Celebrating Guyana's built heritage: the High Court - a brief history History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
June 30, 2005

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Situated at the corner of Croal Street and the Avenue of the Republic is the High Court, a majestic L-shaped timber structure which houses the office of the nation's judiciary.

During the mid-19th century, the offices of the courts of Guyana were located in the Public Buildings, which had been erected in 1838. In the circumstances, the members of the Court of Policy decided that a special structure should be erected to house the magistrates' courtrooms. The Governor endorsed this decision and the Public Works Department was tasked with the responsibility of selecting a site and designing the structure to be erected.

On June13, 1878, the birthday of Her Royal Highness Queen Victoria, the site was selected and the foundation stone was laid with the necessary formalities. The plot of land chosen was originally occupied, in the south-western corner by the Colony House, which was originally erected by the French circa 1790. According to one report, it was a large building with two storeys and an attic that was used for several purposes. For example, in 1823 Reverend John Smith and his wife were imprisoned in the attic and in 1831 it served as a meeting house for the Court of Policy.

Baron Siccama, the colonial civil engineer, who was at that time in charge of the Public Works Department, undertook the design for the original structure. Caesar Castellani, Siccama's assistant architect, assisted in the preparation of plans for what was regarded as Georgetown's newest masterpiece in waiting.

In February 1881, with a projected budget of 18,000 pounds sterling construction of the law courts building commenced. The use of steel posts and steel plates for the ground floor of the building proved to be a major engineering challenge as the building began to sink even before it was completed.

In 1882 and 1883 there were numerous letters written by officials of the Town Council, in one of Guyana's daily newspapers, the Royal Gazette, criticizing Siccama for his choice of metal columns and steel as a choice for building materials for the new courts. To arrest the sinking of the ground floor, Siccama in 1882 ordered that a parapet wall be dug around the entire structure and filled in with concrete to prevent the movement of the soil.

These emergency works, which commenced in 1882, appear to have been completed over the course of two years, as Siccama reported to the Governor in 1884 that the strengthening of the foundation was completed to prevent further settling. The report further noted that the whole inner columns of the ground storey were fixed in position with the iron flooring fitted in place and the whole of the wooden frame of the superstructure had been erected and roofed in.

Additional problems with the foundation and the weight of the structure further delayed the completion of the building. Regrettably, Siccama would not live to see the completion of the law courts, which were formally declared open on May 24, 1887, the date of Her Majesty's Diamond jubilee, by Governor Sir Henry Irving.

The solemn ceremony was, according to a report of the Royal Gazette, attended by a large number of local authorities and diplomatic representatives. Upon his arrival the governor led a procession into the first court where the opening ceremony was held.

These included Mr HW Hutchens, Colonial Civil Engineer; Mr De R Barclay; Private Secretary, Captain Madden, Officer Commander of Troops; Honourable C Bruce, CMG, Lieutenant Governor; Sir DP Chalmers, Chief Justice; Captain Mc Leod, Provost Marshal; and Mr MP Olton, Acting Registrar.

They were followed by the representatives of the Court of Policy, WFH Smith, GH Hawlayne, the Attorney General, AH Alexander, FF Villiens, CL Bascom, BH Jones, JJ Dane, W Cragen and Mr Geo Melville, Secretary. Members of the judiciary, the College of Electors, the financial representatives, barristers and several consular representatives, including Major DT Bunker of the United States of America, Mr A Webber of the German Empire and Mr AG Clarke of the French Republic, were also a part of this procession.

The opening ceremony was rather simple, as one could well imagine the numerous activities that the Governor would have been required to attend in honour of Queen Victoria's Jubilee's celebration. The formal procedure consisted of an oration by the Chief Justice, Sir David Patrick Chalmers, a prayer by Bishop WP Austin, comments by the Attorney General and the acceptance of the building by His Excellency the Governor.

