Secrets of the jailhouse that became HQ for Northamptonshire County Council

The former gallows

The former gallows

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As Northamptonshire County Council staff are set to leave behind a building steeped with history, the Chron took an exclusive tour around County Hall with guide and council sergeant, Roger Coleman, who has become a bit of an expert with his beloved old jail block.

Adorned with cherubs, masks and royal crests, the Sessions House is 322 years old and one of the newest buildings erected following the devastating great fire, which wiped out Gold Street and other areas of the town in 1675.

The corridor to the courtrooms and holding cells.

The corridor to the courtrooms and holding cells.

During a mid-morning tour around the historic building, Roger, who has worked at County Hall since he was 17 years old spoke of how the building once operated under the authority of the High Sherriff.

“If you couldn’t pay your debts, you would be locked up,” Roger said. Northamptonians were often lunged down the stairs and into the prison holding cells if they couldn’t cough up what they owed.

The courthouse cost £1800 to construct (now £4m) and played host to magistrates and London judges who would try criminals on 250 offences, including "consorting with gypsies" and witchcraft.

Residents didn't have to commit serious crimes to be hanged and defendants would often bribe clerks and judges to let them off with a cash sum, but there was no guarantee they would listen...

"Joseph Maidwell in prison for not swearing 1664."

"Joseph Maidwell in prison for not swearing 1664."

The last two women to be hanged for witchcraft were Elinor Shaw and Mary Phillips of Oundle who were executed in 1705.

Roger has never heard of tales of haunting in the building but said if defendants were tried in courtroom two - Crown Court - there is a loose-lipped gargoyle on the ceiling whose tongue would wag if criminals in the dock were thought to be lying... it was later discovered this was being pulled by a rope by a person who boasted zero conscience.

Trials were often considered as entertainment and rooms would pack in over 1000 spectators to see men, women and children - who were old enough to walk.

Large numbers of criminals were then shackled together in handcuffs, dragging their feet as they would trek the 'walk of shame' to a condemned cell where they would wait up to one month before they would be barbarically 'hanged by their necks' in the execution yard, while families watched on dressed in their Sunday best.

Courtroom one

Courtroom one

At the Sessions House still remains the 10ft long exercise yard, where criminals shacked up in groups of four in poky cells could ring a bell and ask to stretch their legs in the space only about arms-width.

Upon death, up to 20 people per day would traipse the gallows, located infront of the jail block where other criminals awaiting their fate would watch on while spectators would throw rotten food at them behind bars.

If they were lucky they were taken to the Bantam & Cock pub for their last drink if they were fortunate enough to be hanged in Kettering Road.

It's understood one mum shouted while her son was being executed, "save his shoes, they are worth 2p."

Tour guide, Roger Coleman

Tour guide, Roger Coleman

In 1664, Quaker, Joseph Maidwell was held in a cell for 70 years for not swearing allegiance to the monarch. His graffiti still remains carved in stone in the back yard, "Joseph Maidwell in prison for not swearing 1664."

Why so many savagely cruel hangings? "People have said to me it might have been population control," Roger said.

The last public hanging took place around the back of the Sessions House in 1852 just before Northamptonshire bought the building in 1889 and removed the burly wooden door from the centre of the building and shifted it to the far right to shake off the stigma.

Following the new move to Angel Street, the remaining parts of County Hall will be maintained by the county council for its democratic function – namely the council chamber – and a small number of staff and plans have been approved for Northampton Museum and Art Gallery to extend back into the old jail block.

It would be fair to say this building, which has been the site of many a brutal act could tell a few tales...

The graffiti in the cells

The graffiti in the cells