Relocating the Encumbered Estates Court, 1850-60

The exterior of 14 Henrietta Street, former home of the Encumbered Estates Court, as it appeared some years ago, via Google Streetview. Now refurbished, it currently enjoys a new existence as a museum of Georgian and Dublin tenement life.

From the Freeman’s Journal, 5 February 1850:


By one of those blunders peculiar to English government in Ireland the machinery of a vast revolution was set up for the sale of property, and no provision whatever made for the court which was to work the machine.  The Commissioners were cast loose on the city, without a place actually to hold a court, file petitions, or transact the various business connected with the operations of the commission.  One day they took up their quarters in the Court of Exchequer, from which they were rapidly expelled to seek temporary refuge in the Nisi Prius court, while the next day found them somewhere in the dark recesses which pierce the flanks of the hall, and where they concealed themselves so effectually that none could find them.

At last the Board of Works took compassion on their wanderings, and fitted them up at 14, Henrietta-street.  The learned heads, from whom the new court was gradually stealing away the old fat fees, were quite indignant at this change, while the junior bar, whose locomotion is not retarded by heavy bags, were equally delighted at the prospect of having the snug court in Henrietta-street all to themselves.  The seniors could not leave the old haunts without much inconvenience.  It was so pleasant to dart from one court into another, and take in their clients on the way!  Henrietta-street did not agree with the boys at all, and, though a few strolled up to argue a heavy motion, as a general rule the business of the court was transacted by juniors.

Things being in this position, a case arose which brought the rebellious tendencies of the senior bar to a head.  A matter of great importance – the construction of one intricate will – was to have been argued before the commissioners.  Several silk gowns were retained, and consulting their own rather than the convenience of the court, they applied that the matter in the estate of Denroche Purcell should be heard within the precincts of the Four Courts.  This found, as it ought to have found, a strong and peremptory refusal from the three commissioners.

Why should the public be inconvenienced for the accommodation of a few particular counsel? It was clearly their duty to accept no business which they could not execute with satisfaction, and if their absence was incompatible with their engagements to their other clients, they should have returned the briefs to which they could not attend; but to attempt to hold both – to butter their toast on the upper side and the under – implied a looseness of moral duty which is the general but censurable result of long professional practice.

The court at once quelled such pretensions.  They could not consent that their court should be locomotive and ambulatory – a travelling hospital of records – to accommodate counsel.  But Baron Richards drove the nail deeper.  If, said he, the case required so much attention as had been represented, it would be well that the counsel engaged in it should give it their exclusive consideration, instead of being subject to be called from court to court by solicitors, and enabled to slip out from place to place.  If they came to that court they would come to the business for which they were retained, and that alone, and it was not reasonable for any counsel, no matter whom, to call upon the commissioners to walk down to the Four Courts to hear a particular case.

This is the true rationale of the matter.  If a senior accepts a brief in the Commission Court, he should discharge his duty there exclusive of all personal considerations.  If it be inconvenient to leave the ancient haunts, why his remedy is easy! Let him stay in the hall and its ‘precincts’ and leave the incommodious court in Henrietta-street, and its inexpensive practice, to a class of professional men who understand the business quite as well, and will do it without protests or round-robins! Except in some special cases of rare occurrence, there is nothing so very mysterious in the proceedings of the new tribunal that the average intellect and learning of the bar could not penetrate.”

This was not the first, nor yet the last, criticism of the practice, apparently unique to Ireland, of Senior Counsel not only practising in each of the four courts but appearing in cases in more than one of them on the same day, thereby leaving most of the work to their Juniors.

In fact such criticism was just one of a series of fierce salvos fired by the Outer against the Inner Bar as part of an intense mid-century territorial war for work initially provoked by the expansion of jurisdiction on the part of the County Courts and subsequently exacerbated by a post-Famine decrease in litigation. 

According to a paper read to the Dublin Statistical Society in May 1862, the number of barristers paying their subscriptions to the Law Library decreased from 690 to 424 between 1850 and 1859, and probably most of those who exited were Junior Counsel.

Though by no means a goldmine, the Encumbered Estates Court established in 1849 to facilitate the sale of impecunious estates provided a much-needed source of income for Junior practitioners – it is understandable that they did not want to see the Inner Bar intrude!

The Encumbered Estates Court was replaced in 1858 by the Landed Estates Court. New premises for this Court in the Four Courts took two years to build, but were finished in early 1860.

The new building, designed by architect Jacob Owen, is described in the Freeman’s Journal of 15 March of that year as ‘a continuation of the range extending in the westerly direction from the pile known as the Benchers Building in suite with the insolvency and bankruptcy courts at the eastern side of the coffee room and Solicitors’ Chambers.’ A Probate Court was added on shortly afterwards.

An early OS map showing the Four Courts as it was before the building of the Landed Estates Court, via Geohive. The southern side of Pill Lane has already been incorporated into the complex but the northern side survives intact.
Also from Geohive, a later OS map depicting a very different Four Courts later in the 19th century. The Solicitors’ Building shown on the earlier map is now flanked by the Probate Court and Landed Estates Court on the west and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Courts on the east. There is a separate Public Records Building (not yet in place in 1860) further to the west of the Probate Court.

The Dublin and Evening Packet and Correspondent of 15 March 1860 describes the Landed Estates Court as a most useful and creditable work in a solid, graceful and unpretentious style, presenting an appearance both chaste and imposing, and harmonising perfectly with the older portions of the rear extension. The report draws attention to housekeeper’s apartments in the basement, fire safety precautions and the inclusion of hot water pipes for the purposes of maintaining a proper temperature. Hopefully they were more efficient than the ones in the main Four Courts building!

The above development necessitated an enlargement of the Four Courts complex to include most of the north-east side of Pill Lane. This once-vibrant commercial street, haunt of Dublin fishwives, had originally run immediately behind Gandon’s Four Courts. Its decline started in the 1830s, when the south-east side was acquired to provide land for the Solicitors’ Building. The building of the Landed Estates Courts effectively finished it off. It was replaced by today’s Chancery Street (now New Street), somewhat north.

You can see the change in street configuration on the above before and after images. An 1865 OPW map included in this post by Beyond22 gives a very helpful overlay of the changes. Beyond22 also provides a useful account of the Encumbered Estates Court and its work.

It is sad to see the end of Pill Lane, which had a wonderful history – hopefully it will be possible to reconstitute some of it in future posts!

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