In late 2013 the Unlocking Warwick volunteers began researching the magistrates petty sessions that were held at the Court House from when it was built in 1726 until the 1970’s. The main volunteer doing the research, Kate Sargent, chose 1851 as an interesting Victorian year with the Great Exhibition in London celebrating Britains power, innovation and wealth – wealth that had not reached many of the poorer parts of Warwick.
The best source of accessible information about the magistrates’ sessions are the reports in the local newspaper, the Warwick Advertiser, where court cases were reported in detail. It was from these cases that volunteer Rick Thompson, with a long career in broadcast journalism, created the first Court House Drama script. The Warwickshire County Record Office in Priory Park has issues of the Warwick Advertiser going back as far as 1806 and running all the way into the 1970’s when the paper ceased to be published. These newspapers are fully accessible to the public. Contact was made with Leamington’s long standing amateur dramatic group, the ‘Jephson Players’ who bravely volunteered to enact the Court House drama along with the Unlocking Warwick volunteers who wished to take part. The play was performed for the first time at the Court House open day on May 5th 2014. Since then the dramatic reconstruction has been performed 8 times including once at Warwick University Arts Center (see Working with Warwick University) and once as part of the Warwick Words literary festival.
As part of the Unlocking Warwick project we commissioned film-maker Ben Mart to film our Court House drama. It can be viewed here along with a selection of photographs.
In 2016 Rick wrote a second dramatic reconstruction based on Kate’s research from 1851. This used an interesting petition from the town’s Inspector of Nuisances, William Thompson, to provide a revealing portrait of the grim conditions in the west and north of Warwick, where thousands of refugees from the Irish famine had crowded into unregistered lodging houses. The sanitation system was overwhelmed and deaths from smallpox and typhus were commonplace. The workhouse was full, and petty crime was rife, often involving heavy drinking and brawling.
In a collaboration with Warwick University this second drama was performed by volunteers and law students to a packed house in the Court House on April 9th, (see pictures below), and again at Warwick University campus during the School of Law Open Day on April 29th.