Buying a slice of history

WITH hangings on its doorstep, prisoners under the floors and courtroom dramas inside, the County Hall in Ipswich offers a rich and chequered past for any potential buyer.

WITH hangings on its doorstep, prisoners under the floors and courtroom dramas inside, the County Hall in Ipswich offers a rich and chequered past for any potential buyer.

Bidders are being encouraged to come forward with their plans to develop part of the complex east of Grimwade Street and fronting St Helen's Street after Suffolk County Council announced this week that it is putting the site up for sale.

The lot will include the main 19th century castellated building of St Helen's Court and the annexes behind it, as well as the purpose-built local government offices of St Andrew's House.

The landmark County Hall, which is emblazoned with both the royal and Suffolk coats of arms, was built in 1837 at a cost of £6,149 and originally housed the county and civil courts.

Two wings were added at a later date, and although the prison was demolished and the East Suffolk police station was turned into the council's Connexions building, hints remain of the site's dramatic past.

Worldwide attention focused on the Ipswich courts in October 1936 when Wallis Simpson, the mistress of King Edward VIII, was granted a divorce from her Canadian husband at the county court.

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The King, intent on marrying her but facing fierce opposition, was forced to abdicate later that year.

Public hangings used to take place between the two towers of the grade II listed St Helen's Court, outside its wooden doors. When the roof began to collapse the macabre event was moved opposite the building, to attract more viewers.

The new owner of the property will have a dark claim to fame, as the last public execution in Britain was carried out at the site on April 14 1863, when labourer John Ducker met his fate after being convicted of murder.

After that date the executions continued but inside a special building, with the last person subjected to capital punishment on November 27, 1924.

Under the floors of the Tudor building there are a series of cells, complete with heavy doors, large locks and grates to check on those inside, as well as a network of tunnels, which is largely uncharted.

Brian Prettyman, the Estates Manager, said one of the rooms is thought to be a condemned cell.

"That cell is now used as a chapel. It would have been where the prisoners were locked up before they were strung up.

"There is a guard room next door, the only difference being that the condemned cell had a fire in it. It is now a quiet place for people to come and think. It was kept as a chapel as it was thought to be desecrated land."

Nick Reynolds, the facilities manager at the council, said: "When the home guard was disbanded it is thought they buried their stashes at this site. It would probably be things like phosphorous grenades and revolvers.

"There was also meant to be a lime pit where they disposed of the bodies of the prisoners."

In 1889, St Helen Court was taken over by East Suffolk County Council and the courts were later converted into committee rooms, although the grand doorway to the civil courts on the right and the criminal courts on the left remain, shielded from outside view.

The council chamber, panelled in oak with a public gallery, carved beams and fireplaces more than 6ft tall, will also have to be contended with in any proposal to convert the building.

One of its main features is a window depicting the coats of arms of the principal towns of East Suffolk, made in 1906 nearly 70 years before the East and West Suffolk County Councils and Ipswich County Borough Council merged.

The sale also consists of the Victorian shops next to St Helen's Court and could include the Registry Office if the developers come up with plans for an alternative location.

Mr Prettyman said the council expects that the old police station building would be demolished in any development. The four-storey St Andrew's House, which has original fittings, could be converted into residential accommodation, possibly for students at the hoped-for university for Suffolk.

Estate Agent, Bidwells, has won the contract to market the buildings and County Hall will become redundant in April when all the council's main administrative departments move to Endeavour House in Russell Road, Ipswich.


nThe site measures 2.1 acres, with the Registry Office offering a further 0.32 acres to a potential developer.

nSt Helen's Court has approximately 58 rooms, including five in the clock tower, while St Andrew's House has about 200 rooms. The annexes have 80 rooms, bringing the total rooms on offer to 350.

nThere are 25 bathrooms on the site but only two showers.

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