Many a visitor to the Guildhall Yard in the City of London will have noticed an odd looking building poking into the yard and wondered what is inside it.

Theories I’ve heard over the years range from as mundane as a boiler room to as wild as the City of London’s private prison cell. It’s neither of those, but it is quite an important space. It’s a courtroom, but not the sort of courtroom you’re probably thinking of right now.

It’s the Aldermen’s Court Room, which is in fact a meeting room for the City of London’s Aldermen and the Lord Mayor of London.

And this may be the first time* that a photograph of what the inside looks like has been published.

The Aldermen’s Court Room – the Lord Mayor’s chair is off to one side as maintenance was being carried out on the day


Just like local councils have wards, the City of London has 25 wards, and each one elects an Alderman, making up part of the senior governance of the City. The Aldemen used to be the main governance of the City, until the 14th century, when the City started electing Common Councillors for each ward to run the City instead.

Today while the Common Councillors handle the main body of work, the Aldermen still remain the senior body of governance within the City – and this is their Court Room.

To learn how they ended up with a special courtroom in such a unique building, we need to go back to the 11th century.

The City of London had the right to set up its own legal courts to resolve disputes and prosecute people (the Old Bailey is to this day still owned by the City of London), and the oldest court in the City was the Court of Husting, which was a general-purpose, governing assembly, and the Aldermen met weekly to resolve disputes brought before them.

Over the centuries, the Court of Hustings slowly lost relevance as other legal and criminal courts were created, but it still exists, although it hasn’t sat since 1978. It’s now generally accepted that the Court of Aldermen developed from the administrative side of the Court of Hustings.

Although it originated in a legal framework, the term Court in this context is closer to a modern Board of Directors. Early joint-stock companies often used the term court to describe their directors. Many of the City’s livery companies still retain the term as well — as does the Court of Aldermen.

Although it’s likely that they had a dedicated meeting room at some point in their history, the first room I can find a formal reference to as dedicated to the Court of Aldermen is in 1725, when the Court of Aldermen “appointed a committee to procure ‘new chairs and such other furniture as they should think wanting for the Council Chamber’, the meeting room of the lord mayor and aldermen (later known as the Aldermen’s Court Room) and one of the most important formal rooms in the Guildhall”

This was a sumptuously decorated room, with the ceiling painting by Sir James Thornhill in typically grand style. According to a Descriptive Account of the Guildhall of the City of London by John Edward Price published in 1886, it was due to be removed shortly, as part of a rebuilding of the Guildhall, but that never happened.

It’s also the room you will most often see when using your search engine of choice to search for the Aldermen’s Court Room.

A Descriptive Account of the Guildhall of the City of London by John Edward Price, published 1886 – Author’s copy

You might notice the layout is for a table in the centre and then a lot of seats around the sides.

The way the room works when in session is that the Lord Mayor take the prime location at the head of the table, and sitting around the table are officials, clerks and lawyers.

The Aldermen sit in the outer row of chairs that line the walls.

However, the current Aldermen’s Court Room owes its existence to two unrelated events, and to two architects, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, and later his son, Richard Gilbert Scott.

One of the events that caused the current building was the decision by the City of London in the 1930s to push on with a long overdue rebuilding of the Guildhall offices which were in dire need of upgrading, and the dutiful attentions of German bombs during WWII.

Apart from rebuilding the shabby offices, the other aim was to enlarge the courtyard in front of the medieval Guildhall. Where today we have a large open space at the Guildhall, before WWII, the entrance was very narrow and cramped. Indeed, so narrow, that it’s said it required careful traffic control to allow dignitaries to arrive by carriage and have enough space for the carriage to leave before the next one arrived.

The Guildhall in Londen, The London Stereoscopic Company, circa 1890, RijksMuseum

The City of London initially awarded a contract to rebuild the Guildhall estate to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He designed the modern offices that sit behind the ancient Guildhall building, and that’s now known as the North Wing, and he also laid out plans for a new West Wing to be built beside the medieval Guildhall building.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/148/D (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family
(red circle to highlight the court room)

That design would see the narrow approach to the medieval entrance widened, but it was still not much more than a wide road rather than the large courtyard that exists today.

