Standing outside North Gate bus station on a cloudy Friday morning, meeting our new first year History students at the end of Welcome Week, I was worried our introductory tour of the town would be a bit of a washout.
Instead, it turned into a great morning, one where we found out lots of new things. In particular I was heartened by the generosity among those who have the privilege of working in some fascinating buildings in central Northampton.
My small group started the morning by wandering from Market Square to the Sessions House, which these days now is also the town’s Tourist Information Office. It is an amazing building, constructed following the Great Fire of Northampton of 1675.
Inside, Roger Coleman gave up his time to give us our first fascinating, and impromptu, tour of the morning. He started by showing us two courtrooms that were used until 1991, as well as taking us to the Northamptonshire County Council debating chamber (above).
We were also joined by expert local historian Alan Clarke (above). Incredibly, we found out that one courtroom featured a devil carved into the ceiling. Legend has it that its tongue would waggle if a defendant was telling a lie. We also discovered there was a pulley system rigged up to make this happen!
Our connection with the criminal underworld continued with a tour of the cells below the courts. Tim Reinke-Williams was confined to one of these tiny spaces, before being let out on good behaviour, apparently.
We then gathered outside for more grizzly stories of Northampton’s criminal past, in a little courtyard where public hangings once took place. The gallows long gone, these days it is a small car park.
The Sessions House done, we moved on to the spectacular All Saints’ Church, another Northampton building I have walked past many times but never ventured inside. Once again, the kindly nature of Northamptonians shone through, as another impromptu tour was provided by Fr. Oliver Cross (below).
Generously giving up half an hour to our incoming students, he explained the complex history of the church – again a building created following the Great Fire of 1675 – and its role in Northampton life through from the end of the seventeenth century onwards.
This ranged from telling us about the political issues around building of the church, to the more immediate problems created by putrefying bodies that had been buried under the church’s floor!
As a historian of the twentieth century who really focuses on the politics of fascism , this local history, stretching back to the seventieth century and earlier, was news to me. Seeing inside some of Northampton’s wonderful buildings was a real pleasure.
However, what I found most encouraging was the sharp questions coming from our new first year students. Northampton has a rich history, and it was a pleasure to learn more about it alongside such curious people.
Paul Jackson, Senior Lecturer in History