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List Entry Summary

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.


List entry Number: 1296765



The building may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Cambridgeshire

District: East Cambridgeshire

District Type: District Authority

Parish: Ely

National Park: Not applicable to this List entry.

Grade: II*

Date first listed: 23-Sep-1950

Date of most recent amendment: 11-Oct-2011

Legacy System Information

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System: LBS

UID: 48754

Asset Groupings

This list entry does not comprise part of an Asset Grouping. Asset Groupings are not part of the official record but are added later for information.

List entry Description

Summary of Building

A sessions courthouse erected in 1821.

Reasons for Designation

* Architectural Interest: It is designed in a simple but pleasing Palladian style that gives it prominence in the streetscape; * Historic Interest: It is a rare example of an early C19, purpose-built courthouse which survives largely intact; * Interior: The layout and internal fixtures and fittings survive almost intact; most notably the courtroom and stairs; * Group Value: It has strong group value with nearby listed buildings, in particular No. 4 Lynn Road, the former gaol house.


The order for the building of a new Sessions House was given in August 1819 and estimates for the scheme were prepared by Mr Humphries of Cambridge by the November. Extra land was purchased from Rev. Bringhurst and the Dean and Chapter of Ely, and an Act to approve the new Sessions House gained Royal assent in July 1820. The contractors were paid £6,000 in June 1821 when, presumably, the building had been completed. (Minutes of Ely Quarter Sessions).

Changes were made in 1843 when a separate house of correction, containing 35 cells, was built to the rear and the prison chapel in the south wing was converted into a police station. Between 1865 and 1869 the north wing was partly appropriated by the Volunteers for use as an armoury, and was taken over entirely for this purpose when, in 1878, the house of correction was closed under the Prisons Act of the previous year. The Volunteers gave up their tenancy in 1908 (Victoria County History). Repairs and alterations were made to the building in the late C20, most notably a new set of railings were added to the front and the columns repaired, the holding cells were modernised, and the sides of the dock in the main courtroom were raised and the floor lowered. The interior of the northern block has been modernised. In the early C21 the Sessions House became unused and is currently vacant.


Building: Sessions House of 1821 erected in yellow gault brick.

Plan: The plan of the building is broadly rectangular with a central, broad bow to the rear. Two single-storey wings break forward at the north and south ends in the style of pavilions.

Exterior: Two storeys in height, it has a shallow-pitched and slate-covered roof. The street-front elevation of the main range is seven bays wide and dominated by a pedimented portico, on a triglyph frieze that is carried onto the face of the building at eaves level, and carried on four fluted Doric columns. The columns have simple moulded heads that have been sympathetically repaired in the late C20. The tympanum is plain but contains the Royal coat of arms. The columns are shadowed on the façade behind by four, plain pilasters, the outer two of which clasp the corners of a shallow break-forward that contains the three central bays. A central double doorway, with a simple small-paned over-light, is flanked by the inner two pilasters. At the upper level the bays contain double-hung 6 over 6 hornless sashes with prominent stucco architraves, similar to the rest of the façade. A stucco band runs across at sill level. The ground-floor level is defined by four doorways, including the central double-doors, the southerly two of which compromise the regularity of the bays, resulting in the placing between them of two narrow sash windows. To the north, a short single-storey section links the main range with the north 'pavilion' block, and contains a doorway. The 'pavilion' blocks to the north and south have clasping brick pilasters which are carried upwards to form the corners of open stone-balustraded parapets. The northern block contains a single, recessed, round-headed window opening, framed by a prominent stucco architrave with keystone, containing a sash window. The southern block is lit by two cast-iron, small-paned, cell windows with heavy sills and lintels. The railings date from the late C20. At the rear of the southern block an alteration has seen the addition of a single-storey, flat-roofed, brick, plant room. To the north, the link between the main block and the north block has been re-built recently at the rear, perhaps to create the doorway.

Interior: The main entrance double doors give access to an entrance lobby which runs along the front of the building and behind which is the main courtroom. From the lobby rise two flights of stairs. The southerly stair has square handrails and newels, and turned balusters and rises to the upper floor. That to the north gives access to the rear of the main courtroom. The foot of the southerly stairs has been turned in the late C20 so that the lower flight of treads runs along the lobby. To its right a doorway with a semi-circular over-light and arched glazing bars, contains a pair of doors with ovular lights and leads to the 'pavilion' block at the south end. The block contains four holding cells; two on either side of a north/south corridor. Recorded as having C19 fittings in the late C20, they now have modern doors, benches and stainless steel toilets. One of the original doors has been retained and is on display.

The main courtroom lies at the heart of the building and rises through both storeys. The Magistrates' bench is contained within the broad bow to the rear of the building and matches its curvilinear form. It is fronted by a blind balustrade, projecting centrally to allow for a raised lectern. The balustrade is capped by a sloping, varnished writing surface, with a lipped edge and ink wells. Before the pedestal, fixed panelling encloses the sloping writing desk of the clerk, fixed to a large table that dominates the central area. The panelled rectangular dock faces the table, its sides raised in the C20 by the addition of a glazed screen to the front and a balustrade on the other three sides. The floor level around the dock has been lowered in the late C20. To the sides of the courtroom simple benches provide galleries, contained within boxing with ramped sides. At the upper storey level, tiers of benches are provided for the jury's gallery (on the north side, behind a balustrade) and the public gallery (at the west end behind a pier and panel front). Access to the upper galleries is via four-panel doors at that level. There have been alterations over time in addition to those to the dock: some of the bench seats have been renewed, for example, and some ironmongery is modern, but the majority of the original joinery appears to have survived.

At each end of the magistrates' bench, round headed doorways give access to stair lobbies, from which dog-leg stairs rise to the upper storey. The staircases have stick balusters, and turned newels with domed caps, in an early C19 form. Some balusters have been enclosed but appear to survive. At first-floor level, the room to the north provides the magistrates retiring room, with an inner sash window offering at once light and a view of the main courtroom. A fireplace offered heat from the north wall; the surround appearing to be early C19 in date. Three rooms on the south side now form a second courtroom and service rooms. A slender king-post roof is exposed here, with an expanded base and angle struts supporting the principles beneath a single tier of chamfered purlins. The post is strapped to the tie. Doors appear to be modern and the courtroom furniture is late-C20 in date.

Access to the roof was limited but from what could be seen, the main roof is perhaps queen-post in form with pegged joints. It is likely to be early C19 in date. No access was gained to the north 'pavilion' block but it would appear to have been refurbished and modernised internally, with modern doors and joinery.

Selected Sources

Books and journals
Save Britain's Heritage, , Silence in Court, (2004)
Allan Brodie, Gary Winter and Stephen Porter, The Law Court 1800-2000. Developments in form and function., 2000/1,

National Grid Reference: TL5406980515


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End of official listing