The history of the Judges Lodgings in Lancaster
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 June 2019
The former home of Lancaster’s witch finder has been given a reprieve after a death sentence caused by council cuts. Louise Bryning reports
The imposing Judges Lodgings in Lancaster is open again after being granted a reprieve. The city's oldest surviving town house, which has displayed collections of Gillow furniture, The Museum of Childhood and a Victorian schoolroom since the 1970s, is now welcoming visitors once more.
'You can just feel the history of the place and imagine the things that happened in this building,' said Lancashire County Council leader, Geoff Driver. 'Events that took place here shaped not only the future of Lancashire but also the country.'
From the 1820s to the mid 1970s this imposing building at the top of Church Street was where judges, presiding at the Assize Court in Lancaster Castle, returned to rest and contemplate the fate of hundreds of people.
Perhaps the most famous resident was Thomas Covell, a former Lancaster mayor and notorious witch finder. It was Covell who locked the witches in the Castle dungeons during the Pendle Witch trials in 1612.
A stone cross bearing his name still stands outside the Lodgings.
Covell and the judges that succeeded him as guests at arguably the grandest lodgings in the county, must have been turning in their graves when, in 2016, Lancashire County Council, as owners, announced the building must close as part of £65 million worth of cuts.
But the conviction of a hardy band of Lancastrians, determined to ensure its future, never wavered. And then a change in the controlling party at the council paved the way for its doors to re-open.
Now after three years of campaigning and hard work, the building has re-opened, thanks to The Friends of Lancaster Judges Lodgings, councillors, the trustees, volunteers, staff, county council officers and support from Arts Council England via the Museums Resilience Fund.
Friends secretary Sue Widden said: 'The Lodgings is enclosed within an historic area and when I heard that it might be turned into a hotel, I thought that wasn't a good plan. The decision to close it was made so quickly that it galvanised me into doing something about it.'
The new manager is Barrow-born Lynda Jackson, who worked in museums throughout the north before arriving at The Lodgings. So what was her first impression? 'I loved it,' she said. 'It's really atmospheric, it's like stepping back in time.'
But there was a lot of work - and elbow grease - required before the building could re-open. Although The Lodgings had been maintained while closed, it needed a massive deep clean with staff receiving training from a conservator.
'It was a bit more complicated than an ordinary spring clean,' Lynda said. Some paintings were returned to their original owners during the closure so wall space was filled with artworks from the county's collections and needed specialist cleaning.
But all this effort was worthwhile as visitor reaction so far has been very positive and interest in the furniture is such that talks by Gillow expert, Susan Stuart, had to be repeated due to popular demand.
Lynda is particularly keen to see more family visitors, encouraging them to get 'hands on' with cleaning the historic kitchen utensils and offering weekend drop-in sessions as well as craft workshops and fun events on Fridays during school holidays.
Families often spend hours upstairs in The Museum of Childhood which features toys from 1800 to He-Man and She-Ra and includes a playroom with plenty of opportunities to dress up.
Lynda hopes that some of the Friends fundraising activities will pay for costumes for stewards to wear as a way of improving the interpretation of all the rooms in the house. Sue said: 'The building itself is magnificent and it seems to bring together a lot of the stories of Lancaster's history - the justice system, the slave trade and its industrial connections with the Gillows.'
The Friends held their inaugural lecture by Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid from Preston who said that her 2007 ceramics commission for the Judges Lodgings - Swallow Hard - was a turning point in her career.
Her continuing work depicting the transformation of black African people from individuals into property earned her the MBE for services to black women's art. Much of the impressive collection of Gillow furniture was made using wood from the West Indies via the slave trade.
Gillow's former offices and workshops on Castle Hill can still be seen from The Lodgings so it's appropriate that some of the finest examples of the furniture they produced during the 18th and 19th centuries have found a home there.