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East Range, 1820-23 (25)


Surveys of buildings in the East Range of the Old Law Courts


Topographical Extent:-
This area comprises of the Court of Equity, the Court of Common Pleas and the latter’s ancillary accommodation. It also includes some of the accommodation for officials of the Courts of King’s Bench and Chancery, though not the Courts themselves. Running parallel to the west wall of Westminster Hall, it extends from the Exchequer Chamber in the north, to the rear of The Stone Building’s south range facing Old Palace Yard to the south. The two yards immediately behind The Stone Building also fall within this area.

Architectural Note:-
This range comprised of buildings built immediately against the west wall of Westminster Hall which incorporated the latter’s flying buttresses into their fabric. Such piecemeal accommodation appears to have been in place at the close of the medieval period, clustered around an open area known as the 'Fish Yard'. It was so called on account of the proximity of the palace's salt-fish house; the name survived well into the eighteenth century. The buildings primarily housed the officials of the Courts of King’s Bench, Chancery and Common Pleas, on both ground and first-floor levels. There were two doorways providing the Courts direct communication with the Hall; one in the penultimate southern bay, immediately north of the Court of Chancery, and a more imposing arched entrance into the Court of Common Pleas, which took up the whole of the fifth bay from the Hall’s north end.

Northernmost of this complex was the Exchequer Chamber, constructed as part of substantial building campaign from 1565 - 1570. Situated at first-floor level, it became known as Queen Elizabeth’s Chamber, possibly on account of the royal arms and initials carved on its chimneypiece. By the time of Soane’s commission in 1820, the Chamber housed the Court of Equity, while the ground floor was used as storage vaults for two coffee houses located in the northern range: Oliver's and the Exchequer. Immediately to the south of this was the Court of Common Pleas. Built 1740 - 1741, this structure consisted of a vaulted basement, above which was a double-height Court room with galleries, lit by a glazed lantern. To the west of this was the Judges’ Room and, above the latter, a Record Room. Long associated with William Kent, the recourse to a lantern for the Court, effectively concealed behind the higher range of ancillary accommodation, was a solution Soane adopted and redeployed in his subsequent designs for the New Law Courts.

Adjacent to the Court of Common Pleas on its southern side were the apartments of the Custos Brevium (the Common Plea's record keeper), with the remainder of this range occupied by the offices of the Court of King’s Bench. These comprised of the Lord Chief Justice’s apartments, including a Waiting Room for his Officers in attendance, the King’s Bench Treasury office, and a Servant’s Hall. The ground-floor level was taken up with cellars and service rooms, primarily owned by the Clerk in Parliament, Mr Lee and Mr Hewitt, an official of the King’s Bench Record Office. The range was connected to the rear of The Stone Building’s central block, thereby creating two open yards. That to the north was divided by a wall, with its eastern half belong to the Court of King’s Bench, and its western to the Court of Common Pleas. The southern yard was similarly divided, with Mr Hewitt being responsible for its northern half, and Mr Lee for its southern.

Drawings Note:-
This series of survey drawings records two sustained phases of activity, beginning in the first-half of September 1822, following the sale by auction of this part of the Old Law Courts. Such a practice was not uncommon, as it permitted the Office of Works to subsidise the total allocated it by the Treasury for new buildings. While many drawings are only attributable to Soane’s office, the hand of John Hiort stands out, producing some highly-finished drawings in this series and elsewhere (e.g. SM 37/3/19). They are distinguished by a minute attentive line, a modulated palette of washes and a clear, if slightly stilted, hand for inscriptions. Their purpose is the immediate relaying of information to inform the design process of the New Law Courts.

In contrast to the latter, the large majority of drawings derive from the renewed survey campaign undertaken by Arthur Mee from late March to mid-April 1823. These must have been taken immediately prior to the building’s demolition. They not only demonstrate an interest in architectural record as a reference point for Soane and his pupils, but bear comparison to the efforts of antiquarian draughtsman, such as William Capon, who recorded these buildings at about the same time. Mee’s penmanship is clear, but his delineation of sculptural, three-dimension form lacks the necessary economy of line. Noteworthy amongst his survey drawings, as elsewhere, are his washed perspective views (e.g. SM Vol 48/41) where the palette is subdued with little building up of deep layers. Pen, notably, is consistently avoided in the latter; remarkably so where it could have cast elements of the interior into greater relief and accent.

Among this series are two curios: plans of the Custos Brevium’s apartments, forwarded to Soane by the Deputy Custos Brevium, one S. Humphreys. They record, in a highly schematic and naïve fashion, demolition and the provision of new presses. Though of little merit in themselves, they are included here as an indicative response from one of the Law Courts officials to Soane’s request for existing plans.



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation. This catalogue of Soane’s designs for the New Law Courts was generously funded by The Worshipful Company of Mercers and The Pilgrim Trust.

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: drawings@soane.org.uk

Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.

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Contents of East Range, 1820-23 (25)