On 4 August 1853, an anonymous barrister, ‘J.P.P’, felt compelled to write to Saunders’ Newsletter complaining about the dangerous condition of the Four Courts:
“SIR – During one of the late heavy showers, as I was passing through the hall of the Four Courts to the dark cellar where we barristers put on and off our wigs and gowns, I heard, to my great surprise, a sharp sound… of falling water. I looked up and perceived a stream of no small size descending rapidly through a crack… in the architrave over the passage I was about to enter. On stepping back into the hall… I saw the idle bag-men who sit at the foot of the pillars waiting for the lawyers’ bags, evidently enjoying my astonishment. “It’s all coming down, sir,” they cried. “The hall’s ruined; we’ll have to look for some other employment.”
I then beheld, in very truth, that the building seemed to be tumbling to its fall. The eight great piers of solid masonry on which… the dome rests, are every one of them split from top to bottom…. to those who are aware that there lies above the dome and in heaps, many tons weight of records, it is not at all a matter of surprise that the walls should yield to so heavy a pressure.”
As if this were not bad enough, JPP then went on to add:
“Beneath the courts in which justice is administered there are between 20 and 30 vaults, all of them damp. These are occupied partly, indeed, for the most part, by some half dozen housekeepers… partly used as record repositories, and partly as lumber rooms [and] are, in consequence of damp, unfit dwelling places and the housekeepers and their children suffer considerably from its effects.
To keep the records dry fires must be kept almost constantly lighted; the lumber is placed for the most part under the Court of Error and, as it consists principally of dry timber, it seems to be only necessary to apply a match to it, or the ashes from the pipe of a heedless smoker, to set on fire this court, and deprive us at one fell swoop of all the Twelve Judges.”
The Court of Error is another name for the Court of Exchequer (today’s Court 3). Luckily JPP’s fears did not come to pass! I wonder what happened to the children brought up in those subterranean vaults beneath the Round Hall?