Bedford’s Shire Hall designed by architect behind the Natural History Museum has been upgraded to Grade II listing

"Bedford Shire Hall is a magnificent civic building”
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Bedford Shire Hall has been upgraded to a Grade II listing on the advice of Historic England.

The building, which is in the High Street Heritage Action Zone, was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, a prolific architect whose works include the Natural History Museum and Manchester Town Hall.

It retains remarkable features including an impressive hammerbeam roof, elegant stained glass windows, rich wood panelling and ornate floor tiles.

Bedford Shire Hall General view of north elevation to 1881. View fom north. Pic: James O. Davies, The Historic England ArchiveBedford Shire Hall General view of north elevation to 1881. View fom north. Pic: James O. Davies, The Historic England Archive
Bedford Shire Hall General view of north elevation to 1881. View fom north. Pic: James O. Davies, The Historic England Archive

As a dedicated Shire Hall or Sessions House, a building to house the county seat of government, it was planned in 1752, with a site on the south side of St Paul’s Square acquired by the Duke of Bedford.

A Sessions House was built in 1753, with a spacious hall, a civil court and a criminal court. It was later decided that the courts were too small, and a larger building was required.

A site at 6 St Paul’s Square was then secured and plans drawn up for courts, justices’ meeting rooms, a Clerk of the Peace office, accommodation for the borough, judge’s lodgings and room for the police force.

Between 1878 and 1881, the new Gothic assize courts were built at the back of the old Sessions House, with a riverfront entrance. The existing Georgian Shire Hall fronting St Paul’s Square was then replaced with a three-storey building containing a spacious baronial hall and offices, completed in 1883.

The original Victorian interiors remain intact, featuring large entrance hall with impressive hammerbeam roof, rich wood panelling, ornate coloured floor tiles and decorative cast-iron, marble-topped radiator guards.

The courtroom retains original furniture to the dock, prosecution, defence, clerk, magistrates, witness and probation sections.

Overlooking the river, the first-floor magistrates court and library retain attractive exposed trusses, wrought-iron chandeliers, wooden fireplaces, and a decorative cast-iron and marble radiator guard.

The decorative cast and wrought-iron railings to St Paul’s Square, court and stair balustrades, and cast-iron radiator covers survive throughout the building. Simple but elegant stained glass adorns the windows and doors of the entrance hall, courts and stairs.

Eilíse McGuane, Historic England Listing Adviser, said: “Bedford Shire Hall is a magnificent civic building and we are delighted to recognise its high level of special architectural and historic interest by upgrading this listed building to Grade II star.

"Through the work of the High Street Heritage Action Zone, local people will be able to learn about Shire Hall and its importance to Bedford. We’d love for people to add their own photos, memories and information to help everyone appreciate this important building.”

Bedford Mayor Tom Wootton said: “It is fantastic to see the former home of Bedfordshire County Council, Shire Hall, become Grade II star listed. “We’re proud of our town and it’s great to see this wonderful building be recognised. I urge residents to get involved in the Missing Pieces Project. So many people have wonderful stories and memories to share.”

Shire Hall was occupied by the Assize Courts until 1972, after which it became used by the Crown Courts, and, from 1986, the Magistrate Courts.

The Bedford High Street Heritage Action Zone is a four-year project being delivered by Historic England and Bedford Borough Council, in partnership with Bedford BID and SEMLEP.