St Peter's Church, Great Berkhamsted

The Church of St Peter Great Berkhamsted

The Court House

The pretty half-timbered building next to to St Peter’s Church is the Court House. Dating from the 16th century, it is an example of an English timber-framed building of red brick and knapped flint with a jettied wooden first floor. It was originally used as the courts of the Manor of Berkhamsted and today serves as the church hall for St Peter’s.

History of the Court House

Jenny Sherwood
Berkhamsted Local History & Museum Society

The present building is Tudor in origin but could well have been built on the site of a mediaeval building. It has been variably known as the Church House or the Town Hall in addition to the Court House. It could be considered as the town’s first Civic Centre since we know that empowered by the last Royal Charter of 18th July 1618, issued by James I, the Town’s Council met to deliberate. The Common Council consisted then of a Bailiff or Mayor and twelve chief Burgesses, who were elected annually. The Council also had the services of a full-time Recorder. This body was known as the Corporation. This Charter granted the town the right to hold a Court of Records at the Court House, where the Corporation also kept the standard weights and measures used to help settle trading disputes.

The courts of the Manor and Honour of Berkhamsted, held traditionally on Whit Tuesday and on the Tuesday after Michaelmas, met to hear ‘all pleas, actions, suites or offences against the laws and liberty of the manor.’ The Corporation was permitted to make bye-laws for the borough, to impose fines, penalties and imprisonment, to have an extra market day every week and two additional fair days annually, to maintain a prison, to collect market tolls. They were to hold a court of record once a month and a court of pied poudre to deal with petty offences on fair days. The Corporation brought no lasting benefits from its privileges and fell into abeyance in the 1660s. It was probable that manorial courts had been held in the Court House in mediaeval times, or possibly at the Castle.

Over the years the Court House has had a variety of uses. In 1838 it became the home of the National School, when additional rooms were built on the back of the house. Shortly afterwards the cottage next door was built for the schoolmaster.

With the introduction of the regulations of the 1870 Education Act and the Bourne Charity School children also joining the National School children the premises were no longer large enough. The Victoria Church of England Boys’ School was built to commemorate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This was followed by the building of Victoria Girls’ School, adjacent, in the early 1900s.

In 1863 Earl Brownlow of Ashridge bought the Manor and Honour of Berkhamsted with the exception of the Castle, from the Duchy of Cornwall. This included the ownership of the Court House, which was immediately leased back to various trustees at a nominal rent. In 1898 the Berkhamsted Urban District Council was formed. Court sessions were held in the Sessions Hall at the Town Hall until the new Civic Centre was built in 1935.

During WWI when the very large contingent of Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps was billeted in the town from 1914-19 the Court House was used as an Orderly Room. In 1918 during the Spanish Flu’ epidemic when the IOC Hospitals could not accommodate all the patients, the Court House was also used as an extension hospital.

During WWII Berkhamsted had to accommodate a large number of evacuees from London schools and half-time schooling became a necessity, the Court House, together with every other hall in the town was used to accommodate the surge in population. During the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Victoria Schools were undergoing building works the children walked down the High Street in crocodiles to have lunch in St. Peter’s Hall behind the Court House, and even the 5-yea-olds had a 9-4 school day. With the completion of the school building and the opening of their new hall, the old one became the dining hall and the Court House was refurbished and offices built behind, as we know it today. The Court House is now effectively the Church Hall for St Peter’s Church.