Sunday afternoon at Lambeth County Court
Lambeth County Court, a civil court building in inner south London, closed in the autumn of 2017. Its closure was first proposed by the Ministry of Justice in 2015, who described its deficiencies as a court building:
The accommodation is poor and not fit for purpose; it requires significant investment to enable the building to be improved up the required standard. The lighting, air conditioning and all of the pipe work for heating and water needs to be replaced. The building has no scope for expansion as it is situated in a predominately residential area.
The closure was strenuously opposed, as it meant the loss of a local civil court dealing in particular with housing cases, in a densely built-up area of London. The detailed story of its closure is set out in a blog written by the late Sir Henry Brooke in November 2017, shortly before his death in early 2018. His account itself extensively drew on that written in October 2017 by London housing solicitor Giles Peaker, known on the internet as Nearly Legal, under the title Hide and Seek with Justice — A Rant.
The building in which the court was housed was purpose-built in 1928, at an estimated cost of £21,500, a two storey building with a wide facade, in a very similar style to that of other inner London county courts of the same date. This is a distinctive 1920s style, influenced by European modernism and Art Deco. In the 1890s, Arthur Conan Doyle put some memorable dialogue about new civic buildings in London into the mouths of his characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson:
“It’s a very cheery thing to come into London by any of these lines which run high, and allow you to look down upon the houses like this.”
I thought he was joking, for the view was sordid enough, but he soon explained himself.
“Look at those big, isolated clumps of building rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.”
“Light-houses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wise, better England of the future.
Entering a court building is not as universal an experience as going to school, but there is an echo of this sense of civic worth in the design and location of these distinctive 1920s inner London courts. As for their users past and present — some are successfully avoiding a metaphorical shipwreck in their lives, and some are not. The British Newspaper Archive records numerous cases from around the date of the building of the new court. Then, as in more recent times, many cases heard there dealt with property and housing. A judge of the court alliteratively criticised the Rents Restriction Acts as “a curse to the county courts of the country” in his valedictory speech, the “curse” being “the distressing and expensive litigation occasioned by the Acts to poor people.”
In one case, a woman employed as a rent collector who was serving a notice to quit was bitten by the tenant’s dog and successfully sued for the value of her torn stockings, which she produced to the court, fending off hostile questions about whether her stockings were cotton or wool. In another, a Miss Wright, a tenant of a room in Camberwell, defended a possession action by asking the judge if she could “put in a personal word”. She said:
“I trust in God and have my orders from Above. If He tells me to remain, I do so, Sir.” But there appeared to be something very material and earthly about Miss Wright’s methods of evading service. The landlord said that, being unable to get a reply when he knocked at the door of her room, he resorted to the device of placing the blue paper between two birthday cards, and even then she took the cards and left the summons! The lady was given three weeks to find another place.
One of the more unusual cases heard at Lambeth County Court, in May 1928, must have been that of a Mrs Ali Thabeth, who had been born in Weston-super-Mare as Gwendoline Millar, and whose life had taken her far from her seaside birthplace. She was applying for custody of her 17 year old daughter, who was then being looked after by the Church of England Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays. This was a society which had grown out of the Sunday School of St Anne’s Church in south Lambeth, and still had its headquarters in Kennington, which explains why the case was heard in Lambeth. Gwendoline claimed that she and her former husband, Samuel Vizar, a Polish Jew who she had married in 1910, had sailed to Buenos Aires in 1911 with their daughter, then less than a year old, and that in Buenos Aires her husband had sold Gwendoline “into the white slave trade” (i.e. prostitution) for £250.
She refused to submit to the life, but through torture, starvation, and threats that if she did not submit the baby would suffer she was forced to yield. She subsequently escaped, and made her way to the house of Mr Truscott, Methodist missionary. Her husband came to the house with two detectives, and said she must go with him as she was his lawful wife. Truscott had no alternative but to give way, and she was returned to the brothel. Her husband took her baby away and said that if she refused to submit the child would suffer “even unto death.” One day she came into contact with engineer from South Wales, who was serving a British ship and who knew her parents. Through him the house was raided by detectives, and she was taken into custody. She then got into touch with the British Consul, and went to a nunnery. Her baby was eventually returned her in a poor state of health. She obtained a post on a ship, the Highland Rover, the Nelson Line, as stewardess, and worked her passage to England. When she got home, she found her mother had married a second time. On August 7, 1912, she sent in a form asking the society take over her child. This was done, and then she worked as domestic servant in several places until her marriage — she believed her other husband had died — on January 31, 1918, at Newport Register Office, to Ali Thabeth, Mohammedan seaman. They were now keeping a boarding-house for Arab seamen only, at Cardiff.
