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Shire Hall History

Erected in 1724, The Grade1* listed building, the Shire Hall, Monmouth was designed to house two “Courts of Judicature” and a room for the Grand Jury at Assizes and Sessions. The architecture of the Shire Hall was very loosely in the popular style of the day – Baroque – and thought to be by Philip Fisher of Bristol.

The present building was built on or close to the site of two previous buildings. The original building, built in 1536, was a small court but this was replaced in 1571 by a typically Elizabethan building with a timber framework.

The replacement of the Market Hall with a Shire Hall to accommodate assizes was mainly as a result of complaints that the Market Hall was not suitable as a market and that the original venue for assizes, the great hall in Monmouth Castle, was unsatisfactory through ill repair.

Problems with the design and construction of the Shire Hall almost immediately ensued. In 1743 major renovation was undertaken by Philip Hardwick of Bristol, at a cost of three hundred pounds. Further additions were made to the building in the form of a clock in 1765, by Richard Watkins, and railings by Peter Embury in 1767. The statue of Henry V, who was born in Monmouth Castle in 1387, was added in 1792.

Further problems were encountered with the building and in 1821 a committee was set up to look into them. The result was that in 1829 royal assent was given for improvements under the direction of Thomas Hopper. This work carried out through Edward Hayock, included the construction of a new staircase, larger courts and the extension of the building along Agincourt Street.

Building work was completed in time for the opening of the assizes in 1831 at a cost of just over seven thousand pounds, which in spite of a brief to provide “comfort” for the judges included a mere one hundred and forty three pounds for furnishings. At this time plans existed to re-house the market but it was not until 1837 that all trading, with the exception of corn, flour, wool and hops, was transferred to the new Market Hall in Priory Street.

The Shire Hall has continued to provide the services to which it was designated to this day, with several notable exceptions i.e. the Magistrates courts no longer sit in Monmouth and the famous Courtroom 1 now forms part of a tourist attraction. The general trading market is planned to return, although not in corn, flour or wool, on Fridays and Saturdays. The room now referred to as the community room at one time housed the town’s library, which is now located in the Rolls Hall. The statue of Charles Rolls, who had the dubious distinction of being the first English aviator to be killed in the air, was unveiled in 1911.

The most notable event to take place at the Shire Hall was, following the Newport riots in 1839, the trial in 1840 of the chartist John Frost, who along with Zephaniah Williams and William Jones was convicted of High treason and sentenced to be “hanged until dead and quartered”. History has it that a Monmouth doctor offered to do the quartering. Whilst the gallows were being built on the roof of Monmouth Gaol within earshot of the condemned cells, the sentence was commuted to deportation. Frost was deported to Tasmania (Van Dieman’s Land), given a provisional pardon in 1854, fully pardoned in 1856 and returned to England where he died in Bristol in 1877 at the age of 93. The trial of Frost and his 14 other co defendants took but a matter of a few weeks (starting on New Years Eve with sentences past on the 16th January) and attracted the most senior judiciary in the form of the Lord Chief Justice and was clearly highly political. The jury took less than an hour to reach a guilty verdict. The cost of the trial was seventeen hundred and forty four pounds, which included one hundred and twelve pounds for London policemen.

courtroom in monmouth
Judge-Monmouth

Chartism

Chartism was a movement for political and social reform in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during the mid-19th century, between 1838 and 1850. It takes its name from the People’s Charter of 1838, which stipulated the six main aims of the movement as:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The secret ballot. – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4.  Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.

6. Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

Chartism was possibly the first mass working class labor movement in the world. Today, all but the last aim – annual parliaments – are on the statute books.