One of London’s most renowned courthouses on Clerkenwell Green is getting a new life thanks to two Swedish brothers, Oliver and Ted Grebilius. I had the pleasure recently of visiting the property which was near completion of its new renovation. A short walk from the Farringdon rail station the building is easy to find.The plan is to transform this English heritage Grade II* listed building into a public gathering place and all-day destination.
The Swedish brothers, founders of Sätila Studios that buys and redevelops buildings in Sweden and London, discovered Old Sessions House from the rooftop of their first Clerkenwell project of a former Victorian printing house on Farringdon Road.
Ted Grebilius says:
’We were up there with our agent discussing our next move. They pointed to this building, and said, “Maybe you could buy that.”
Construction of the Old Sessions House was completed in 1779 and opened in 1782 with the original title of Middlesex Sessions House. Built in the Palladian-style the property façade was made of portland stone with Ionic columns. Inside the building is a coffered dome to match the style of the Roman Parthenon.
The courthouse and its administrators quickly became very well known to the community. Prisoners were held for their court appearances in basement cells and some of the harshest sentences were given out. A 78 year old women was sentenced to prison for seven years for stealing meat and another received a 20 year sentence for stealing a pair of shoes.
The basement also had an underground tunnel for prisoners to walk through to be transported to a British prison or to ships for being transported to Australia. The tunnels were provided to keep family members and victims from attacking the prisoners after sentencing.
In the late eighteenth century two justices were appointed to act as chairman of the court. The first was John Hawkins who was chairman from 1765 to 1780 and most notably the second chairman was William Manwaring who served as chairman from 1781 to 1816. Mainwaring was eventually accused of corruption for taking money so as to grant licenses for local alehouses.
In 1931 the court relocated and the property became the headquarters for Avery Scales the maker of weighing machines.
By 1950 the building was included on a national list of buildings for its architecture and history. For almost 30 years the building became derelict and eventually became a Masonic Lodge. However, in 1994 the Old Sessions House became a Grade II* listed building an award that is only received by 5% of the buildings in the UK.
The immediate area around courthouse formerly included distilleries, pubs, printing houses, and watchmaking but while some of these industries are gone the original buildings are still present as if time stood still as most have been in the Clerkenwell location since at least the 1800’s.
My visit with Oliver and Ted at the Old Sessions House reminded me of my review of Cambridge House also known as the In and Out Club at 94 Piccadilly. Both Palladium style properties with similar window styles, exterior facade but differing floor plans.
The main level staircase takes you to the old courtrooms which have been beautifully restored. The courtroom has an upper balcony viewing area where members of the public and others could watch the trials. A separate and private stairwell was used to bring the accused to the courtroom for trial and sentencing from the ground floor.
The building from the basement to the top floor are being remodelled for a variety of new business opportunities and for food vendors.
The ground floor with its former prison cells and kitchen will be available for food and drink establishments including restaurants, bakeries, bars, delis or markets. This particular part of the property has seven entrances for easy access and will include outdoor patios for the public.
The top floor and roof level that served at one time as the former Judge’s Dining Room is being developed into a new intimate restaurant, lounge and wine bar.
The main part of the building with two entrances on Clerkenwell is having the old courtrooms, judges’s rooms to be used for tenant space or a business operation or private members-only club.
The new property venture is close to opening and will be a great new attraction for the EC1 area.