County Sessions House

Photo of grand stone building with pillars

County Sessions House, Islington, Liverpool

County Sessions House today

Today, County Sessions House is used for staff offices and collections storage, so it is not possible for us to open it up to the public. This is due to it being a busy working environment and also because the building has a complex layout with many stairs, so access is not easy for everyone. We need to keep our visitors and our collections safe and in an old building such as this, unfortunately at present we don't have the means to bring it to a standard whereby we could open it to the public. We do hope that we'll be able to change this in the future. 

History of the building

The County Sessions House was built between 1882 and 1884 to house the Quarter Sessions for the West Derby Hundred of the county of Lancaster. The county's coat of arms appears in the pediment over the main entrance. Quarter Sessions were courts in which cases involving non-capital offences were tried by magistrates. Until 1877, they were held in Liverpool at the court in Basnett Street and at the Kirkdale Sessions House attached to Kirkdale gaol. When the Prison Act of 1877 transferred prisons like Kirkdale from local authority control to the state, a new home had to be found for the Sessions. They were housed temporarily in St George's hall until the new Sessions House opened in Islington. The magistrates held their first meeting here on Monday 4th August 1884.

The architects of the new building were Messrs. Francis and George Holme, members of an important Liverpool family of builders and railway contractors. Francis Usher Holme (1843/4-1913) trained as an architect in Edinburgh and London, and worked in the office of Sir Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament, before retuning to Liverpool. He was Surveyor to the County of Lancaster, and in this role he did much work in connection with the design of roads and bridges. In partnership with his uncle George Holme (1822/3-1915) he designed the Conservative Club in Dale Street (built 1882-3, now the Municipal Annexe) and the Homeopathic Hospital in Hope Street (1887, now the Hahnemann Building of John Moores University). In the 1880s and 90s F. & G.Holme regularly exhibited designs for buildings in the annual Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions held at the Walker Art Gallery. These included houses in the Sefton Park area and in West Derby, churches in Crosby and Oxton, the Town Hall in Widnes, and various buildings associated with the Snowdon Railway.

The County Sessions House continues the row of impressive public buildings which line the north side of William Brown Street, dedicated to culture and civic values. In appearance and function these buildings complement St George's Hall (1841-56, by H. L. Elmes and C. R. Cockerell), with its law courts, concert hall and ambitious scheme of sculptural decoration. The first of the William Brown Street group to be built was the Museum and Library (1857-60, by Thomas Allom and John Weightman), followed by the Walker Art Gallery (1874-7, by Cornelius Sherlock) and the Picton Reading Room (1875-9, also by Sherlock). In contrast to the relatively severe architecture of these earlier buildings, the exterior of the Sessions House is treated more decoratively. There is a good deal of carved ornament (by the architectural sculptors Norbury, Upton and Patterson of Liverpool), stonework of varied colours, and very little plain, unadorned wall surface. In this the Sessions House reflects a general trend in 19th century architecture away from restraint and simplicity towards greater elaboration, taking as its models the buildings of 16th century Italy and France rather than ancient Greece and Rome. However, this elaboration does not extend beyond the main facade. As with all the William Brown Street buildings, the Sessions House was designed to be seen from the front. The back and the less visible parts of the sides are treated in a much more utilitarian way and are built largely of brick.

Compared with the regular, symmetrical facade, the internal planning is extraordinarily complex and irregular. This complexity was dictated by the building's original function. Magistrates and barristers came in by the front door, solicitors and witnesses entered through a side door in Mill Lane, prisoners were delivered to the cells through a gate on the east side, and members of the public who came to watch the proceedings had their own entrance at the back. Once inside, the arrangement of stairs and corridors was ingeniously designed to ensure that these four categories of user did not have to meet until they confronted each other in one of the courtrooms. Today's visitor exploring the whole building may find the interior a confusing maze, but its original users would probably have had no need to venture beyond their own clearly defined area. The complicated subdivision into many small offices, not all of them adjacent to external walls, made it difficult for the architects to admit natural light to every part of the building. They overcame this problem with considerable ingenuity through the use of roof lights, glazed doors and wrought iron grilles.

Floor by floor, the Sessions House contains the following accommodation: the basement is entirely occupied by cells; the ground floor - the most altered part of the building - originally had further cells, accommodation for solicitors and witnesses, and a summary court (now converted into a lecture theatre); the first floor contains two court rooms and accommodation for magistrates, barristers and jurors; the top floor has a room for the Grand Jury, a dining room and a caretaker's flat.

Wooden panelled interior of a courtroom

The small courtroom

The most richly decorated interiors are the entrance hall and the magistrates' room. The entrance hall uses costly, carefully-worked materials - Penmon marble for the steps and columns, mosaic flooring by Mr Swift of Liverpool and Mr Burke of London. The design is based on a Romano-British floor discovered at Medbourne, near Market Harborough, Leicestershire. The floor was laid under the supervision of Henry Dibben, a railway engineer who produced an accurate drawing of the Romano-British floor, which perhaps also reflected George Holme’s interest in archaeology. The magistrates' room has elaborately carved panelling and a sumptuous plaster ceiling. Elsewhere in the building, ceramic tiles are widely used for their colour, and for reasons of hygiene and durability. The wall tiles in the large court and on the staircase were supplied by Burmantofts of Leeds. The stained glass in the large court, showing the royal coat of arms, is by Shrigley & Hunt.

On a practical level, the building was extremely well serviced. There were numerous lavatories (those for the magistrates being particularly well appointed) and each cell had its own WC. The building was heated by hot water in addition to open fires and ventilated by Mr Baker's “Acme” system (Baker was Liverpool-based, and also supplied the ventilating system for F & G. Holme's Conservative Club). The vents through which used air was extracted can be seen in the ceilings of both the large and small courtrooms. The provision of air conditioning marked a big improvement over the Police Court in Basnett Street, which had been severely criticised for its overcrowding and poor ventilation.

The Courts Act of 1971 abolished Quarter Sessions. After ending its role as a courthouse, the County Sessions House accommodated the Merseyside Museum of Labour History for some years. Since 1984 the building has been in the care of National Museums Liverpool and currently houses the Fine Art Curatorial and Learning Departments, Print Room and the Rex Makin Lecture Theatre, all part of NML's Art Galleries Division.

Further reading:

There is an illustrated report on the design of the County Sessions House in 'The Builder', 4th February 1882 and a very detailed description of the newly completed building in the 'Liverpool Weekly Post', Saturday 9 August 1884. Francis Usher Holme's obituary is in 'The Liverpool Courier' 16 June 1913 and George Holme's is in 'The Builder' 23 April 1915. The catalogues of the Walker Art Gallery's annual Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions (accessible via Liverpool Record Office) are helpful for identifying other buildings designed by F. & G. Holme.

See also 'Liverpool, Pevsner Architectural Guides' by Joseph Sharples, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2004.