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Interpreting the Victorian courtroom

2013 February 27

Sean McConnell, Department of English and Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University

Given that the module I study is ‘Prison Voices’, it is perhaps surprising that the wide variety of literary and historical sources we have engaged with are as interested with what goes on outside the prison walls as they are with what happens within.  We have examined various literary tropes about the courtroom, such as Dickens’ critique of the Victorian legal system through his characterization of Jaggers in Great Expectations, as well as studying historical trials such as the garotting cases that took place in the courtroom of St George’s Hall in 1866.

The architecture of St. George’s Hall can be interpreted as symbolic of Victorian society. Whilst the main concert hall (Fig. 1) is grandiose, decadent and a reminder of the city’s previous role as the ‘Gateway to Empire’, the prison holding cells found within the bowels of the building are cold, dark, and extremely claustrophobic (Fig. 2).  Much like the social hierarchy of the Victorian period, the building’s architecture and dual purpose serves as a reminder of the stark divide between rich and poor in nineteenth-century Liverpool.

Figure 1. The Main Hall

Figure 2. One of the holding cells at St George’s Hall featuring images of previous prisoners

We discussed the courtroom (Fig. 3) in two ways: firstly, how it functions as a performative space and secondly, its theatrical nature. The courtroom in St. George’s Hall accommodated victims and offenders from diverse cultural backgrounds as the law-makers and law-breakers negotiated what was deemed to be good and bad behaviour. As a student, the idea of getting out of the classroom is, for me, to experience on a visceral level the mind set and emotions that many criminals we have read about personally experienced.  Whilst walking around the cells and making our way from there to the dock above, myself and fellow classmates discussed what we were seeing and experiencing.  When we entered the courtroom a silence, completely unprovoked, fell upon our group.  The power of the courtroom, despite it not being in operation for nearly 30 years, still resonates today.

Figure 3. The courtroom of St George’s Hall

The elevated position of the judge’s chair, the centrality and visibility of the dock, the high ceilings and close proximity between the judge and convict all contribute to the theatrical sense of power and authority the courtroom embodies.  There are sculpted heads at the very top of the pillars which add a sense of panoptic surveillance to an already intimidating atmosphere and led me to consider Foucault’s ideas of the development of the modern prison and surveillance which we have studied throughout the module (Foucault, 1977). Even the judges’ robes, which we were allowed to try on, are plush and regal in appearance.  Despite the courtroom bringing two vastly different social classes together, the space, like St. George’s hall itself, only seems to heighten the sense of separation between rich and poor, respectable and unrespectable. We discussed the different ways that offenders performed in the courtroom; some presented themselves as pious and obedient while others mocked the judge and were reprimanded for their resistance.

Figure 4: The view of the judge’s chair from the dock

Bibliography

M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison (London, Random House, 1977)

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