This is an extended article of the one appearing in the new Vale Life Magazine
The original County Hall in Aylesbury
Mention County Hall to any local Bucks person, and they will probably conjure up an image of the 1960s concrete tower block in Walton Street in Aylesbury which most people consider an eyesore. However this was not the first County Hall built in the town – that honour goes to the 18th century smaller but more imposing building at the bottom of the Market Square which is now the Crown Court.
There had been rivalry between Aylesbury and Buckingham for a couple of centuries regarding which one should be considered the county town. Whilst Buckingham had originally been granted that status in the early medieval period and had obviously lent its name to the county, in practice since the Tudor period Aylesbury was regarded as the county town and the majority of the Assize Courts (predecessors of the Crown Court) were held in the town. In 1720 it was decided to rebuild the old gaol and court house in Aylesbury and 2 local architects submitted plans for a County Hall which were judged by John Vanbrugh the architect best known for designing Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard (a cheaper option than paying him to submit plans himself!). He chose a design by Thomas Harris of Cublington; it is not known if he accepted them without any modifications, although he almost certainly wouldn’t have designed a building himself with prominent drainpipes placed between the windows.
Work commenced in 1722 with Thomas Harris as the builder but it was suspended for 13 years from 1724 due to lack of funds and political feuding (some things never change!); the exterior of the building was finally completed in 1737 and the interior in 1740. Built in a classical Palladian style (after the Venetian Andrea Palladio), with some baroque features, it is one of the first examples of a Palladian building outside the capital. It was constructed in red brick with stone dressings with 7 bays, the middle 3 are crowned with a pediment decorated with 3 large stone urns. The far left ground floor window was originally the entrance to the gaol which was built behind the hall whilst the county emblem, the Buckingham swan in chains adorns the wrought iron over the central door. Unless called up for Jury Service, most people probably won’t see the interior of the building which contains a stately staircase and a grand panelled court room. This was destroyed by fire in 1970 but it was restored in every detail including box pews, a gallery and a raised judge’s seat.
Both Assize Courts and the local Quarter Sessions courts were held at the County Hall and there were a number of notorious cases heard for crimes including murder and highway robbery. Especially in the 18th century, those found guilty were often sentenced to death including those charged with lesser crimes such as sheep stealing and wounding of deer. In the 19th century as attitudes began to change progressively fewer executions were carried out and convicts were often transported to Australia instead. Between 1810 and 1845 the handful of those convicts who were condemned to die without any reprieve were hung from a drop erected on a balcony below the upper middle window of the County Hall. The executions attracted huge crowds and the Bucks Herald estimated around 6000 ‘less respectable’ people, mainly from the villages crowded into the Market Square to watch the 1845 execution of John Tawell who had poisoned his mistress. Tawell had been transported to Australia in 1820 for forgery but having obtained his ticket of leave he trained as a chemist in Sydney and became very wealthy. Returning to England in 1831 he remarried after his first wife died but he continued to have a relationship with Sarah Hart/Lawrence a nurse to his family and set her up in a house in Slough. Facing financial problems he poisoned her and he tried to escape by train to London but he was apprehended as the Station Master at Slough had sent a telegraph to the police in London, alerting them that the suspect was on the train – the first occasion that the use of an electric telegraph had resulted in an arrest.
By the 1840s conditions at the old prison at the rear of the County Hall were very poor and it was decided to build a new prison on the Bierton Road which was opened in 1847 (now the Young Offenders prison). As a result new Judge’s lodgings were constructed in 1849-50 at the back of County Hall to replace the old gaol. The new Buckinghamshire County Council established in 1888 following the new Local Government Act was also based in County Hall until the Old County Offices were built in Walton Street in the 1920s.