Bishop Street courthouse sets the bar in Derry

A photograph of Bishop Street Courthouse from the early 20th century. Image courtesy of Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service
A photograph of Bishop Street Courthouse from the early 20th century. Image courtesy of Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service

In 1813, work began on Bishop Street Courthouse, which when completed, was described as “one of the finest neo-classical buildings in the north”.

For the last 200 years it has served the community and has played an important part in the history of Derry.

The vast majority of the thousands of people who walk through the doors each year are accused of nothing but are there as victims, witnesses, jury members or to attend the busy civil and family courts. Local solicitors and barristers also spend a huge amount of time in the courthouse representing their clients.

The courthouse may be something of an intimidating building, given that in the past people have been sent to their death or transported to far off lands for the most trivial crimes.

However, it is also a beautiful building and as it has listed status Bishop Street courthouse retains many of the original features.

In April 1812, a report was presented to the Honourable the Irish Society for a new courthouse to be built in Derry.

The foundation stone was laid in December of that year by the mayor John Curry, Esq. and the work began.

Designed by Dublin architect John Bowden, the courthouse was erected by builders Henry, Mullins and McMahon.

The facade of the building is modelled on the Athenian temple of Erechtheus.

The main material used in the building is white sandstone sourced from Dungiven.

Statues of Justice and Peace adorn the top of the building.

These are made out of Portland Stone as is all the ornamental work of the building. These statues are said to have been made by the late Edward Smyth, however as he died in 1812 it is believed they were created by his son John.

The current statues of Peace and Justice are replacements, as the originals are very badly worn.

In the original plans and sketches of the building, Bowden had included a Latin inscription above the pillars at the front of the building.

He had planned for ‘This is the eye of Justice that sees all things’ to be inscribed into the stone.

However it never became part of the finished building.

The courthouse bears the autograph of architect John Bowden on the coat of arms, a signature which was only visible from the gutters of the roof.

The expenses of the build amounted to £30,479 15s, a figure which included the purchase of ground and furniture.

The courthouse was not fully completed until 1817, but the first hearings were held there in the summer of 1816.

Originally it was used in some ways as a town hall, housing the mayor’s office, grand jury, crown and record courts.

The building was modernised and extended by Arthur Charles Adair during the 1890’s at a cost of £6,289.

There was a general refit of the courthouse precinct, which made provided increased accommodation in the courthouse and the court offices.

Three three-storey buildings next to the courthouse were demolished and what is now the court offices were built.

A report from the May 30, 1899 edition of the Londonderry Sentinel reported that for years there had been “incessant complaints made by judges, jurors and others regarding the inadequate accommodation provided in the county courthouse”.

It further reported that until the modernisation the sanitation arrangements of the building had “on several occasions evoked strong expressions of discontent from members of the North-West Bar”.

Further upgrades were made to the bulding at the start of the 20th century.

A new roof was fitted and modifications made in 1902 at a cost of £3,500.

It is a building that has constantly had to change and adapt to the ever increasing population and importance of the city.

In more recent times the entire building had a major restoration in which the facade was cleaned and marks from various bombing campaigns were filled in.

A security building was added to the front of the courthouse along with high iron railings around the perimeter.

A 1970 book by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society said Bishop Street Courthouse is “one of the finest buildings of architectural quality in the city, Greek Revival style, sensitively proportioned, and modelled with a pleasing pedimented portico and the whole excellently sited in the street. Internally the courthouse is disappointing. It possesses a lofty entrance or anteroom, which is dimly lit.”

The courthouse is also mentioned in a book published this year by the UAHS. Author Daniel Calley believes Bishop Street Courthouse “is one of the finest court houses in Ireland and an excellent example of Greek Revival architecture”.

The courthouse now has four courtrooms, which sit five days a week.

In the early 1990’s after the building was the target of a bomb attack, major alterations were made to the inside of the courthouse, however courtroom one and two are protected rooms.

The windows of the building are reinforced glass, but great effort must be taken to ensure they look like the originals.

In fact, the courthouse up until the early 1980’s was home to the caretaker.

The last caretaker was a man called John Martin, who lived in a small flat at the back of the building with his wife and children.

Court Administrator, Leslie Millar, was first introduced to the courthouse as a child as he made his way to the City Library.

Little did he know that as a teenager he would begin working for the Court Service and still be there to this day, almost 36 years later.

One of the most important things for Leslie and all the court service staff is to provide a service to the community.

“All walks of life come into the courthouse but it doesn’t matter who comes through that door and we are not here to judge.

“It is often overlooked 99 percent of people who come in here have done absolutely nothing wrong and the court does not just deal with criminal work, it also provides ruling on the nicer side of life.”.

One particular highlight for any staff member is to witness the adoption process, which is a life changing event for a child and their new family.

As such a long-standing member of staff, Leslie was able to spot that one of the scales on the statue of Justice was missing while watching a weather story on the news last year.

“It happened during the storms last year and I spotted it immediately when a shot of Bishop Street was on the news.

“The scale was still up there on the roof but it had to be replaced within two days because it was so badly worn”.

Leslie fondly remembers the last live-in caretaker of the building and the characters of the city who are still part and parcel of the courthouse - be they defendants, regular visitors to the court office or legal representatives.

“The Martins had small terrier dogs and many a judge had them nipping at their heels over the years” Leslie reveals.

He also credits Mrs Martin with ‘scaring the living daylights’ out of Court Service staff with tales of ghosts inhabiting the building.

The courthouse has continued to make advancements and now has some unique technology, which can make the court process easier for witnesses and wide screen televisions sit alongside original cornice work.