On 11 July 1872, Sir George Gilbert Scott wrote, ‘I now have to chronicle a great failure’. The Law Courts, along with the Hamburg Rathaus, the Berlin Parliament building and the Gothic Foreign Office, was another great scheme never to leave the drawing board. He says that the design had been the ‘effort of three quarters of a year’, which resulted in a submission of thirty-eight drawings. So in spite of his earlier resolutions, he again allowed himself to be sucked into another enormous project. As this was to be the most important building in London after the Houses of Parliament, personal pride may have been an important factor in his involvement. But when the competition was finally launched on 30 April 1866, the decision to enter may have stemmed from the real threat, at that time, that St. Pancras would never materialise and thus deprive him of his only chance to build a large building in his personal style in London.

For centuries Westminster Hall had been the home of English justice, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, although new courts were added to the hall, reforms to the legal system and the appointment of more judges meant that the hall was still inadequate. New courts were consequently set up half a mile to the east, in the hall of Lincoln’s Inn, which must have been much more convenient for the barristers with their chambers in the Inns of Court. In December 1858, Scott was commissioned to produce a design, which he said would cost approximately £52,000, showing a new courtroom building on the site of some old chambers in the middle of the Old Square of Lincoln’s Inn. The design appeared in the Parliamentary Papers on 18 April 1859. Manners was the First Commissioner of Works at the time and Scott was probably involved in this proposal because of Manners liking for Scott’s High Victorian style. However, the move to confront Parliament with a highly sophisticated and worked out scheme by the country’s foremost Gothic exponent, suggests the hand of the devious Grimthorpe, who was a leading member of the Inn. Scott proposed to demolish some decayed seventeenth century chambers on the west side of the chapel and attach a building, in his personal style, to both the late Gothic chapel of 1623 and the Old Hall of 1492. But his design was an ungainly affair with two courtrooms and their offices separated from a third courtroom across a carriage court. It is not surprising that his Lincoln’s Inn Law Courts was not one of Scott’s best efforts. It was produced at the time that he was frantically trying to complete his detailed drawings for the Foreign Office for Manners before the Government fell. But in July 1859, both Manners and his Lincoln’s Inn scheme disappeared from the scene with the fall of Derby’s Government, like his hopes for a Gothic Foreign Office.

In view of the appalling record of public competitions, it is amazing that, in April 1866, the Government decided to hold a competition for the design of a new building to house all the law courts. Again, the suspicion is that Hunt was influential in providing his old friend with another opportunity to bid for an important public building. As early as 1845, Barry had suggested that a new Law Courts might be in the medieval style, so there was to be no ‘Battle of the Styles’. Since the Foreign Office affair, Scott had come to be recognised as the leading medievalist and was therefore in an excellent position to win the proposed competition. Scott’s prospects were even further improved in June 1865, when Hunt became a Commissioner in a new Royal Commission, which was set up under the chairmanship of the Lord Chancellor, to advise the Treasury on the design of the new building. Cowper as First Commissioner of Works was an ex officio Royal Commissioner and he probably nominated Hunt because of the expertise that he had already demonstrated over the site costs. Hunt regularly attended the Works Committee of the Royal Commission, and there is no doubt that he played an important role in shaping the forthcoming competition.

In December 1865 the Royal Commission, in an effort to avoid some of the previous problems, announced that five amateurs would be appointed as judges who would select six architects to enter the competition. The judges were to be three M.P.s, and two lawyers. Scott, with some justification, could have assumed that the M.P.s would be favourably disposed towards him as the chairman was to be Cowper, whom Scott felt if ‘left to himself’, would have preferred his Gothic Foreign Office. Another M.P. was William Stirling, whom Scott acknowledges in his Recollections as one of M.P.s who ‘stuck nobly by me’ in the Foreign Office affair, and the third M.P. was William Gladstone, the Chancellor of Exchequer. Gladstone had written that Hawarden Church had been ‘admirably rebuilt and restored’ by Scott after the fire of 1857. But in spite of having read Scott’s Remarks, he seems to have thought of him as more as a church architect than a designer of secular buildings and made no effort to help Scott during his battle against his chief, Lord Palmerston. Scott continued working for Gladstone’s family and in 1872 he designed a fine alabaster reredos for Hawarden Church, for Gladstone’s son, the Rector of Hawarden. The lawyer judges were the Attorney General, Sir Roundell Palmer (1812-1895) and the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn (1802-1880).

