One of the stranger anachronisms about Kingston Upon Thames is that despite being part of London (zone 6), it also houses the headquarters of Surrey County Council.
History explains that the old Surrey Council used to include most of South London and the original HQ was near Elephant & Castle, now a Crown Court. When 1888 Local Government Act was passed, London was created as a political entity, and Surrey lost about 60% of its population, and its main offices.
Although many of the council leaders wanted to remain in London, it was decided to build a new County Hall elsewhere, and after some rounds of voting, Kingston won over the more central Surrey towns of Guildford, Egham and Redhill.
A grand new County Hall was built in Kingston and opened in 1893, and has remained the seat for the county ever since, even though in 1965, another reshuffling moved the county borders well to the south of the town.
Expanded several times over the years, yesterday the oldest part of the building was open to the public to have a look around.
People familiar with the scale of Local government today might be surprised to learn that in 1888, the council had fairly limited powers, mainly affecting law and order – so the original County Hall was more of a court house and jail than an administrative centre.
Like most politicians given power though, over the years, they accumulated more of it, and County Hall has been expanding ever since, albeit mainly as offices instead of courts. The oldest part of the building largely lost its function when a dedicated court house was opened next door a couple of decades ago.
Today the building serves very well as a location for TV and film crews looking for prison cells and court rooms, while the extensions continue the work of the council.
Going in via the main entrance used by office staff today and loitering for half an hour to wait for a tour, we were initially taken through to what was the original main hall, with mosaic flooring — repeated throughout the building — and what looked to me more like lists of the war dead on the wall, but were actually names of former political leaders.
A rather ordinary looking wooden door took us though a rough looking storage area and through a heavy steel bar door – then a very flimsy wooden door and into the prison cells area.
Thin long and very tall, the prison cells must have been quite claustrophobic for some people, and our guide, a lawyer by trade, could still recall visiting clients in these tiny rooms. A small high window would originally have been the only light in the cells, but later on a hole was knocked into each cell from the wardens side and a single light bulb installed in a recess – to light both the cell and the landing outside.
The bulbs were on the outside of the cells, probably partly to stop prisoners using the glass as a weapon, but largely because at the time they were installed, most people would not have seen electric light bulbs before and not known what they were.
Up a narrow set of steps and straight into the court room above.
This was a less ornate room when in use, but it was later fussed up a bit with more wooden panelling around the room and the grand columns behind the Judge’s chair are all plastic fakes. All because the film crews want a fancy court room.
Filming was actually going on — although not when we were there — as the place was set up for a court case. The judges gavel will annoy The Magistrate though. While aesthetically interesting, my previous visit to the replacement courthouse next door a couple of years ago was far more interesting in terms of learning what happens in a court room.
A walk around to a Comittee Room, with a big table, a big fire place and not a lot else to comment on, but then along corridors to stop at a model of a controversial road plan and then into another grand looking room. Currently set up for British Citizenship ceremonies with the portrait of The Queen and a couple of flags.
Someone asked where there were so many security cameras in the room — possibly suspecting that the newly granted citizens were not to be trusted — but it was pointed out they are recording for dvd/webcams, not security.
Back to another room, with a stop to admire the inner courtyard and then into a room with a very ornate ceiling, based on the assumed crests of the County regions, although the globe lighting look totally wrong for such a ceiling.
That was the tour over. It took longer that it seems as the guide was quite keen to point out portraits of former politicians, a trait I have noticed in other political establishments. Good if you are interested in political history, but a bit tedious if you are not.
A lady in a wheelchair was left behind in a few places as the old building wasn’t designed with large motorised wheelchairs in mind. Less convenient for her, but I don’t think disabled people existed in Victorian London Surrey.
A rather good centenary of Surrey County published in 1989 was picked up for a tiny £2.50. Worth popping in and picking up a copy if you live locally as it’s quite good.
A load more photos of the prison cells and rooms in the photo gallery.