Post Memories: The history of Barking Magistrates’ Court
- Credit: Vickie Flores
As one of Barking’s most iconic buildings, the former magistrates’ court has an interesting history stretching back more than 120 years. Ex-Post reporter Tony Richards reminisces about the cases he heard there in the 1950s as the East Street building’s future continues to be unknown.
The former magistrates’ court was originally Barking’s town hall.
Built in 1893, it proudly bore that year on each of its two wings, and does so still today. The cornices and other decorative features are still as prominent as they were in 1893, as is the ornate main entrance and its solid timber main door. The building has welcomed troops home from the Boer War and the two World Wars.
It was the town hall of the District Council until 1931, when Prince George visited it to confer on Barking its borough status. Thereupon it became the town hall of the borough of Barking and so remained until 1958, when the new town hall, which had been several years in the building, finally opened.
From the press bench of the old town hall we reported such developments as the plans to redevelop the Gascoigne Estate and we witnessed the annual mayor-making. Party political jibes were frequent.
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The town clerk, Eric Farr, always wore a barristerial wig at meetings. He addressed the female mayor of 1956-57, Elsie Law, as “Mister Mayor.” That was the convention in those days.
As the date for closure approached the council, having on its hands a fine building shortly to become redundant, wrote to the area magistrates’ courts committee asking whether they would like to have it.
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As the committee was looking for suitable additional court premises it jumped at the chance. Here was a dignified building suitable for five courts, with access for prison vans, and close to the police station – which now, like the court building, stands empty and awaits its fate.
Work was put in hand to install cells and other fittings suitable for a criminal court building. It was a most welcome development for all. Until then magistrates, lawyers, witnesses and defendants – and journalists – had had to traipse to Stratford for the hearings of cases emanating from Barking.
It proved to be a pleasant court house for all – except, no doubt, the defendants.
Parties of trainee journalists whom I took there were always made welcome, and were sometimes invited to put questions to the bench after the court had risen.
There was humour, too. A court official on a hot summer’s day suggested to a young lady reporter from the Post that she should, in order to observe court decorum, refasten a button on her blouse.
But it all came to an end four years ago when the court was closed -- despite strong opposition from the Justices – along with 146 other court buildings throughout the country, although crime was on the increase.
Again, alternative court provision had to be found.
There was none in the vicinity, so criminal cases from this borough had to be heard elsewhere.
The Justices and all others involved in the cases had to traipse again. This time it was, and still is, to Romford or Barkingside.
Meanwhile a magnificent court building stood, and still stands, empty.
Developers are not slow to act when a site stands vacant in a town centre.
Proposals for the building included one involving total demolition except for one wing, with a six-storey adjunct consisting of flats.
A later scheme, which received planning consent, provided for retention of the building, with residential, retail and restaurant accommodation. A six-storey block intended for flats immediately adjoining the rear of the former court house has already been built, and the ground floor laid out as if for non-residential purposes.
It seems that developers are still looking for takers for parts of the old court building. Boards hanging from the upper floor of the building are still offering units for class A1 and A3 (food and drink) and class C3 (residential) uses.
Visitors to the borough from Germany and Poland have expressed their admiration of the building. Students from Germany expressed horror on being told of the plans, which then existed, to pull most of it down.
Residential use still dominates, and the developers insist that such use is in accord with the building’s Grade II classification, which was aimed at preserving its historical and architectural qualities.
Now the developers, based in Walthamstow, want to go a step even further. They have applied for permission for the ground floor of the court building to be used for three flats, instead of a restaurant as previously proposed.
Their application has been refused by the council and an appeal has been lodged to the Planning Inspectorate. Anyone wishing to submit a representation on this matter (I have already done so) has until Friday of this week to do so. The decision is likely to follow in the New Year.
It is sad to see the demise of a fine historic building which you have known firstly as a journalist and later as a lecturer, firstly as a town hall and later as a court house.
The magnificent building no longer belongs to the people for whom it was built -- the people of Barking. It has been acquired by a property company.
Now it stands forlornly bearing silent witness to 122 years of the life of this borough.
To us Barkingites it is an important part of our heritage.