Fenton Magistrates' Court closure: A reporter 's memories
Dianne Gibbons looks back on her time covering cases at North Staffordshire Magistrates’ Court in Fenton, including the lady of the night with a novel way to pay her fine
I SAID goodbye to a very dear friend this week and I have to say I shed a few tears. The beautiful old building which housed North Staffordshire Magistrates’ Court closed its brown double doors for the last time on Thursday.
No-one could have felt the wrench more severely than me. The first time I covered a court there was in 1966.
I was about to go on an eight-week block release course in journalism at Wolverhampton College and my then news editor Norman Beckett thought that, before I went, I should see the inside of a court.
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And so I set off on a PMT bus to Fenton and made my way to Albert Square. It was late September and the trees around the square – which houses the Cenotaph – still looked beautiful.
As I walked through the doors to the old town hall, I was immediately struck by the blue and white Minton tiles which adorned the floors and the walls and the beautiful stained glass in the windows of the main staircase.
Yes, the building had and still does have, some delightful features.
I think it was love at first sight though, in later years, the tiles were covered with brown hard-wearing carpet, which substantially dulled the look of the place.
During my time covering court at Fenton, there has been a Stipendiary Magistrate, Geoffrey Smallwood, and two District Judges, Graham Richards and David Taylor.
I remember Mr Smallwood well. His grey hair had a centre parting and he had a rather red face. He was a very nice man but not quite so generous to some of the people who appeared before him.
When he retired, it was many years before Mr Richards arrived at the court and then began a 17-year reign which will be long remembered by those on both sides of the Bench.
He was a charismatic man who dispensed justice at times with humour and often with compassion.
Mr Richards stood up for public servants who were assaulted while doing their jobs and he abhorred town centre violence and football hooliganism.
He would arrive at the building either on a Harley Davidson or in a Smart car or a Mercedes.
One day, however, a parcel arrived addressed to him and it was viewed with apprehension. There was concern expressed that it was not expected and very soon the building was evacuated. Well, the weather could not have been worse. It was freezing cold and sleety rain was falling. Not a day for standing outside.
Soon, the police and fire service had arrived and we were told then that the bomb squad was coming, too.
Fortunately, my car was not parked in the area cordoned off so I was able to thaw out while watching the drama unfold.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, and to the amusement of all of us court users, it was a number of CDs Mr Richards had ordered and forgotten about.
When he did retire, it was a packed court five, where he made his final speech. He told us on that day how he had enjoyed every day of that 17 years and recalled that he was in Hot Springs, North Dakota, when he heard about his appointment in 1991.
It was nice to hear him say: “I have sat in all sorts of courts and I will tell you straight away, this is the best place in the country.”
After more than 12 months without a district judge at its helm, David Taylor arrived to take up the post.
There have been many, many incidents at the court which have caused both laughter and tears.
One lady of the night who travelled from Derby to ply her trade more than 40 years ago had the fascinating name of Rosina Rosebottom.
And so it was one Saturday morning she came before the magistrate, admitting loitering for the purposes of prostitution and was duly fined.
“How can you pay?” the magistrate asked. Rosina, who was a seasoned attendee at our court, said: “I can’t pay, I don’t have enough money. But if I go out on Saturday night I will get enough to pay the fine.”
She was warned she would end up in court again and that is exactly what happened. When I turned up on Monday, up from the cells she came.
I dread to think how many times I have heard a defence solicitor tell the Bench: “You won’t see my client in court again.” Thirty years on they are still getting into trouble and are usually back before the court on a regular basis.
Fenton Town Hall was built in 1886 at the expense of William Meath Baker, a Fenton pottery manufacturer and a great benefactor. If you look just to the left of the main doors you will see a foundation stone set into the brickwork inscribed with his name.
No matter what the weather, the impressive building never fails to catch your eye and stands as a reminder of the days before the Federation when each of the six towns could afford such ostentatious luxury.
I will truly miss that building.
The old Fenton Town Hall building, erected in 1886 by William Meath Baker, a Fenton pottery manufacturer and great benefactor.