Supreme Court

King Street court complex

In July 1813, Governor Macquarie, aware of the need for a court house in Sydney, suggested that the magistrates of the colony should meet to start a public subscription for the building of 'a respectable court house and town shall under the one roof'.

Governor Macquarie opened the appeal with a gift of £500 from colonial funds and a personal gift of £60. The target of the appeal was £5,000 to build a 'plain substantial building of suitable size and respectable exterior appearanc', without aiming at the expensive ornaments of architecture.

Unfortunately, few of the settlers shared the official enthusiasm — four months later the appeal was abandoned and Governor Macquarie decided unwillingly that if he was to have a court house it would have to be built with convict labour.

He engaged Australia's first architect DD Mathew to produce a design for the building. When the plans, for a two-storey building with two wings and a Doric portico, were finished Macquarie sent them to London to Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, together with a request for funds.

But funds were denied. Penal colonies had no need of fancy buildings, was the reply.

It was not until six years later, on 7th October, 1819, that Macquarie set the foundation stone of 'a large and commodious court house' designed by convict architect Francis Greenway who had been transported to Australia for forgery.

A guest at the ceremony was Commissioner Bigge who had recently arrived from England to conduct a Royal Commission of inquiry into the colony. At that time Bigge seemed to approve of the court house project.

But less than five months later, by February, 1820, Bigge had changed his mind. He recommended strongly that the court house be converted into a church. Macquarie agreed.

The reason for Bigge's change of mind may be found in the appointment, three years later, of his brother-in-law, Mr TH Scott, a wine merchant, as Archdeacon of Sydney, first incumbent of the new church dedicated to St James.

On 20th March, 1820, Macquarie laid another foundation stone for a building to be called the Georgian Public School an institution to care for neglected children.

However, Bigge again intervened. The school must become a court house, he insisted. Greenway protested 'so far as he could with delicacy', but Macquarie had no choice but to follow Bigge's wishes.

So Greenway set about converting the design for the Georgian School into a court house and work proceeded on the site adjacent to the western end of St James' Church.

However the building was still incomplete when Macquarie left the colony in December, 1821, under a cloud due mainly to Bigge's interference and influence.

It was about this time that things began to go wrong. Acting Colonial Engineer, Major Druitt, over-anxious to please with the rate of progress on the court house, directed the roof to be constructed before all the necessary supporting pillars and braces were in place.

Greenway protested to Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, Macquarie's successor, but in vain. Brisbane was not prepared to bandy words with a convict. Thereafter Greenway's relations with officialdom continued to deteriorate until his dismissal from the Government service in November, 1822.

After his dismissal, Greenway made strong criticism of the manner in which work on the court house continued under the direction of the builder, Mr Gough.

He said Gough had altogether departed from the original design and criticised, in particular, deletion of a facade of Doric columns, arrangements for supporting the hastily constructed roof and the subdivision into two courtrooms of the large courtroom on the ground floor.

Apart from the circular staircase, the Doric portico at the western end of the building (later demolished) window treatment and certain recessed wall panels, little survived of Greenway's original design.

Meanwhile a school building, the replacement for the aborted Georgian Public School originally planned for the court house site, had been completed in Elizabeth Street opposite the court house.

Courts, which until then had sat in the General Hospital in Macquarie Street, now moved to the Georgian School and it was there on 17th May, 1824, that the first Chief Justice of NSW, Francis Forbes, read the Charter of Justice establishing the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

But on the other side of Elizabeth Street work on the building to accommodate that court was dragging.

It was not until August, 1827, that Governor Darling, Brisbane's successor, issued a proclamation ordering that the west wing of the building be handed over to the judges of the Supreme Court.

So finally, in September, 1827, Chief Justice Forbes and Mr Justice John Stephen moved in and began furnishing the west wing while the builders continued work on the east.

On 28th August, 1828, a further proclamation was made ordering that the entire building be handed over to the court so that the judges could dictate details of the internal arrangements.

However, problems did not end with the handing over of the building. Greenway's Doric colonnade, planned to run between the two wings, was never built leaving the circular staircase isolated in an open courtyard and exposed to the weather.

A public meeting in the court house in February, 1830, was alarmed at the condition of the roof and it became necessary to brace the roof with additional poles and columns.

In 1832, the Chief Justice was complaining about serious cracks in the dividing walls and was fearful they would collapse.

Lack of adequate ventilation, heating and cooling, and the intrusion of noise also were the causes of serious and prolonged complaints from all users of the building. The fireplaces in the courtroom smoked so badly it could not be used when the wind blew from certain quarters.

In 1835, Francis Forbes complained that the building was unsuitably sited at the intersection of two noisy streets. Sir James Dowling, who succeeded Forbes as Chief Justice, complained in 1839 that passing carriages caused the court 'extreme embarrassment' and asked for barricades to be put across the street while the court was sitting. The request was refused.

Chief Justice Alfred Stephen, who succeeded Sir James Dowling, continued to press the Government for improvements to the building. He pointed out that over 10 years common law actions had increased four-fold and equity suits ten-fold. He estimated that at times there were as many as 300 persons attending the court house daily.

Stephen presented the Government with properly drawn plans to provide additional courtrooms by the subdivision and re-arrangement of the existing accommodation. The old Banco Court was created during these re-arrangements which resulted in the removal of the western portico and the creation of a new entry from King Street which became the main entrance, previously intended to be on the Hyde Park side.

After a little delay much of the work Stephen requested was carried out, but he did not let the matter rest there. Due to his persistence many necessary repairs and renovations had been completed by 1848.

From about 1850 there was continuing pressure applied to the Government to build a second court house since the Supreme Court was becoming seriously overcrowded from the point of view of the judges, the staff and members of public who used the building.

Consequently in 1864 Sketch plans were prepared for a new court house to replace the Immigration Barracks near Hyde Park which shared a Common axis with the Supreme Court and St James Church. But these plans were never realised and the Government's solution to the overcrowding problem was to make patchwork additions to the old building.

The first of these additions, made in 1848, was chambers for Chief Justice Stephen intended to be free from damp. But the following year Stephen moved out of the new chambers, complaining that dampness had caused an attack of rheumatism and nearly ruined his library of law books worth £1000.

In 1850, a registry for deeds was added to the eastern end of the court house but the volume of business generated in the thriving colony soon made it apparent that a new, separate building would be required.

In May, 1859, work began at the rear of the court house on a new Registry Office and the building was ready for occupation the following year.

In 1868, the King Street arcade was added, the footpath flagged, major repairs to the roof carried out and a parapet built at the roof line.

Throughout much of this period the three judges sitting in the Supreme Court had to hear cases against a background noise of tradesmen carrying out repairs and additions.

In December, 1895, the foundations were laid for a new Banco Court on the St James Road frontage and the building was ready for occupation in February the following year. The building was of two stories, the courtroom, chambers and consulting rooms on the lower floor and more chambers on the upper.

At the opening of the 1896 law year, which coincided with the occupation of the new court, the building was described as 'bright and pleasant, quiet and comfortable', probably everything the original court house was not.