For many generations, Ampthill has been the natural centre for the surrounding villages. In the nineteenth century its role as a market town was extended when it became the centre of a Union of Parishes under the Poor Law Act of 1834 and the seat of a County court established under the County Court act of 1846.
In legal affairs Ampthill had long been of local prominence and in the late seventeenth century the Bedford Assizes were held in the town, largely for the convenience of the Earl of Ailesbury, who lived at Houghton House. Petty Sessions met here regularly, at first, like the Assizes in the Moot Hall, a medieval building in the town centre, demolished by the Duke of Bedford in1852 and replaced by the premises now known as the Clock House. As an alternative to the Moot Hall and preferred by many, public gatherings were often held in the market room, at either of the town’s two major Inns, the Kings Arms and the White Hart. By the mid nineteenth century, the magistrates usually met at the White Hart and it was here that the County Court was held for some years.
The provisions for administration of justice as found in the towns Inns were far from convenient. Complaints were made of the cramped conditions at the Kings Arms and of the necessity for everyone involved to reach the proceedings via the tap room. There was no waiting room of any sort, except the tap room and the local press thought it quite improper that those obliged to wait here should make full use of the facilities the room was designed to offer. So in 1861 the authorities purchased a site in Church Street, then occupied by small cottages and a plumbers shop, for the erection of a Court House.
It was obvious that the building which was to be the seat of justice for Ampthill and twenty one of the surrounding villages would have to be impressive, but the result perhaps exceeded even the Victorian expectation and one wonders whether there was any connection between the magnificence of the Court House and the residence at Ampthill Park at this time of Lord Wensleydale, a most distinguished High Court Judge.
The architect was Sir John Taylor KCB (1833-1912), who had entered the Office of works in 1859 and was its Surveyor of Buildings from 1866 to 1898. His other works included the Bankruptcy Court in Carey Street, Bow Street Court and the North London and Marylebone Courts. He was also responsible for the War Office building and the Court at Horncastle, which is similar in design to Ampthill.
The new building was quite unlike anything else in Ampthill, its Italianate style and yellow brick contrasting sharply with mellowed red of the Georgian facades with their square-headed sash windows and the adjoining plastered house fronts in Church Street. Built on two levels, the Court House was entered through an impressive doorway at the western end, above which was a huge carving of the Royal Arms, sadly, destroyed in recent years, signifying the Crown status of the Court. (the stone steps which led to the main entrance, led to locals threatening to take their antagonists ’’up them steps’’ ie to take them to court!) On the lower floor were various offices and ancillary rooms, while the court itself occupied most of the upper floor. Crown Courts came under the jurisdiction of the Home Office and so despite of the existence of the ‘’neat commodious’’ court house in Church Street, other legal proceedings continued in the unsatisfactory surroundings of the Kings Arms for many years until agreement between the Crown and the County brought the magistrates to the new building. Following reorganisation of County Courts in 1918, the Ampthill Court closed and the Court House became the property of the County Council and was reserved exclusively for cases brought before the Ampthill Bench. In 1963 a new court house was opened in Woburn Street, adjoining the new Police station and the Church Street Establishment was closed.
As a County Court and a Magistrates Court, the building served to deal with many hundreds of cases, most of them remarkably ordinary and of a nature to be expected in the town and district the courts served. Perhaps the most famous of these cases came towards Perhaps the most famous of these came towards the end Court House’s use as such, when James Hanratty was committed to Bedford Assizes for trial for the ‘’A6 murder’’, for which he was later hanged. The murder charge was first heard before Ampthill Magistrates in the summer of 1961. There was immense public interest in the case and extensive press, radio and television coverage. Half the court was made over to the pressmen, a small telephone room was provided and a press club established in the nearby Wingfield Club. At the end of the hearing the senior reporter thanked Mr Guy Owen, the chairman of the bench, saying that in all their experience, he and his colleagues had never met with such consideration as was shown in the Ampthill Court.
In the days of the County Court, much colour must have been brought to the town by such judges as His Hon. Francis McTaggert (1860’s), His Hon William Henry Gunning Bagshawe QC (1890’s) and His Hon. Sir William Thomas Snaggs (1900’s) whom served the circuit of which Ampthill was a part. As a Magistrates Court many distinguished local residents sat on the Bench among whom the longest serving was Sir Anthony Wingfield, who was appointed JP in 1882 and continued to serve until 1942, for the last twenty years or so as chairman of the Bench. Although there was no pageantry attached to the workings of the Magistrates Court as was provided by a judge in County Court, there were some aspects of the courts workings which added colour to the weekly event and some still remember the awe inspiring sight of Supt FJ Underwood of the Ampthill Division, Beds County Constabulary, driving through the town in full dress uniform and in a trap drawn by a white pony as he made his way to the Court House each Thursday morning.
But apart from such drama and colour as surrounds the functions for which it was built, the Court House saw a much different nature in the years before the first world war, when the court room served as a public hall for many of the town’s social activities. Concerts and balls were regular occurrences here in Victorian times and ‘’the Court Room Lectures’’ were such a highly successful educational adventure that in 1887 a testimonial was presented to Mr Thomas Chapman in recognition for his work in arranging for Ampthillians to hear talks on a wide variety of subjects. In contrast, about thirty years later, the headmaster of the National School, Charles Searle, was able to organise a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s last joint work ‘’The Grand Duke’’, which was quite outstanding.
From 1893, when Ampthill Local Board (later to become the Urban District Council) was formed, its meetings were held in the Court House. Poor lighting caused some inconvenience and in 1914 the council tried to persuade the Home Office to allow the installation of gas lighting in their meeting chamber. The UDC ceased holding their meetings here in the 1920’s, but in the early days of the council’s history, the Court House was the location for some of the many Local Government Board public enquiries which accompanied the strenuous efforts of some of the inhabitants to obtain their say in their own government through the establishment of a Local Board and of the boards subsequent difficulties in the provision of a sewage disposal scheme, in the 1890’s.
Few public functions were held in the building after the end of the first world war, although the Court House steps provided a suitably ‘’official’’ setting for the proclamation of Qeen Elizabeth II in 1952, which was read by the High Sheriff, Major LF Stedall, DSO, DL and was accompanied by the Under Sheriff FB Stevens Esq and other local dignitaries.
In 1963 the Court House was closed for a decade during which its future seemed uncertain, was purchased for conversion to a freemasons Hall. Having been tastefully restored and adapted to its new role, its future as an integral part of Church Street and the town of Ampthill, is assured.
As a result, Freemasonry has prospered and grown in Ampthill, where today some four hundred and fifty members, of fourteen Lodges and other organisations, attend regular meetings in what is today known as the Ampthill Masonic Centre, but still retaining ‘’the Old Court House’’, Church Street, Ampthill as its postal address.