The WI go to Jail


In July, thirteen members of the WI went to visit the County Crown Courts in Northampton. Our visit involved sitting as observers to see how justice is carried out and in the afternoon we had a tour of The Sessions House.


The new courtrooms are well appointed, and the cases covered, varied from assault to illegal images of young people and rape. Only one case of assault was concluded and all the other cases were carried over to a later date for further evidence or information to be obtained. It was generally felt that a lot of time was taken up unnecessarily because not enough information or evidence was available to either side before the criminal came to trial. It was a very educational and interesting visit. Anyone can visit and I recommend it most highly.

The Sessions House is a very rare example of a 17th century Courthouse. It is 322 years old. It was one of the first new buildings put up after the great fire of 1675 destroyed most of Northampton town centre. The single story stone building is decorated with royal crests, cherubs and masks showing faces of what may have been the prisoners to be tried inside.

It was built to provide a proper place to hold the County Assize Courts. For these, Judges came from London twice a year to try criminal cases. Trials themselves were considered excellent entertainment and judges in the 18th century had trouble controlling the “noisy, rude, curious, hardly restrainable, low rabble forcing themselves into the court”. We all had such an experience as we stood as criminals, and some as judges, to be tried for our offences of witchcraft, passing by a dead body, stealing bread and consorting with a gypsy to mention but a few. Hang them was the verdict we received! Hanging was, however, the most usual form of execution and was the punishment for over 230 offences in 1723.

There are no tales of haunting, but in the Crown Court is The Devil’s Mask in the ceiling decoration. It has always been said to have a loose-fitting tongue that wagged every time a lie was told in court! Some members had the experience of entering the holding cells where prisoners awaiting trial left graffiti of the day, a very eerie reminder of past occupants

The photos taken on the day show the cells and the “Joys” of being in a cell, the door behind the Sessions House where the last hanging took place, and the 13 WI members outside The Sessions House now a Grade 1 listed building.

Val Bellamy
Membership & PR Secretary WI