Morpeth Court House
A community landmark
Morpeth Court House, located on the corner of Swan and Northumberland Streets, was designed by architect Mortimer William Lewis Jnr, son of William Mortimer Lewis (1796-1879) who the former colonial architect (1835-1850). The building is an example of the classical Greek Revival Style.
During the early 1800s rapid development in the Hunter region saw the growth of trade and commerce on the Hunter River greatly increase the population in the Morpeth area, and with it, the need for a court house in Morpeth as a symbol of authority.Prior to the court house being built, local magistrates assigned to Morpeth generally used private or rented dwellings to hold court sessions. Between the 1820s and 1850s, the Court of Petty sessions was often held in shared premises, or private dwellings
In 1858, the Government recognised a need for a permanent court house and one was proclaimed in that year.After several months of delay, Edward Charles Close, a Morpeth land owner since 1822 and previously a magistrate in the area for many years, along with Edward Denny Day, then Police Superintendent for the Maitland and East Maitland area, petitioned the Colonial Secretary to urge the Department of Public Works to speed up progress of the building program. In November 1860, Close donated the plot of land for the court house and a sum was obtained for its erection.
The final plans comprised a large courtroom with two wings, the police station and magistrates to be housed on one side and the telegraph and post office in the other. Tenders were called and in September 1861 William Cains, an East Maitland builder, was awarded the contract to build the court house for £2138, completion within nine months of the contract signing.
By September 1862, Cains had completed the main courtroom and west wing.
Despite the construction work that was ongoing with the police stables at the rear of the building, the court house commenced operating in late 1863.In 1867 the citizens of Morpeth lobbied for a town clock to be installed on the front façade pf the court house. The campanile (bell housing), which surmounts the roof, is a square structure of wood and enclosed with venetians.
The east wing was probably completed in 1879, and sometime before 1900, cells for prisoners were built at the back of the east wing.
Until the construction of the Morpeth Post Office and Telegraph Office in 1881, postal services were located at the front of the west wing of the court house. In the early years of the 20th century commercial use of Morpeth’s river port declined, the town’s population fell. The west wing of the building was no longer used to house magistrates and was turned into a flat and let as domestic accommodation.The central court house remained in legal use with a bench of magistrates regularly attending until around 1903 and a visiting magistrate continued to hear chargeable offences into the early 1940s. During World War I the east wing was used by the army as a recruitment station.
After the court house officially closed in April 1942, the building continued to be used by the local community. Over the years it has accommodated public meetings, craft and art classes, and was used by the Red Cross for meetings and as a food distribution centre during the 1955 flood. The National Emergency Services used it to hold first aid practice and training. In July 1954 the main room of the court house was opened as a branch of Maitland City Library. A few months later, the front two rooms of the east wing was opened as a baby health centre.
In 1965, Maitland City Council applied to resume the land and have the court house designated as a place of historical significance. The Council finally became the owner on 19 April 1968 and used a stylised image of the roof line, bell tower and clock as the organisational logo for many years from the late 1990s.In 1970 Morpeth Progress Association and the Library Committee began discussions about a section of Morpeth branch library becoming a local folk museum. The library was moved to the east wing and continued to operate there until June 1999.Today the Morpeth Court House is heritage listed and continues to house the Morpeth Museum. The museum focuses its collection on items and facts of Maitland and Hunter region local history and is featured in the Morpeth Heritage walk.