The five judges met on 19 February 1866, and on the following day Cowper announced in Parliament that they had chosen Edward Barry, P. C. Hardwick, Scott, Street, Waterhouse and Thomas Henry Wyatt, to enter the competition, with Raphael Brandon and Thomas Deane respectively, as the first and second alternatives. This announcement was widely reported in the press and on 27 February the Government sent out the official invitations to the eight architects. Each competitor would be paid £800, except the winner who would be employed as architect on the new building. The submission date was to be 15 December 1866. On receiving their invitations both Hardwick and Wyatt declined because of professional engagements, so the two reserves took their places. But Scott and Barry soon followed, protesting against a clause in the Treasury’s conditions of employment, which stated that the winning architect should not accept new work requiring their personal superintendence for the first three years. Clearly such a stipulation would have been completely impracticable for Scott, particularly as he had just been approached by the Dean and Chapter of Bangor to report on their cathedral. So with the original eight now reduced to four, the judges’ added George Somers Clarke and Garling, with John Gibson and Seddon as reserves. But even this was not the answer, as Clarke also declined.

The confusion as to who to invite to enter the competition was brought to the notice of the House of Commons and on 22 March it decided that the number of competitors should be increased. On the following day, the Treasury dropped the three-year clause and Scott and Barry withdrew their objections to entering. On 17 April, the Commissioners decided that twelve would be a more appropriate number of competitors; Seddon was promoted to a full competitor and the names of Lockwood, Burges and Abraham were added to the list. The inclusion of Henry Robert Abraham may have been an acknowledgement of a layout that he had already made for law courts on a site in Cary Street, although his brother-in-law Lord Westbury, a former Attorney General, was probably behind his inclusion. Garling’s nomination was obviously an effort to compensate him for the loss of the War Office in the Government Offices Competition, where his classical design had been largely well received.

The bias in favour of Gothic was evident in the choice of competitors. Abraham had designed Middle Temple Library was in that style, while Street, Waterhouse, Deane, Burges, Seddon, Brandon and, of course, Scott, were all recognised Gothic practitioners. Only Barry, Gibson, Lockwood and Garling would have been expected to submit classical designs, and Gibson’s withdrawal from the competition on 31 July, meant that there was now a ratio of eight to three in favour of Gothic. Gibson had probably realised that his elegant classicism stood little chance of success against the obvious stylistic bias of the judges, but stated that pressure of work would make it impossible for him to do justice to the subject imposed by ‘the unprecedented and increasing size of the drawings and conditions’.

Scott wrote:

The instructions were beyond all precedents in voluminousness and the arrangements were beyond all conception complicated and difficult – which was enhanced by the insufficiency of the site. Every conceivable department of law had to be studied & its officers consulted over & over again.

Scott was elected by the other competitors to be their chairman and to speak to the Government on their behalf. It is a clear indication of the status enjoyed by Scott in his profession that some of its most eminent practitioners should chose him to be their leader. He was very much the elder statesman of the group. In fact, at fifty-four years old, he was the oldest, apart from Abraham. Several of the group, such as Street and Burges were his personal friends, while he must have known others, such as Barry and Seddon through either the Institute or the Royal Academy. Waterhouse, although personally not so well known to Scott, was an admirer and disciple of his work and studied and sketched his buildings. The panel of judges changed dramatically, on 26 June 1866, when the Liberal Government resigned over the Reform Bill. Gladstone, Cowper and Palmer were out of office, and Manners returned as First Commissioner of Works in Derby’s new Government. Cowper remained as chairman of the judges, but Scott’s position was given a considerable boost with his old champion, Manners, back at the Office of Works.

It was immediately clear, as Scott had said, that the site was too small and although the Commission conceded that extra land would be required, the architects felt that still further land was needed to properly accommodate their designs. The Treasury eventually agreed to permit a considerable extension but it would not allow the acquisition of land to only ‘add to the effect of the designs of the competing Architects’. The site was not finally settled until 9 July. Consequently the architects, with the exception of Brandon, Street and Scott, wrote to the Office of Works asking for an extension of time. Scott wrote separately. Hunt recommended an extension until 1 March 1867 but was overruled by the Treasury, and only one month’s extra time, until 15 January 1867, was allowed. Scott said that:

I think it took me from April to September to get up my information & throw it into anything like a shape – and at length I succeeded in packing together in what I had reason to think a good form every room required to the amount I should think of some thousands – We were told that arrangement alone was to settle the competition so I neglected the architectural work till a late period.

