Defendant, Judge and Prosecution at the Thetford Assizes trial of Stephen Watson

Tales of the Assizes

Now a beautiful and unique landmark of Thetford with its tea room and event spaces, The Thetford Guildhall once hosted the court trials of some of the country’s worst of the worst.

Thetford Assizes Court

Amanda Kingsnorth

​A Guildhall has existed in Thetford since at least 1337, enlarged and rebuilt over the years (a workhouse was even established in the basement, around 1700). Thetford guildhall was an assizes court between 1551-1971, and many criminal and civil cases were heard here.

Mr Blofield, the prosecution in the trial of Henry Sell at Thetford Assizes Court

Craig Plumley as Mr Blofield, the prosecution in the case of Henry Sell.

Assizes courts were the part of the foundations of the criminal court system in England and Wales up until 1971. Based in the main county towns in England and Wales, cases were only heard at the courts twice yearly, when judges from the higher courts in London visited and presided over cases. Often known simply as ‘the assizes’, the courts originally dealt predominantly with property disputes, but their remit soon widened to include criminal cases as well as cases passed on from the central Westminster courts. By about the mid-13th century the remit of the courts was wide ranging, dealing with cases from vagrancy and theft right through to rape and murder, and included witchcraft, forgery and recusancy (refusing to submit to authority, originally the church). Civil cases were also heard here.

Since delving into the history of the Guildhall as an assizes court, the producers of Magic Floor have unearthed many trial manuscripts of some of the criminal trials held here. Using these historic archives they have built several trial re-enactments, inviting small intimate audiences to participate, being the jury at court, in the actual court that these trials were first heard. The jury are able to listen to the very same evidence that was put before the court all those years ago, and after a short interval, have the opportunity to decide on a verdict. 

Some of the trials heard (and re-enacted) at the Guildhall have been: Henry Sell (1788): tried for the murder of Mrs Clarke, at Walsoken, (Wisbeach) Norfolk. Stephen Watson (1795): tried for the murder of his wife, at west Bradenham, Norfolk. Robert Breeze (of Hunstanton) and John Hart for smuggling at Lynn Regis (now Kings Lynn) and firing on the customs boat that wanted to board them. These two were actually tried at the Old Bailey in London on account of John Hart escaping custody and missing the Thetford assizes date, but it was such a great story (and our old friend John Simpson, the kindly turnkey of Norwich jail made an appearance) that we had to add it to our assizes collection.

Thetford Assizes Court, saw the trials of Henry Kable Junior and Susannah Holmes, a couple local to Norfolk who’s story we fell in love with. Read more about our Holmes and Kable project.

Stephen Watson in the dock waiting for trial at Thetford Assizes Court

James Trayton as Stephen Watson, on trial for murder at Thetford Assizes.

The response to these historical re-enactments and the setting and style with which they have been performed has been fabulous, the atmosphere is electric and when the actual verdict is read there have been audible gasps from our modern audience ‘jurors’. We look forward to bringing you more of these real tales of real people whose lives were laid bare here, at the Guildhall, Thetford.