On the western side, Sir Giles designed a new West Wing building, and it’s here that we get the first glimpse of the Court of Aldermen as a defined room in the new building.

Although Sir Gile’s design for the exterior of the building was impressive, it has to be admitted that his design for the Aldermen’s Court was for a meeting room in a building with lots of meeting rooms. Doubtless, it would have been richly decorated, and maybe also included the Thornhill ceiling from the old room, but from an architectural point of view, it’s just a room inside a building.

However, WWII intervened, and badly damaged the old Guildhall buildings. Sadly, the magnificent old courtroom was totally lost, along with its Thornhill ceiling — although a few surviving fragments are on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery at the moment.

The economic situation after the war meant that it took some time to resume work on rebuilding the Guildhall, and in 1957, Sir Giles proposed amended designs for the front of the Guildhall, and although it retained much of his original design, an important change had happened to the Aldermen’s Court.

It had moved to the bottom corner next to the widened entrance, and also stood out a bit from the main building, giving it just a hint of additional prominence. This can be seen as the beginning of the changes that would lead to the remarkable freestanding polygon building that now inhabits the Guildhall Yard.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/148/D (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family
(red circle to highlight the court room)

Sir Giles died in 1960, and his son, Richard Gilbert Scott, who was working at his father’s company, took over the commission – and it’s very much him that we have to thank for the current design of the West Wing building, the Aldermen’s Court Room — and rather later, the Art Gallery on the eastern side.

In fact, today, if you stand in the Guildhall Yard looking north, apart from the medieval entrance and the church, everything you can see is Richard’s work. From the West Wing to your left completed in 1975 to the art gallery on the right, completed in 1999.

Richard Gilbert Scott’s first draft, from December 1964 shows the much longer West Wing as we know it today, and it shows the Aldermen’s Court as a large rectangular room fully attached to the building but the Aldermen Court Room has swung around to the location that it occupies today.

The Guildhall Yard is also much larger than his father’s design, taking advantage of the WWII clearance to change the previous still rather claustrophobic design.

You might notice that while the central table for the Lord Mayor and the clerks is still there, the seating for the Aldermen is now in two short rows rather than a single circle around the room.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/148/D (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family
(red circle to highlight the court room)

It’s at some point in 1966/67 that the plans get a bit more exciting as they are amended to push the rectangular courtroom to a free-standing space connected to the West Wing by a bridge. The West Wing is also now longer than the earlier plans and is starting to take the shape and layout that it has today. There are a number of changes in drawings made during 1967, but the plan from August 1967 looks to be the finalised version.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/148/D (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family
(drawing rotated 90 degrees, north to the left)

You may notice this has the table in the centre of the room, and the Aldermen sit around it in a circular space once again. Also, notice that the bridge space is quite wide as it includes the seating area for the public who want to attend a meeting. However, the public space does look rather, off to the side, almost as if in a separate room, which is not ideal for its function as a council meeting room, open to the public to attend.

The image below is from a concept board prepared by the architects to discuss the final finish of the interior of the Court Room, using hardwood panelling for the walls, plaster-painted ceiling and fluorescent lighting. One of the interesting changes that’s noticeable is that the Lord Mayor, having always sat at the central table is here showing sitting on a separate raised dias more like a throne.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/148/D (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family

All looks like it’s been signed off and ready to go, then Richard Gilbert Scott pulls out an unexpected idea to change the design one last time.

In late 1967 he submitted plans for the arguably much nicer polygon shape. The shape was also changed to fold in slightly to the top, giving it the distinctive inverted shuttlecock appearance that it has today.

