IT ALL STARTED WITH A MURDER…
The murder in Rhayader of one judge in the 1530s was to change the life of the tiny border town of Presteigne forever. Rhayader, chosen as the venue for the Court of King’s Great Sessions, was obviously not a safe enough place for eminent men to stay and in 1542 Presteigne was chosen as an alternative. Its life as the legal seat of Radnorshire was set for more than 400 years and with it the development of Presteigne into Radnorshire’s county town.
By the early 1800s Presteigne was thriving in its legal and administrative role for the county. Not only did it host the Great Sessions (called Assizes after 1830) but also the Quarter sessions, where the Magistrates met to try minor offences and carry out their administrative duties (rather like a County Council does today).
There was a Shire Hall for the trials and hearings, a lodging house for the judges and a gaol. However, the old Shire Hall was on the brink of collapse – in 1828 a local contractor was even paid to prop up the Shire Hall for a parliamentary election! – causing a barrage of complaints from the magistrates. The judges had to be housed at the other end of the town from the court and the gaol was in such disrepair that it was hard for them to keep up with the number that escaped! Something had to be done. The gaol was demolished and a new one built on the edge of town – at least the villains were secure, but what about the judges?