Shire Hall Monmouth
William Rea and Edward Catchmayd built Shire Hall in 1724 on, or close to, the site of two previous buildings. The original building, built in 1536, was a small court but this was replaced in 1571 by a typically Elizabethan building with a timber framework with Philip Jones as architect, and Thomas Kerver and John Morys as builders. The timbers from the original building were used in the construction of the latter, which provided an open trading area on the ground floor with rooms above.
In 1708, land was purchased to extend the market hall and provide a council chamber and an office for the town clerk but no action was taken until the building of the existing Shire Hall in 1724.
Details of the cost of construction of the original building are not known. The cost of its replacement in 1571 was £44 and the cost of the 1724 building was £1700, £1600 of which was provided by the ‘County’ and the balance by the Corporation (Borough). The furnishings – tables, chairs, grate and railing – were also provided by the Corporation.
The architecture of the Shire Hall was very loosely in the popular style of the day – Baroque – and is thought to be by Philip Fisher of Bristol. He lived for a time in a house in Monnow Street, currently occupied by Lloyds Bank. The replacement of the market hall with a Shire Hall to accommodate assizes was mainly as a result of complaints that the market hall was not suitable as a market and that the original venue for assizes, the great hall in Monmouth Castle, was unsatisfactory through ill repair. Great Castle House was in fact used for assizes for a period immediately preceding the building of the Shire Hall.
Problems with the design and construction of the Shire Hall almost immediately ensued. In 1743, at a cost of £300, Philip Hardwick of Bristol, a friend of Philip Fisher, undertook major renovation. Further additions were made to the building – a clock in 1765, by Richard Watkins, and railings by Peter Embury in 1767. The statue of Henry V, who was born in Monmouth Castle in 1387, was added in 1792.
More problems were found in the building and in 1821 a committee was set up to look into them. In 1829 royal assent was given for improvements under the direction of Thomas Hopper. This work carried out through Edward Hayock, included the construction of a new staircase, larger courts and the extension of the building along Agincourt Street.
Building work was completed in time for the opening of the assizes in 1831 at a cost of just over £7000, which in spite of a brief to provide “comfort” for the judges included a mere £143 for furnishings. At this time plans existed to re-house the market but it was not until 1837 that all trading, with the exception of corn, flour, wool and hops, was transferred to the new Market Hall in Priory Street.
Monmouth Gaol was closed in 1869 and as a result the assizes became considerably smaller than it had been. The room now known as the Community Room was once the Third Court Room in Shire Hall, known as the Borough Court. This later became the Monmouth Library until it was moved in 1994, when the community ran the room as a facility for use by local residents. The railings between the arches were removed as part of the war effort during the Second World War. The statue of Charles Rolls, who had the dubious distinction of being the first English aviator to be killed in the air, was unveiled in 1911.
Shire Hall community has been used as a ‘village hall’ since 1994, attracting a wide range of users. The Lord Chancellor announced the closure of the Magistrates and County Court in 1998, with all court activity ceasing in 2002.
A study by Niall Philips Architects in 1999 emphasised the importance of the building in architectural and historic terms. It identified that its condition was deteriorating but proposed it should be restored and managed as a vibrant civic and community facility for the benefit of the town in social, community, educational, administrative and economic terms.
The building looks very much the same as it did at the time of the Chartist Trials although the statue of Charles Rolls, erected in 1911, now embellishes the forecourt.
In March 2003 the ‘Monmouth Borderers’ a group of dedicated needlewomen completed an impressive wall hanging of Henry V now on display in the Shire Hall.