THE life of the Durham Court of Assize began in nearly as dramatic a fashion as the case of Mary Ann Cotton, who was hanged 17 days after Mr Justice Archibald sentenced her.

The court’s first architect was sacked for incompetence, but successfully sued the second architect for libel.

The second architect – himself a jailbird – was also removed from the project, causing the bill to rocket so much that there were protest meetings across the county.

There has been a court in Durham ever since the monks, wandering about with the remains of St Cuthbert, settled inside the loop of the Wear.

From 1588, it was in the south-west corner of Palace Green with prisoners being dotted all over the place: in the castle dungeon, in the Great North Gate at the upper end of Saddler Street, and in the House of Correction on the western end of Elvet Bridge – a cell, reputedly haunted, can still be seen at the foot of the bridge.

In 1808, Sir George Wood, one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Assize, condemned Durham’s court and jail provisions as “insecure, unwholesome, inconvenient and wholly inadequate”.

Bishop Shute Barrington threw £2,000 (£125,000 in today’s values, according to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator) into the pot to get a building project started and a field at the top of Old Elvet was bought from a local vicar for £1,200.

An old lane – Rattonraw – passed through the field, its name suggesting it was infested with either rats or robbers. Today, it is called Court Lane.

Irish architect Francis Sandys was instructed to build the new court with a jail behind. He was the son of the Earl of Bristol who was also the Bishop of Derry. After studying in Italy, Sandys had built grand halls in Suffolk and courts in Worcester and Gloucester.

In Durham, work began with a bang on July 31, 1809. Bands played and a big crowd watched as the Bishop placed gold, silver and copper coins into the foundations, on top of which Sir Henry Vane Tempest ceremonially laid the first stone. The Durham militia completed the festivities by firing volleys over everybody’s heads.

But Sandys did not supervise the project in person, and the local workmen performed a “juggling trick” on him – passing off cheap materials as expensive ones. Durham magistrates concluded the work was “badly carried out by dishonest workmen” and sued Sandys, who was legally in charge of the work, even though he had not been present, for £20,000 (£1.2m today).

The magistrates won, and Sandys was finished – he never won a major contract again, although he did win £100 from his successor, George Moneypenny, who libelled him in a local newspaper article.

Moneypenny was the foremost jail designer of his day, having created prisons in Leicester, Oxford, Winchester and Exeter.

Ironically, he was one of the first people to be locked up in his own Leicester Gaol as, months after it opened in 1792, he was imprisoned due to his difficulties with debt.

Extraordinarily, his jailkeeper there was Daniel Lambert, whom every schoolboy must know to be Britain’s fattest man, weighing 52 stone.

In Durham, Moneypenny’s first job was to dismantle those parts of Sandys’ work deemed substandard construction, and start again.

However, Moneypenny’s work was also not up to scratch and in 1811, Ignatius Bonomi was brought in to complete the job. Bonomi, 24, had only arrived in the county two years earlier, to work for the Lambton family, and went on to become one of the region’s most enduring architects.

However, because of the comings and goings, the re-buildings and the demolishings, the cost to the county ratepayers had spiralled.

When it reached £134,684 15s 5d, the ratepayers of Darlington held a protest meeting on June 7, 1813, in the King’s Head Hotel and threatened to withhold their taxes unless the expenditure was curbed. By then, the court was open – the first case being held before Justice Chambre and Baron Wood – exactly 200 years ago on Sunday.

* The final bill, of £134, 684, equates to £7.3m in today’s values, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.

But to whose credit?

IT is difficult to say which of the three architects designed the court, but Ignatius Bonomi saw the project to completion and behind it built the jail, which opened in 1819.

Bonomi worked throughout his life at Lambton Castle, Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral. He built numerous churches and bridges, plus Eggleston Hall, near Barnard Castle (1820), Burn Hall, near Croxdale (1821-34), the Stockton and Darlington Railway’s ground-breaking Skerne Bridge, in north Darlington (1824), St Augustine’s Church, Darlington (1829), Dinsdale Spa Hotel (1829), Windlestone Hall, Rushyford (1834), Croft Spa Hotel (1835), Brough Hall, Catterick (1837), Clervaux Castle, near Croft (1842-3) and Wynyard Hall (1845).