Scott may have had something of an advantage over most of his fellow competitors by having produced the Lincoln’s Inn design but this was outweighed by the advantage that Abraham held from having produced a preliminary design which was considered so important that a copy was sent to the competitors. However, it was probably Waterhouse who held the greatest advantage. Not only had he been chosen because of his Manchester Assize Courts, but as Architectural Clerk to the Royal Commission, he had prepared the list of accommodation requirements for the Law Courts. Inevitably he had to resign as Clerk, after less than one month, so that he could enter the competition.

Waterhouse’s Assize Courts exemplified the ideas of a barrister, Thomas Webster (1810-1875) who, in the previous November, had read a paper to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science advocating the planning of law courts with concentric circles of separate circulations. Copies of the paper were also added to the voluminous information sent to the competitors. Scott felt that if he and his fellow competitors had realised the magnitude of the task, ‘we might well have shrunk back’, but he was driven by ‘the grandeur of the undertaking’. Although he ‘embarked on it vigorously on the very day after I agreed to join the competition, I have ever since been hard at work upon it, often giving to it eight hours or more a day for many days together’. He was clearly propelled by the ‘nobleness of the project’, as he calls it, as it would be far more appropriate for his architectural aspirations than the utilitarian St. Pancras, which might not have happened anyway.

In an effort to ensure that the judges were not seduced by flashy presentation, the conditions stipulated that the plans and elevations were to be on white paper and tinted, at most, in sepia, without sky or foreground. Scott typically ignored these strictures and enlisted the help of Thomas Allom (1804-1872) to produce a dazzling set of thirty-eight drawings, many of which were perspectives. Scott may also have been anxious to return to his firm commitments, such as the Albert Memorial, and to leave the presentation of his design in the expert hands of Allom but he was dissatisfied with the result. Some of the drawings, he felt, ‘were spoiled and vulgarized by bad colouring by which exquisite outline drawings were unhappily ruined’, while he had to face criticism when it became known that his submission was from the hand of Allom. He probably saw no difference in employing Allom to produce the drawings, than instructing an anonymous draughtsman in the office to do the work. A week before the designs were due to be submitted, Scott, clearly agitated about his scheme, suggested that the architects should be allowed to explain their designs personally. But nothing seems to have come from this suggestion.

The popularity of the Government Offices competition exhibition convinced the Royal Commission that a similar exhibition for the Law Courts would be equally popular and a temporary building was erected in Lincoln’s Inn to receive the architects work on 15 January 1867. Over 250 drawings were submitted along with a model from Seddon. Before the exhibition opened on 8 February, the plans and elevations were photolithographed and made up into booklets for the use of the judges. Scott also produced an explanatory booklet and later, along with at least six of his fellow competitors, he distributed another book to influential personages. This was a grand folio volume containing nineteen photographs of perspectives and nineteen copies of the plans, elevations and sections.

Eleven years since the Government Offices Competition, this, at last, was the triumph of Gothic architecture over classical for public buildings. Scott must have felt some elation that his campaign for Gothic was finally successful. Of the eleven competitors, the three who might have been expected to produce classical schemes, Lockwood, Garling and Barry, all produced Gothic schemes, with only Garling submitting a round-arched alternative. Lockwood felt that Gothic ‘was peculiarly adapted’ for the special requirements of the Law Courts, while Barry as his father’s successor on the Houses of Parliament, was a competent practitioner in the style. Beresford Hope, whose election as President of the Institute in 1865, seemed to signify the final triumph of Gothicists, commented that ‘not a single Italian architect was found to stand his gun’.

On 30 March, The Builder remarked that Scott’s design ‘has been mainly founded’ on Webster’s paper. Whether Scott was behind the circulation of this paper to the competitors is not clear, but he certainly knew Webster, who was a great nephew of the Commentator and Scott’s second cousin. Scott acknowledged his use of Webster’s concentric circles in his scheme, which had a domed central hall surrounded by an ambulatory, with the courts and offices forming an outer circle. This was the opportunity that Scott had been waiting for, to produce a really grand building appropriate to an important function. His architectural philosophy for public buildings seems to have been ideally suited to the programme. In the Remarks he says that stateliness may result when ‘a noble simplicity of general form’ is used with such features as open arcading, porticos, cornices and balustrades, by an architect with the appropriate ‘grandeur of sentiment’. But Scott failed his own test when the opportunity to produce this building finally appeared. He again attempted to place a tower in the centre of a long façade but this was at the rear where, because of the slope of the site, the frontage was at its lowest. The main entrance from the Strand was through a five-storied facade, where Scott provided smaller versions of the western towers of Lincoln Cathedral with cupolas as ventilating towers, on either side of an entrance portico. Although this facade was symmetrical, he probably realised that the narrow Strand could not provide a sufficiently grand approach and added a projecting portico over the entrance. This was one the best features of his design and, along with the domed central hall and the ambulatory, it ‘exceeded in merit anything I know of among modern designs’. The ambulatory was two storied and vaulted with little saucer domes which surrounded the central area of the building. Here Scott placed a big dome. He pointed out in his first lecture on domes in 1872, that with a dome:

