Description of Historic Place
The building at 399 Ridout Street North, commonly known as Middlesex County Court House, is situated south of Dundas Street, and north of King Street in the County of Middlesex in the City of London. The three-storey parged brick building has castle-like features and Gothic details. It was designed by architect John Ewart and was constructed in 1827-29.
The exterior of the building and the scenic qualities of the landscape, are protected by an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement. The property is also designated by the City of London under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (By-law L.S.P.-2534582). The Middlesex County Court House was declared a National Historic Site in 1955 by the Government of Canada.
Situated on a hill overlooking the Thames River, the Courthouse was built on a four-acre parcel of land chosen for its strategic and local defence purposes. Following its construction, the courthouse became an immediate landmark and focal point, due to its prominent position in the rapidly developing community. Historically the property was used for community events including markets and fairs. Public hangings often drew a large crowd to the Courthouse from the surrounding area. Today the courthouse is still an important landmark located south of Dundas Street, and north of King Street in downtown London. Other significant heritage buildings neighbouring the courthouse include: the former Middlesex County Gaol, the Old Middlesex County Jail, the Dr. Alexander Anderson House, as well as Eldon House (London Museum).
The Middlesex County Court House is significant for its association with the development and implementation of government and judicial systems in Ontario. In 1798 the Parliament of Upper Canada created the District of London. The centre of government was moved to Vittoria in 1815, and a courthouse and gaol was constructed. Vittoria was the administrative capital until 1825 when there was a massive fire that destroyed the Vittoria courthouse. The authorities in Upper Canada decided that instead of rebuilding the Vittoria courthouse, a larger courthouse should be built in a more central location in order to service the growing population. A location on a hill at a fork in the Thames River was chosen to build the London District Court House (now known as the former Middlesex County Court House). Colonel Thomas Talbot, who was the private secretary to Governor John Graves Simcoe, was an instrumental figure in the settling of the area that currently comprises the counties of Elgin, Essex, Haldimand, Kent, Middlesex and Norfolk. Talbot had an influence on the construction and design of the courthouse.
The courthouse is also linked to some important trials in Canadian history. In 1838 prisoners captured at Prescott and Windsor during the Rebellion of 1837 were tried in the Courthouse by a military court. Six of the men tried were convicted and hanged, while most of the rest were exiled to Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania). The courthouse is also known for its connection to the notorious Irish-Canadian family, the Donnellys. Five members of the Donnelly family were murdered on 4 February 1880 in the nearby town of Lucan by a mob of townsmen. There were two trials relating to the Donnellys' murders at the Courthouse. Both of the trials were dismissed.
Middlesex County Court House is significant for its unique design and its association to Toronto architect John Ewart, who also designed Osgoode Hall. The Middlesex County Court House was unlike any other courthouse built in Upper Canada at the time, and is one of three castellated judicial buildings built in Ontario. The courthouse's Gothic detailing resembles a castle, for it has a central pavilion with two side wings incorporating octagonal towers at each corner. The Courthouse has a stone foundation and brick walls covered with parging and scored to give the appearance of stone. The octagonal towers, polygonal bay, tall lancet windows, and distinctive crenelations all add to its fortress-like structure and authoritative presence. It is believed that the courthouse was modelled after Malahide Castle near Dublin, Ireland, which was the ancestral home of Colonel Thomas Talbot.
Source: OHT Easement Files
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of the Middlesex County Court House include its:
- octagonal towers
- polygonal bay
- tall lancet windows
- large wooden doors
- distinctive crenellated parapets
- stone foundation
- parged brick walls that create a stone-like appearance
- resemblance to a castle
- prominent position on a hill
- location near the Thames River
- close proximity to other heritage properties in London, especially the Gaol