Sunderland Magistrates' Court lies at the very western terminus of the commercially dominated part of the lengthy High Street just before the street diverts south-westward. For pedestrians walking along the High Street the court building presents a grand finale to the whole east-west section of the street with its imposing position overlooking the attractive modern square. This open area includes a beautiful installation of paved blocks forming a pathway through the square that is inscribed with the names of all Sunderland-built ships beginning in the late eighteenth century and listed year-by-year. The installation runs from the Londonderry pub past Gilbridge House and past the Magistrates Court in the direction of the river.
Sunderland's Borough Police force was first established in November 1837 with their previous base in the West Wear Street / East Cross Street area. Their station included residential accommodation for policemen and cells where prisoners were detained before they were taken to Durham Jail. In 1842 a Police Court building was added to the site old. There were only 66 policemen in Sunderland by 1851 with the proportion of police to population being about 1 to 1,000.
Local magistrates sat in the court attached to the building where the court was erected following the clarification, in 1841, of the geographical jurisdiction of the Sunderland magistrates. Conflicts had arisen with neighbouring magistrates at Houghton-le-Spring over which districts actually lay within the jurisdiction of Sunderland as sometimes incenses were granted at one court that had already been denied at another.
Prior to the 1840s Sunderland's magistrates had assembled in a local pub called the 'George Inn' or 'Justice Trees'. The changes of 1842 were a sign that Sunderland's civic functions could not always keep with the town's population growth. Indeed by the end of the century the court, police buildings and attached fire station were inadequate for their purpose and by 1894 Sunderland's police force consisted of 128 constables, 17 sergeants, 3 inspectors and a chief of police.
The Sunderland Borough Police operated for 130 years until 1967 when they were absorbed by Durham Constabulary and then subsequently by Northumbria Police with the creation of the Metropolitan Borough of Tyne and Wear in the early 1970s. Today the Magistrates' Court building no longer incorporates the police as they are now housed in a purpose-built neighbouring building of 1972 immediately to the west of the court building.
There are six rusticated windows at ground level plus three rusticated doorways. At either end of the street-facing facade are two plain archways. The southern arch forms a doorway while the northern most arch, flanking the tower, leads into an open passageway running along the north side of the building towards the modern day police offices.
Further up the tower on each of the outer three faces are pairs of narrow slit windows that reinforce the fortified feel of the building. It is markedly different from the copper-domed tops of the neighbouring Edwardian buildings that were probably deemed inappropriate for a building serving a more serious role.
Inside, the building includes an iron stair balustrade with wrought flower and leaf decoration while returning to the outside the rarely seen elevation to the rear includes some interesting features.
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