If its height is limited to what looks thoroughly well from within, it is so low in its external aspect as to have little artistic value; while, if raised so high as to be an important external feature, it is only seen by a painful effort from within.

Here he regarded ‘the noblest of all forms by which a space can be covered’ as an internal feature and made no attempt to give it external prominence. Scott says that Layard, who was working with him on the sculpture of the Albert Memorial at the time, thought that Scott’s design for the Law Courts was ‘one of the finest things he had ever seen’, but in reality it was hardly one of his best efforts. As he says, he was so overwhelmed by the planning conditions that he neglected the architectural work. The result lacks much of the flair of his earlier designs, and with the ‘noble simplicity’ of the Strand facade seeming close to dullness, he introduced an extensive amount of sculpture to relieve the ‘unadorned wall-face’. The Building News acidly commented that he must have been secretly assured of the result or he would not have entered the competition, as he ‘must surely feel by this time that his work has not kept pace with many of his confreres in quality’. Although the cards were certainly stacked in Scott’s favour, and in spite of the amount of time that he devoted to his effort, he failed to produce a really worthy building in the style that he had devised for such an occasion. He failed exactly where he had been expected to succeed.

The deliberations of the judges was affected by Gladstone, Cowper and Palmer losing their positions with the change of Government in the summer of 1866 and the Royal Commission was re-constituted with the new political office-holders. Only personally named Commissioners, such as Hunt remained. However Beresford Hope, as in the Government Offices affair, was determined to keep the project in the public eye by using his role in Parliament, his journalism and now as President of the Institute. As early as March 1866, Hope had said in Parliament that there should be a ‘larger infusion of the artistic element, in the shape of architects’ among the judges and when the drawings were submitted in the following January, he renewed this request on behalf of the Institute, but to no avail. The judges worked with amazing speed to produce a decision before the end of the parliamentary session in August. After their fifth meeting on 29 July, Cowper, as chairman, wrote to the Treasury that they had been:

unable to select any one of the designs as best in all respects; but they are of the opinion that the design of Mr. Barry is best in regard to plan and distribution of the interior, and that the design of Mr. Street is the best in regard to merit as an architectural composition; and they recommend that an offer be made to those two architects to act conjointly in the preparation of the final plan …

How this extraordinary decision was reached remains a mystery and the Treasury were so dismayed with the judges’ decision that, without waiting for the official notification, it immediately asked the judges to reconsider. Scott said:

I at once protested against this as a palpable departure from their conditions which were not to take the sum of two men’s merits & weigh them against the single merits of others but to weigh each man’s merits one against another.

The Builder on 17 August was almost incredulous at the result and that rumour, ‘always busy when facts are held back’, suggests that the Treasury feels that the judges were not competent to name two architects, and it urged the Treasury to insist that the judges name one architect. It went on to assert that Scott had also protested to the Treasury. It said that ‘his plan cannot, even at the worst, be considered as less than second to Mr. Barry’s, while his architecture is superior, and therefore in fairness he ought to have the award’, instead of the judges naming two. This was an appalling assertion, and Scott immediately wrote back with the disclaimer that:

The opinion said to have been offered by me as to my own claims and to my position in the competition would have been most unbecoming as proceeding from me, and I need hardly add was not expressed.

It is impossible to discover the source of what seems to have been an outrageous statement, but its effect was to force Scott to withdraw any claims about his own work and to throw his weight behind his friend Street, who had been upset by Scott’s criticism of the award. Scott then wrote to the Government saying that ‘if the judges re-affirmed their decision I would abide by it’. The judges had all disappeared on their various holidays and it was not until 22 November 1867 that they could reassemble in London. They then reaffirmed their decision and Scott withdrew, promising not to re-enter the competition if it was reopened. So that was the end of the Law Courts for Scott.

