As part of our bid to redevelop the old Magistrates Courts, social historians Rose Wallis and Laura Harrison, and UWE History students, have been working with the project’s youth steering group to explore the stories of the people who passed through the courts.

The courts were opened in 1880. They replaced the old and apparently ill-equipped Justices’ Room at the Council House, described by one local paper as a ‘suffocating cock pit’. Until the 1970s, the magistrates courts dealt with a range of what were considered minor offences, from common assaults and petty theft, to truancy and driving violations. Like modern magistrates courts, decisions were made without a jury, leaving the more serious offences for trial at the jury courts: the Quarter Sessions and Assizes.

A ‘warning to street footballers’ in a report on the proceedings of Bristol Police or Magistrates Court from the Bristol Mercury, 17 January 1895

A ‘warning to street footballers’ in a report on the proceedings of Bristol Police or Magistrates Court from the Bristol Mercury, 17 January 1895

UWE History students and members of the youth steering group used detailed newspaper accounts from the local press to explore the experience of Bristolians in the courts in the 1880s and 1890s. The research highlighted how the police frequently used the courts to regulate public behaviour, prosecuting begging, gambling and drunkenness. Fines were even issued for ‘loitering’ and playing football. But ordinary men and women also brought complaints before the magistrates. The courts provided access to the law offering, for example, security to victims of domestic abuse.

Young people behind bars

Many of the cases found concerned young people. After 1847, magistrates courts were used to try people under the age of 14 as a way of avoiding the more serious punishments handed down by the jury courts. As well as exposing some of the hardships experienced by Bristol’s youth, the research highlighted the early steps taken to keep young people out of the adult criminal justice system. A number of young defendants were sent to Reformatory Schools – institutions that operated somewhere between a prison and a school – including one of the very first reformatories, opened in Kingswood in 1852, whose site is now the centre of operations for Creative Youth Network.

From difficult pasts to bright futures

The research was used by Creative Youth Network alumni to produce ‘Locked Up!’, a showcase of new artworks and performances. Rather than just re-enacting these historic cases, the young artists created imaginative, evocative responses that connected past and present experiences. Many of the themes explored resonated with current social questions about crime and punishment, poverty, identity and prejudice. UWE history and the youth steering group have also held a series of interpretation workshops at The Station, exploring ways these histories might be shared with the public when the courts are redeveloped as a creative enterprise centre.

Not only will the proposed redevelopment of the courts restore and preserve an historic site that played an important part in the lives of Bristol’s communities, but it will also provide a space for the sort of creative and collaborative partnership that Creative Youth Network and UWE history students have shared. We’re looking forward to continuing to work with Creative Youth Network and the exciting prospect of this new creative enterprise hub.