The Castle Hill Folly – Cambridge’s unbuilt law courts


On why we didn’t get the grand law courts of 1956

I was browsing through the microfiches of the very old editions of the Cambridge Independent Press in the Cambridgeshire Collection (3rd fl of Cambridge Central Library)  at the weekend and stumbled across proposals for some new courts at Shire Hall.

560203 New Shire Hall Courts Models

Now, as post-war architecture goes, I’m not really a fan, but I do like the design of this one.

But why did we need these grand new courts?


The Cambridge Independent Press of Friday 27 January 1956 quotes a letter from the Chief Constable (D Arnold) to the Clerk of the Peace (The Justice’s clerk) Charles Phythian, and states as follows:

“The accommodation at the Guildhall is definitely inadequate for the Assizes. The Court is too small and badly ventilated. Accommodation for Her Majesty’s Judges is poor and the facilities for housing witnesses in waiting very bad”

The article states further that members of the public, witnesses and law students had to be excluded from the court due to lack of space. Given that the building had only been completed a few decades earlier. Judges also complained at the smallness of their rooms.

Not long after, the Cambridge Independent published an article about the uproar over the £300,000 price tag that came with the new designs. Using this historical inflation money converter, that works out at about £7million in today’s money. Bargain. That said, it’s not the greatest comparator because of the changes in the law on building regulations along with a whole host of other inflation-busting cost rises plus facilities not around in 1956 that we’d take for granted today. Eg telecommunications and extensive electrical fittings.

The Chancellor’s budget cuts

It was Harold MacMillan who, having succeeded Rab Butler as Chancellor, brought in spending cuts. The Minister for Local Government, according to the Cambridge Independent Press of 24 Feb 1956, sent round a note to all local councils saying that they should cease planning for big capital works unless there is a threat to health and safety, and that councils should budget for increases in local council taxes (ie the ‘rates’).

There was also criticism of the scheme both from a design perspective, and on the demolition of the former law courts on the site, from reader W.W. Davidson in Letters to the Editor.

Photos of the old Castle Hill courts before they were demolished. Museum of Cambridge

At least they should have saved the statues!

On Friday 02 March, the Independent Press, using Cllr C E Dunkin’s description of the scheme as the ‘Castle Hill Folly’ quoted Alderman (sort of like ‘senior councillor’) RH Parker laying the blame squarely with ministers. He stated it was the new economic policies – i.e. MacMillan’s cuts, that Cambridgeshire County Council would not be going out to tender for the construction of the new courts.

Interestingly, Cambridge City Council tried to help out by offering to turn the library – now a restaurant with a celebrity brand name, as a possible site. But that scheme was described as ‘quite impracticable’.

Changes to the judiciary – 1971 Courts Act

The Courts Act 1971 modernised the courts system in England and Wales. (Note Scotland has a separate and very distinct legal system. See every time a celebrity gets a super injunction in England but forgets that English law doesn’t automatically apply to Scotland – hence why Parliament sometimes has to pass separate legislation for Scotland where it wants laws to apply to the whole of the UK – eg the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002).

In Cambridge today

We have a county court on East Road where the old army drill hall used to be. An unremarkable bland little block replacing what was a listed building. Further up the road is Cambridge Crown Court, and in the Grand Arcade development is the Magistrates Court that was once in the Guildhall.

Personally I think we could have gone with a single ‘civic legal square’ somewhere that would have had all of the courts (and possibly the police station behind it) to have all of the legal functions within walking distance of each other.

But hey, that’s a decision for a different generation.



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