Gwendoline herself had grown up with her widowed mother and boarders living with them by the docks in Barry, in South Wales, so this last was a life she knew. She was only 17 when she married, and already pregnant with her daughter. After she had given evidence, the judge talked to her“neatly-dressed” daughter himself in his private room, and refused her mother’s application “without the slightest hesitation”.
Far-fetched though this story sounds, it would have had contemporary resonance. The trafficking of Jewish girls and women from central Europe to Buenos Aires, where prostitution was legal, had been a subject of great concern to Jewish communities in Argentina and in England for years, and of a degree of moral panic, both at the date when Gwendoline and her daughter were in Buenos Aires and at the date of the hearing. One of the characters in Evelyn Waugh’s satire Decline and Fall, published later in 1928, was an upper-class woman who secretly ran a prostitution business in Latin America, and the MP who had promoted a Criminal Law Amendment (White Slave Traffic) Bill in 1912 spoke of “foreign agents of the international white slave traffic” using England as “a clearing house for the dispatch of marketable goods to South America”. In 1927 the French journalist Albert Londres had published Le Chemin de Buenos Aires, a book-length work of reportage on the white slave prostitutes of Buenos Aires.
But to return to the present, I visited Lambeth County Court for the first time other than as a barrister attending a hearing, in June 2019, when it was open for the exhibition of “I Will Not Hesitate to React Spiritually”, an art installation presented by Roaming Room, and created by Greta Alfaro, a Spanish artist who is interested in “the hidden things that you don’t want to be made public, that dirty the official image of persons and institutions”. Although the building was said to have been cleared of records and documentation following its closure, some papers had been left behind, and these, with personal details redacted, were used by the artist, together with photographs and videos and objects in glass cases, to give the court’s proceedings a kind of imaginary afterlife.
Even absent the installation, the court building itself merited a visit of which the only purpose was to see the building for its own sake, not as a place to work — no security checks, no lists, no bundles, no staff, no clients, no judge. And to photograph it freely, not something ever permitted in a working court building. Last year, I saw Carey Young’s short film Palais de Justice, a film made surreptitiously, in “urban explorer” style, in the Palais de Justice in Brussels, and focussing on women judges and lawyers at work. It’s a film which strongly conveys both the palatial grandeur of the building, rather less sumptuous in the present than when it was first built, and the surreptitiousness of the endeavour.
Lambeth County Court is more of a ‘maison’ than a ‘palais’ de justice, but it announces its purpose firmly above the entrance door, not only with its name carved in stone, but with stonework ‘fasces’ immediately above the ‘LAMBETH’. These ‘fasces’ were a classical symbol of justice — a bundle of twelve rods wrapped together with an axe — and a word which did not have the sinister connotation in 1928 that it now has as the root of ‘fascism’.
Inside the public area of the court, up the handsome curving staircase, space is frozen in time, with the distinctive public telephone box, and the separate male and female “advocates robing room” (more often mixed and called a ‘suite’ in a modern court building). The women’s room is locked, and the men’s has nothing but cricketing memorabilia — a nod to the nearby Oval — a sterile room from which the working life of a court has evaporated. There are no papers, no broken lever arch binders, no battered textbooks, no bags or coats, no wing collars, wigs or gowns, no notices, no coffee cups, not even a forlorn piece of tinsel around a coat hanger, left from some long-past Christmas.
In the court room itself, the emptiness and light give it the feel of some spacious Dutch church in a 17th century painting — save for the Art Deco Egyptian Revival stonework at the back of the judge’s dais — a fashion in design inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
The judge’s room itself is darkened for the showing of Greta Alfaro’s video — a macabre dance of death for the court, as the masked, wigged figure dances along a bench in the corner of which sits a skull.
Turning back through the corridor, along which many judges will have walked in the near ninety years of the building’s working life, from the judge who invited the “neatly-dressed” young girl torn between the care of the Waifs and Strays Society and her mother into his private room in the spring of 1928, to the last judge to sit in the last case heard in the autumn of 2017, waiting for the door to open and the usher to call “Court rise!”, a glimpse through the spyhole cut into the court door shows the light falling on the empty bench from which justice has now once and for all departed.