The history of the Albany Courthouse is linked closely with the history and development of the town, and the State.
During the earliest phase of European settlement at King George Sound (1826 - 1831), Albany was part of New South Wales, and the first court served a small penal settlement. The first court hearings were convened in a thatched roof house which was the commandant's quarters, located on the edge of a parade ground, which is now Parade Street.
With the departure of this convict establishment, Captain Collett Barker of H.M. 39th Regiment handed over this house to Dr Alexander Collie, a resident magistrate who was appointed to develop and plan a free settlement that was to become the beginning of the City of Albany as it stands today.
It was Dr Alexander Collie who instituted the practice of renting premises for use as the resident's office and Government offices including court rooms. The second court house was a leased building located on the western side of what is now Collie Street, somewhere between Duke and Vancouver Streets.
The court was later relocated to a two-storey building that was leased on the beach at the bottom of Parade Street, in the vicinity of the old Millar's timber yard. This building was later demolished to make way for the construction of the railway.
In the 1860s and 1870s courthouses were still usually designed in association with other Government offices, or as additions to existing police stations or convict hiring depots.
In 1863, plans were prepared for new Government offices in Albany that included provision for a courthouse, post office and customs. Construction started in 1867 and the building was completed in 1869. The three-storey brick and shingle building was built into the steep harbour bank at the foot of Spencer Street in Stirling Terrace, on the line of the town jetty (now the "Penny Post Restaurant").
The court had offices for the magistrate, witnesses, jurors, and prisoners, and was located on the highest level occupying the portion of the post office east of the clock tower, with an entrance onto Stirling Terrace.
The building was the focal point of the developing business district, and from its inception had also been used for theatrical performances, concerts, lectures, debates social gatherings, and even the occasional church service.
As Albany's trade and population grew, pressure increased on accommodation for the various Government departments and the building became unsuitable as a court, due to escalating litigation flowing from the growing commercial activity and population. With a view to relieving some of this pressure and to facilitate the increasing workloads in the court, it was decided to build a new courthouse which would also house the police station and several other Government departments.
The new courthouse (which is the present courthouse), was designed by the Public Works Department under the direction of the Colonial Architect, George Temple Poole. Poole was responsible for the design of numerous schools, court houses, railway stations and other Government buildings around the state during his term of office between 1885 - 1897, thirty-six of which have been classified by the National Trust. Some other examples of Poole's designs are the Museum and Art Gallery in James Street, the Government Printing Office in Murray Street, the Perth Observatory, the Perth Royal Mint and Perth Technical College.
It was decided to construct the courthouse on the site of the old State school which first had to be demolished. New public buildings at this time were built by private contractors under the general supervision of the P.W.D. District Officer, who in Albany was Francis Bird, a respected and active member of the community, also a justice of the peace and a founding member of the Albany Club.
The successful tenderer was a local builder Charles F. Layton who signed a contract for its erection on 4th September 1896. The building was to have a foundation of locally quarried granite blocks of uneven size and roughly coursed, and the upper walls of brick with cemented frieze. The original building was to be roofed in green Westmoreland slate, but due to cost the specifications were changed to Jarrah shingles, which were hand split and cut from the Torbay area.
The arched doorways, that were also constructed of Albany granite, were made by Mr W. Trott a local stonemason and foreman of the Masons on the construction team.
The foundation stone was layed on 29th December 1896 by the Hon. F. H. Piesse MLA, Director of Public Works and Railways. The building was supposed to be completed within nine months, however construction of the building was delayed in 1897 due to the scarcity of good bricks, and as a consequence the court was not completed until 7th February 1898. The building was opened for business by the then acting Premier the Hon. E.R. Wittenoom. Also present at the opening ceremony were Piesse and the Hon. R.W. Pennefather who were both members of the Forrest Ministry, the resident magistrate the Hon. J.A. Wright and three justices of the peace John Moir, William Graham, and Francis Bird.
Of special interest is the British coat of arms carved of Sydney freestone adjacent to the left-hand arch at the front of the building. This coat of arms provides a link with the first annexation of the eastern half of Australia by Governor Phillip in Sydney. It was from Sydney that Major Edmund Lockyer sailed to establish a settlement at Princess Royal Harbour in order to complete the annexation of Australia, giving title to the British Crown.
The Albany Court was the most expensive of the country courts built during the gold boom, only Geraldton and Coolgardie which were combined with general Government offices, were housed in grander buildings. For decades, the Albany Courthouse featured in postcards and Government promotions of the town. It was not until 1903 that Perth managed to outshine the grandeur of the Albany courthouse with its new Supreme Court.
In 1908 the lock up and keepers residence was built behind the Albany courthouse and the following year a five-room house was built at the northern end of the block on Duke street, for the police sergeant's quarters.
In the early 1920s, there was some reorganisation of uses in the courthouse, and most of the dividing wall was removed between the ground floor offices to give better access for the clerk of courts and Savings Bank use. At the same time, the upstairs toilets were upgraded.
In 1945, a new garage and woodshed were constructed. In 1957, all buildings on the site were connected to sewer and new water service provided. In 1958, a new toilet block was added on the ground floor, and the shingle roof was replaced with tiles.
In 1966, with the construction of a new police station, the police offices off Collie Street were handed over to the bailiff.
In 1978, substantial modifications were made to the interior of the building to provide for a second court room on the ground floor, and redesign of the general office area. The last major construction at the court took place when in 1983 when the entire lath and plaster ceiling structure of the main court upstairs collapsed and had to be replaced.
Last updated: 1-Sep-2015
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