The last archival document showing the Court Room in a rectangular form is from September 1967, with the first images of the revised design arriving just a couple of months later in November 1967. The court room has also moved slightly to the north, closer to the main Guildhall building.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/148/D (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family

The room is laid out more conventionally for the Court Room, with the clerks’ table in the centre, the Lord Mayor at the head of the table, although on a slightly raised platform, and the Aldermen sat around the sides of the room.

And much better than the older design for a wide bridge and seating for the public, here, they sit in a space above the bridge looking down into the courtroom. That is also what enables the courtroom to have its much higher ceiling and gives it such a dramatic appearance, both from within and without.

The new design was approved by the General Purposes Committee of Aldermen on 26th January 1968, and in the London Metropolitan Archives, there are also two beautiful drawings of the planned interior that the Aldermen approved of.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/149/B (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family

And a drawing a month later, from February 1968 shows how they expect the Guildhall Yard to look once all the building work was completed – although you might notice the Art Gallery side, closest to us in the picture ended up being very different from the artist’s impression.

LMA ref: COL/PL/01/149/B (c) Sir Giles Scott, Son & Partner / Scott Family

The Aldermen’s Court Room was built along with the rest of the West Wing, being completed in 1975, and today, the courtroom is still used as it was originally intended, for the Aldermen’s regular meetings.

Just underneath the freestanding courtroom building is a set of doors marked for the Aldermen and Members only, and from there, up a flight of stairs to the lobby outside the Aldermen’s Court Room, and a set of closed double doors.

Behind those locked doors the short bridge leads into the Court Room itself, and it’s a pretty spectacular space to walk into.

The super high room, apparently inspired by old cathedral Chapter Houses, certainly has a certain feel about the space with its triple height space, that’s amply lit by the tall narrow slots in the walls to let daylight in. The inward leaning walls are lined in vertically grooved elm panelling that helps to elevate the eyes upwards.

Above the bridge where the Aldermen walk in for their meetings is another space with a set of raised seats which is the gallery for the public to sit in when attending court meetings and they can then look down over the room where the Aldermen are debating their decisions.

The flags you can see in the room are for Aldermen who have a coat of arms.

Despite the light airy space, it also somehow also feels very much like a secure bunker, being a freestanding and very solidly built structure with just those narrow slots for daylight to enter.

It’s a clever double effect of being light and yet also solid.

And until now, as far as I can tell, photos have never been published showing the remarkable interior of the freestanding building and I don’t think Richard Gilbert Scott’s cleverness with its interior design has been fully appreciated.

And now you know the answer to that question that so many people have asked — what on earth is that strange building in the Guildhall Yard, and hopefully a better appreciation for its innovative design.

Thanks to the City of London, the London Metropolitan Archives, and Nick Gilbert Scott for assistance with this article.

*There may be a photo published somewhere else in a journal or architectural magazine, but extensive searches have not found any.


Be the first to know what's on in London, and the latest news published on ianVisits.

You can unsubscribe at any time from my weekly emails.

Tagged with: ,

This website has been running now for over a decade, and while advertising revenue contributes to funding the website, it doesn't cover the costs. That is why I have set up a facility with DonorBox where you can contribute to the costs of the website and time invested in writing and research for the news articles.

It's very similar to the way The Guardian and many smaller websites are now seeking to generate an income in the face of rising costs and declining advertising.

Whether it's a one-off donation or a regular giver, every additional support goes a long way to covering the running costs of this website, and keeping you regularly topped up doses of Londony news and facts.

If you like what you read on here, then please support the website here.

Thank you

  1. ChrisC says:

    What a fascinatine article!

  2. Simon says:

    Looks like somewhere from Star Wars!

  3. Chris Rogers says:

    Ha, trounced – I too have been in touch with Nick about his father’s work here, and have shared various images; but whilst I well knew what the building was for, I too had never seen inside it in person or by image. Well done. (Odd someone should mention Star Wars – Nick is also a talented artist and does sci-fi-style pictures…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Home >> News >> Architecture