Tudor Market Cross
Shire Hall is one of Chelmsford's most significant landmarks. From its opening in 1791, Shire Hall has served as the County Court for over 220 years until its closing in 2012, when the courts relocated to New Street, north of the High Street. Shire Hall replaced two earlier buildings which also served as the County's court houses from the 12th Century.
Shire Hall, Chelmsford, by Phillip Reinagle, exhibited 1794 (reproduced courtesy of Chelmsford Museum)
The original Tudor Market Cross building, also known as the Great Cross, served as a market place and court house after it replaced an earlier medieval Sessions House around 1569. Its ground floor was open sided and contained a piazza where the important Assizes and County Quarter Sessions were held. People also met there to trade corn at the market on Fridays. Above this space were enclosed galleries.
To the west of the Great Cross stood the Little Cross, a smaller weather-boarded court building constructed sometime between 1569 and 1660. While the Great Cross was used for the Crown Court, the Little Cross held the Nisi Prius (civil) Court.
In May 1660, the Tudor court houses were criticised by the magistrates for being not fit for purpose for the County Quarter Sessions. It wasn't until 1714 that the Little Cross was rebuilt and another 70 years later that Shire Hall was constructed.
In 1788, County Surveyor John Johnson received his second major commission in the town to build a new Shire House at the northern end of the High Street, after ten years of discussions about its proposed location. It was erected at the expense of the county, and Johnson, who having completed Shire Hall to the satisfaction of the magistrates for less than the original estimate, was presented with a silver cup for his work in 1792.
Set further back than the existing court houses, the building would be sited between the existing market place and the southern gate of the churchyard, in an area occupied by a row of six privately-owned properties. An Act of Parliament was passed so that these houses could be purchased for the site of the new hall. A county rate was levied to raise £14,000 for the purchase of the site and the construction of the new building. The act also forbade any new building to be constructed between the new shire house and the street; this important area of public space still remains and is now known as 'Tindal Square'.
The County Hall of Essex
Front elevation of the 'County Hall of Essex', designed by John Johnson, 1788 (reproduced courtesy of Essex Records Office)
Shire Hall is a refined Georgian building that has a square form in Adam-style architecture. Johnson designed a three-storey building of five bays, which is formed of White Suffolk brick to the sides and rear and boasts an impressive white Portland stone façade. On the ground floor at the front are three central entrance arches which lead into an open entrance hall.
Four ionic columns support a pediment above the entrances, with three bas-reliefs located in between each column. These emblematic figures, which represent Justice, Wisdom and Mercy, were created by John Bacon, a British sculptor who worked in the late 18th century. They are made of Coade Stone, an artificial stone, which at the time were a remarkable new building material that majorly influenced 18th century architecture.
Justice, Wisdom and Mercy Coade Plaques, Shire Hall, 1808
In 1887, an illuminated clock was presented to the town, by the Sparrow and Co. Bank, partly in commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was placed in the centre of the pediment.
When built, Shire Hall kept the usual courts downstairs, with the Nisi Prius and Crown Court rooms located at the back of the building beyond the large market hall.
Although this open area once functioned as a market space and corn exchange, it eventually proved unpopular with merchants because of the lack of light to inspect the corn. The problem remained unresolved until the formation of the Chelmsford Corn Exchange Company in 1855, which resulted in the opening of a purpose-built Corn Exchange nearby in 1858 (now demolished), occupying another prominent position within Tindal Square.
The second floor of the new building included a grand jury room, waiting room, and a capital ballroom, which was used by middle and upper classes to hold meetings and social events. The ballroom, better known as the 'County Room', also included a music gallery which was later removed in 1849. It extends across the length of the whole building and is still considered the largest ballroom in Essex. It was widely used for public balls, concerts and county society meetings and has been redecorated at least five times since its inception.
County Room at the Shire Hall, designed by Frederic Chancellor, 1848 (reproduced courtesy of Essex Record Office)
In 1856, the third flight of stairs leading to the grand jury room collapsed as a result of a failure of the landing at the entrance to the County Room.
James Fenton, surveyor to the Local Board of Health, who gave evidence at the inquest, claimed that each step in the original construction should have been pinned. A new staircase of York stone was later erected from the ground to the grand jury room, and all the existing staircases to the upper rooms strengthened.
This bronze statue celebrates one of Chelmsford's most famous people, Sir Nicholas Conyngham Tindal. Tindal was born in Chelmsford in 1776 and was educated at the Grammar School. The statue was erected in his memory in 1851, soon after his death in 1846.
Judge Tindal portrait, c. 1830-1850 (reproduced courtesy of Chelmsford Museum)
As his wig and robe suggest, he was a lawyer and judge, becoming Lord Chief Justice in 1829. During his career he helped to reform criminal law. He introduced the insanity defence whereby people accused of a crime could plea innocence due to mental illness.
Tindal is also famous for an unusual link with royalty in one of the biggest scandals in British royal history to date. In 1820, he defended Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of King George IV, at her adultery trial.
She married George while he was the Prince of Wales, who later accused Caroline of adultery with her Italian servant, Bertolemeo Pergami, knowing this was the only way he could divorce her if she were to be found guilty. After banning Caroline from appearing in public, the press and the people took Caroline's side. Riots broke out throughout the country as King George became a hated figure. Tindal became a national hero as he successfully defended Caroline from these charges, essentially saving her from death.
Judge Tindal statue, Tindal Square, c. 1910 (reproduced courtesy of David Lambert)
The statue itself is Grade II Listed, designed by E.H. Bailey, and features Right Honourable Judge Tindal as a bronze seated figure in robes, on a Portland stone pedestal with an inscription.
It features a water tap which replaced the town's Conduit rotunda, which was originally erected in 1814 and is now located in Tower Gardens. The tap is in the shape of a lion's head at the bottom of the statue, located on the Tindal Street side of the plinth, and was used to fill an adjacent stone water trough for passing horses to drink.
On the side of the plinth facing the bank building (HSBC) was a small wooden door which gave access to the pipe and valves of water supply to the conduit.
The square was renamed Tindal Square around this time and the Judge Tindal statue was re-sited 5.5m to the south east in the 1960s. This was also when Tindal Square was remodelled which saw a number of buildings demolished to make way for High Chelmer.
Although Judge Tindal is a revered character in Chelmsford history, with a local square and street named after him, he has also been remembered by Chelmsford's night time economy. A local public house was named after him along Tindal Street, “Judge Tindal's Tavern”, and if you visit him early enough on a Sunday morning, you might see him sporting a traffic cone on his head, kindly decorated by our night time visitors.