcastle Morning Herald 27 October 1900

[35] Newcastle Morning Herald 18 March 1902