After being presented with a golden key by the Colonial Civil Engineer, the Governor in declaring the building open noted that "a structure of this magnitude in wood, if it is not actually unique at all events is so uncommon as to be a matter of interest in the building world. The buildings have the rare quality of much originality in design and construction."

"They have," he continued, "given rise to engineering problems, connected with the foundation of the structure, which was remedied, by Baron Siccama and the present Engineer Mr

Hutchins." He further stated that "the building affords an admirable illustration and beauty of our native woods and it bears testimony to the skill and patient labour of our colonial handicraftsmen." It is interesting to note that Castellani, who designed the upper floor, was never acknowledged by the Governor.

He concluded by christening the structure as the Victoria Courts of Law, hoping that they would serve as a lasting memorial in honour of her Majesty's glorious reign. The proceedings then concluded with a rendition of "God Save the Queen" by the military band. The public was then allowed to view the building.

During the early years of use the building housed a number of offices besides the chambers of the Chief Justice. These included those of the Surgeon General, Local Government Board (villages), the Public Health Board, Lands & Mines, the Official Receiver, Public Trustee and Crown Solicitors, the Registrar and even a branch of the Post Office for the sale of stamps.

Fr Ignatius Scoles, the architect of City hall, in his celebrated article, "the Architecture of Georgetown", which was first published in 1885, offers this interesting analysis of the Law Courts.

"The first appearance of this grand and truly handsome building, suggests the thought that it is truly out of place with our tropical clime; the steep pitched roofs and the general treatment of the design makes us think of the dull cold climate where snow abounds and where high roofs are constructed to prevent its lazy lodgment."

In studying the building one does indeed observe two distinctive architectural designs. This was because two architects were used during different periods of the Court's construction. The Titular architect was Joseph Hadfield. His work is illustrated in the ground floor, where the design is along strictly classic lines, quite similar to his work at Parliament Buildings, which has been described by many as a model of architectural perfection.

The upper floor, constructed entirely of timber, was designed by Castellani, who was at the time of the court's construction an assistant architect with the Public Works Department. Scoles described it as being very much in the same style of the timber-framed buildings of the time of Queen Elizabeth, an honest application of timber.

From the research undertaken it appears that this may not have been the original design for the structure. Indeed, the Annual Reports of the Public Works Department described the structure as one, which was to have been modelled after that of the Parliament Buildings. This may well have been another brick structure, stuccoed over in the same classical design.

The structural problems and the weight of the foundation of the first floor, which accounted for increased expenditure and a considerable delay in the completion of the building, may explain the choice in timber and the use of Castellani, after Siccama's death, to design a floor which would not further retard the problems of the building's foundation.

Of special interest is the small clock, which was housed in the small tower and was documented by Messrs W David Todd and David H Shayt, from the Smithsonian Institute in 1991. It was described as one of the earliest and most important clocks found in Georgetown. Paul Philip Barraud, one of the most eminent English clockmakers in the 19th century, manufactured it. Further evidence suggests that the clock was manufactured circa 1855. Its location, however, before its installation in the Court remains unknown. In 2004 this clock was returned to Guyana, in working order. When re-installed, commuters will once again hear the chime of this gem every half of an hour.

Today, the High Court, once described as a temple of justice, stands as an eloquent reminder of Georgetown's magnificent timber architecture. More importantly, it is one of three surviving structures, which were designed by Castellani, the other two being the old New Amsterdam Public Hospital and the National Art Gallery.

It is imperative that this structure be preserved as it is one of the 13 essentially listed monuments to be submitted by the Guyana National Commission for UNESCO in its bid to have Georgetown listed as a World Heritage Site, placing Guyana proudly along fellow Caribbean countries such as Cuba, Suriname, St Lucia, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

World heritage listing will not only guarantee the Garden City international status, but also most importantly, once properly marketed, can serve as a tool for the struggling tourism industry. After all in many countries heritage tourism is an alternative to the traditional sea and beaches offered by sister Caribbean territories.