Saturday, 21 July 2018

Former magistrates’ court set to be flats

HENLEY’S former magistrates’ court is set to become a private residence for the first time in

HENLEY’S former magistrates’ court is set to become a private residence for the first time in more than 60 years.

Stanley Carter, who owns the Grade II listed building in Northfield End, has been granted planning permission to convert it into seven flats.

He intends to have five flats on the ground floor and to convert both the first and second floors into two-bedroom flats while the basement will house communal storage and laundry areas.

Mr Carter, who lives in Fair Mile with his wife Molly, bought the three-storey red brick premises from Oxfordshire County Council in 2000.

His defence consultancy firm SCS was based there until 2010, when it relocated to Theale, and the building has been vacant ever since.

The former army officer says he tried to market it as offices but there was no interest and he feared it would become dilapidated if he could not find another use.

The property was built as a family home in the early 1800s and is identical to the neighbouring North Lea House, which also used to be offices but was turned back into a six-bedroom house in 2013.

Henley Rural District Council, which used to meet at the old workhouse in York Road until Townlands Hospitsal was built in 1948, bought the building in 1951 and re-opened it the following year.

It housed the main chamber and offices until the council was abolished with the formation of South Oxfordshire District Council in 1974.

Oxfordshire County Council then took it over and re-opened it as a magistrates’ court. Previously, the bench had sat at the town hall.

Initially there was only a small courtroom at the front of the building but another was added at the rear a few years later and used as the main court.

Henley’s register office was also based there but that moved to a new building behind the court in 1997.

The court sat for the last time in March 1999, when it shut and the Henley area’s cases were sent to the magistrates’ court in Thame instead. That court closed two years later and hearings now take place in Oxford.

Speaking at a lunch to mark the closure, deputy chairman of the bench John Luker described it as a “sad day for local justice”. When he took over the building, Mr Carter divided the front court into separate rooms but the main one remains largely intact.

Although the magistrates’ bench and other fittings have long since been removed, there are still two side rooms with padded doors where witnesses, defendants and solicitors would have waited and held discussions.

These were used as meeting and breakout rooms when SCS was based there and will now serve as toilets for two of the ground-floor flats.

In the basement, there are several reminders of the building’s past, including four old safes that would have been used to store legal documents. They are at least 60 years old as Milner, the company that made them, ceased trading in 1955 but a list of marriage registers dating back to 1933 is taped inside the door of one, suggesting they are decades older.

Each would have had an ornate golden seal on the front but these were stolen at some point before Mr Carter moved in. Next door there is a long, narrow document archive with a reinforced steel door and a disused storage room with a listed red brick floor and Victorian coal chute.

There are two functioning boilers in another room which were installed when the building was in public ownership. One was put in as back-up in case the other failed.

Elsewhere in the property there is a former conservatory with a listed stained glass window and several original Victorian fireplaces.

Mr Carter will not change the basic structure of the building but will put up interior walls to separate the flats. He will also add an extra fire escape and refurbish the original sash windows.

A disabled access ramp to the side of the old main court will be removed to create extra parking places.

Mr Carter said: “It is a lovely old building. I was very sorry when the company was forced to move from Henley because it was a very good place to do business.

“All our 30 staff throughly enjoyed working here and visitors would always comment that the office was charming and full of character. When I took it over, it still had a well and the two docks but didn’t have a magistrates’ bench — I don’t know what happened to that.

“We had to wire it up for computers from top to bottom and, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t in very good shape. It wasn’t damaged but it needed redecoration.

“There was also an old coach house on the site which I converted into a three-bedroom house. That hadn’t been touched since the town council took over and it still had stalls for the horses and a bed in the loft for the live-in groom.

“I remember when I had just started setting up the office, I was chatting with a dustman who had stopped to help me unload some furniture. He told me, ‘Last time I was here, I got 10 years’, though it turned out he’d got married rather than being tried for a crime.

“The building has a lot of significance to the town. From time to time people tell me they got married here and that’s nice as it gives you a sense of the building’s history.

“Michael Heseltine, who used to be Henley’s MP, came here in the early 2000s to present a certificate and remarked on how good it was that businesses were springing up in such unlikely places.

“However, we outgrew the premises and I think companies are now looking for a more modern building. There’s a lot of available office space in the area so we decided residential would be a better option.

“We’d been trying to market it for four years and were conscious that buildings don’t exactly improve by being left empty.

“It is wonderfully placed for anyone to live, whether they’re young or old, so we don’t anticipate any problem leasing it.”

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