The historic courthouse in Pontefract holds a familial connection for Philip Weatherell, both in its former glory as a Magistrates Court and in its impending life as an indoor market.
His vision, since his Harrogate-based company Weatherell Investments LLP purchased the site in August 2016, has been to transform the building into a community venue selling antiques, home interiors, fine art and collectables. As of January 2, that will become a reality.
“My grandma used to work at Pontefract Magistrates Court. She was a Magistrate there,” the 53-year-old says. Mary Lord and her husband Charles lived at Halfpenny Lane in the West Yorkshire town and had an electrical engineering business.
Mary sat on the Magistrates’ bench from the early 1960s until her retirement just over a decade later. Though Philip does not recall his grandmother speaking of her time in court, she would have helped to determine dozens of criminal cases.
Her experience is not the only way Philip’s family are linked to his latest venture. The businessman is following in the footsteps of his mother Kay, who owns the Montpellier Mews Antiques Centre in Harrogate - and he is hopeful that the two venues can develop a connection.
“I am excited to be bringing back to life a wonderful building, which is such an important part of the historic market town of Pontefract,” Philip says.
“I am absolutely delighted with the interest and response of the local community and traders. And I hope that we can have strong links between Montpellier Mews and the Magistrates Market as we grow.”
At the time we meet, in late November, the old courthouse is being refurbished and fitted out, ahead of its opening. Enquiries are being made from potential sellers - and there are plans for units offering the likes of artwork and retro furniture, as well as garden ornaments, jewellery, crafts and clothing.
“This is allowing small, independent retailers to have a foothold. It is giving opportunities to small traders to have a high street presence,” Philip says.
It is likely that the venue will host 40 to 50 small business, he explains, “so 40 to 50 different reasons for people to go into the building”.
“Because of the way the high street is changing, it gives small, independent people access to retail space without the massive expenses of having their own shop unit.”
Alongside the market, the venue, which will be open seven days a week will include a cafe or a tea room. And, with ideas for open evenings, arts exhibitions and valuation days with expert antique dealers already being discussed, Jodie Goodall, who will co-manage Magistrates Market with Michael Cairns, sees the venue as a hub for small business and a place where people can work collaboratively.
“There is so much potential and flexibility with the building that it can almost go in the direction of local people and what their interests are.”
“The most important thing is that is it not another derelict building,” adds Philip. Vacant properties and accompanying ‘to let’ signs have become an all-too-common occurrence in town and city centres and in this year alone, several thousand shops have shut their doors.
Along with continuing closures of post offices, banks, libraries and pubs, it has prompted much talk about what can be done to save the high street, including through The Yorkshire Post’s Love Your High Street campaign.
“Not only are high streets struggling but also there’s a lot more people worried about their futures,” says Philip. “This is a way to give people opportunities to start their own business and to bring something different to the area.”
At two centuries old, the old courthouse is a building of some stature to start out in. Constructed in the early 1800s, the courthouse housed the town’s judicial sessions.
These were originally held in the old town hall, but it became somewhat dilapidated. At first, officials wanted to revamp the building, but later changed their minds, resolving to find another site and to have a new court built.
The courthouse, instigated in 1807, originally incorporated a police station, as well as cells in the basement. In 1845, a prison inspector reportedly deemed the latter to be “unfit for the detention of human beings”.
In the 1960s and 70s, the courthouse underwent modernisation and the police station was moved to a neighbouring new building in Sessions House Yard. An underground tunnel connected the two.
“It used to be a wonderful building,” says Chris Lee, a planning consultant who has researched its history. “The courtroom was one huge room which took the whole of the centre portion, with a public gallery.”
Eric Jackson, a former magistrate, has also studied the Grade II-Listed building and published his history - Pontefract Sessions House - in 2003.
“The court has had national notoriety,” he said in an interview a decade later, as the court shut its doors for a final time.
“Such as the Pontefract Murder in 1918 by George Cardwell and Percy Barrett, who appeared before Pontefract magistrates before being committed to Leeds Assizes.”
Cardwell and Barrett, who attacked Rhoda Walker in her Pontefract jewellery shop whilst they were on extended home leave from the army, went to the gallows at Armley jail.The murder on August 16, 1918, even managed to knock news of the final months of the struggle in Europe’s Great War off the front pages of the local and national press.
From the 1970s, the courthouse became known as Pontefract Magistrates’ Court - and cases continued to be handled there until its closure in 2013. It has not been in use since.
“[The courthouse] has had its involvement, and its place and stature standing in Pontefract,” Chris says. “To find a new use that didn’t destroy its heritage was quite interesting,” he adds.
With such historic appeal, Philip is optimistic that people will be enticed in for a look around - and is hopeful that visitors will remain to see what else the town has to offer.
“It can only help Pontefract,” he muses, claiming it will bring people in to see the beauty of the town. “People will come and spend a couple of hours wandering around the market and hopefully they will then go and look around [the local area].”
“It can only be a good thing for the town,” he concludes. “It can only enhance it.”