Street and Barry were happy to work together, but the other competitors, particularly Waterhouse, demanded a single award. The feeling against the joint award became so intense that eventually the Attorney General was asked to rule on the matter. But it was not until 14 May that he reported; the joint award was not binding and neither competitor could claim any right to be employed. This left the Treasury free to appoint whom it liked and, after consultation with Mannners as First Commissioner, it appointed Street as architect of the new Law Courts on 9 June 1868. With Scott no longer in the running, Manners’s choice of Street certainly conformed to his architectural leanings and Hunt, who had quietly boosted Scott’s chances, became the champion of Street in arguments with Ayrton over fees.

Numerous alterations and disputes meant that work on the new Law Courts did not start until May 1874. Less than one year before the opening of what had proved to be his finest building, Street died on 18 December 1881, at the age of fifty-seven. Two days later, Charles Baker King wrote a mournful letter to Irvine saying that Street ‘did not long survive his old master Sir Gilbert. I had always looked forward to him becoming Sir Edmund’. The Law Courts had brought Street acclaim and honours, but is generally agreed that they also killed him. Scott was amazingly portentous when he wrote in 1872 that:

If it would have been my lot (had I succeeded) to have suffered the bullying and abuse heaped upon Street I cannot regret my want of success. That which I had suffered 8 years before in respect of the Government offices was quite as much as I could then bear.

Scott’s Recollections, II 189, III 216, 242-5, 247-8, 252-4.
Brownlee, D., The Law Courts. The Architecture of George Edmund Street (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Mass. and London, 1984), pp. 51, 63-4, 78, 80, 82, 84-6, 88, 90, 98-100, 102, 138, 152-4, 156-8, 161, 164, 289, 297, 364, 385.
Lincoln’s Inn, Black Book V, p. 75.
House of Lords Session Papers, 1859, Sess 1, Vol III, p. 119.
Ferriday, P., Lord Grimthorpe 1816-1905 (John Murray, London, 1957), pp. 69, 128.
Royal Commission for Historic Monuments (East), London West (1925), p. 48.
Cunningham, P., Handbook for London (John Murray, 1849), p. 482.
Tyack, G., Sir James Pennethorne and the Making of Victorian London (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992), p. 282.
New Law Courts 1865-70 (B.A.L.), pp. 258, 265, 292, 397.
Pritchard, T. W., St Deniols Church, Harwarden (Much Wenlock, 1997), p. 9.
The Builder, XXIV, 24 February 1866, p. 135.
Port, M. H., ‘The New Law Courts Competition 1866-67’, Architectural History, 11, 1968, pp. 82-5, 87, 90.
Cunningham, C., and Waterhouse, P., Alfred Waterhouse, 1830-1905: Biography of a Practice (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992), pp. 31, 189, plates 9-10.
Magnus, P., Gladstone, a Biography (Murray, London, 1963), p. 181.
The Builder, XXV, 30 March 1867, p. 223.
The Builder, XXV, 2 February 1867, p. 70.
Scott, T. (ed.) ‘The Chronicles of Eight Men’ (unpublished family history, n.d. circa 1992, Aylesbury Local Studies Collection), p. 85.
Scott, G. G., Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future (John Murray, London, 2nd ed. 1858), p. 206.
Scott, G., Sir, Lectures on the Rise and Development of Medieval Architecture delivered at the Royal Academy (John Murray, London, 1879), Vol. II, pp. 229, 246.
The Builder, XXV, 17 August 1867, p. 607.
The Builder, XXV, 24 August 1867, p. 630.
Scott Papers, Royal Commission for Historic Monuments (South) Edinburgh, MS 28 Box IX.
Dixon, R., and Muthesius, S., Victorian Architecture (Thames and Hudson, London, 1978), p. 172.

As early as 1862, Cowper had prepared a book of instructions, which evolved into a massive Instructions for Competing Architects with fifty-seven paragraphs, sixty-six schedules, along with the Commission’s minutes, several special reports, including one from the Fire Department, copies of the relevant Acts of Parliament, the reports of seven parliamentary investigations, and an undertaking that existing courts would be made available for inspection. All this was revised five times and eventually settled on 17 April 1866. The much quoted ‘The instructions were unprecedented in voluminousness’, is a amendment by George Gilbert junior in the published Recollections (p. 273).