Adam’s brother and Jane Austen

IRRIGATED BY MANY STREAMS, branches of several rivers, notably the Lea and the Beane, the town of Hertford is the county town of Hertfordshire in eastern England. Some parts of this historic place with its numerous water-filled channels recalled distant memories of Brugge (Bruges) in Belgium but the architecture differs considerably from what one sees in the Belgian city. We made our very first visit to Hertford on the 2nd of May 2021 and were surprised by its richness in old buildings and waterside parklands. Amongst the edifices in the historic centre of the town, we came across a well-restored brick building on Fore Street. It, the massive though elegant Shire Hall, now the home of a Crown Court, dwarfs its neighbours. Apart from its size and elegance, its architect attracted my interest.

Shire Hall, Hertford

In 1627, a Sessions House was constructed on the site of the present Shire Hall following the issue of a charter by King Charles I (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1268930). By the mid-18th century, it was considered to be too small. An Act of Parliament issued in 1768 during the reign of King George III led to raising money to build a new shire hall. The specifications were sent out to various architects, and amongst the six short-listed were the now very famous Robert Adam (1728-1792) and his far less well-known younger brother James Adam (1732-1794). The new structure was to incorporate:

“…2 courts, a room for the Corporation of Hertford, and both with and without a County Room.”

 The Adam’s brothers won the contract to carry out the above along with the addition of a previously unspecified Assembly Room.

James Adams took charge of the project, which commenced in April 1769 and was completed in April 1771. The arcaded ground floor was used by the Corn Exchange until 1849, after which date a separate edifice for the Corn Exchange was built in 1857-58 on Fore Street. James Adam built far fewer buildings than his better-known brother Robert. James and Robert, both born in Kircaldy (Scotland), started their architectural practice in London in 1758. Not only did they design buildings but also, they provided detailed designs for their interior decoration and furnishings; they provided what could be described as a ‘holistic’ design service. James collaborated with Robert on several other projects apart from the Shire Hall in Hertford. These include the now mostly demolished Adelphi buildings near London’s Strand and Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire.

The Assembly Room in the Shire Hall, which was used for concerts and theatrical performances, is supposed to have inspired Jane Austen (1775-1817) when she was writing her novel “Pride and Prejudice”, part of which is set in the fictional ‘Merytown’, which she might have based on Hertford. The Assembly Room featured as the ballroom in Austen’s novel (http://wardtimes.info/hertfordshire/east-herts/hertford/news/what-now-shire-hall-hertford). Here is a little extract from Chapter 3 of the book:

“An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs. Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping, when an answer arrived which deferred it all. Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be. Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies, but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve he brought only six with him from London—his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the assembly room it consisted of only five altogether—Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.”

The above-mentioned assembly room was that in the Hertfordshire town of Meryton to which the wealthy Mr Bingley had recently arrived from the north of England.  Although the Assembly Room, mentioned in the novel, is thought to be that in the building designed by the Adam brothers in Hertford, at least one authority identifies Meryton not with Hertford but instead with nearby Ware (http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/dighum/2016/12/01/mapping-pride-and-prejudice/). Yet another informant felt:

“Re-reading Pride and Prejudice, I have to say that Meryton bears a strong resemblance to Hertford. But it also feels remarkably like Harpenden. And what about Ware?” (https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/people/finding-jane-austen-s-hertfordshire-7217568).

Stepping aside from the identification of the fictional Meryton in “Pride and Prejudice”, I must not forget to mention the large clock attached to the Shire Hall, which projects over Fore Street. Supplied by the Hertford bell founder and clockmaker John Briant (1749-1829), this clock with two faces was erected on the Shire Hall in 1824. It still works and now has a mechanism regulated by a radio signal from Rugby (www.hertford.gov.uk/town-clocks/).

Apart from the Adelphi, which I have seen several times, but until now did not know it was associated with James Adam, the Shire Hall is the first building of which I was aware of James’s hand in its design. I noticed that a plaque attached to this building makes no mention of Robert Adam but only of his brother. It reads:

“Shire Hall. Designed by James Adam. Built 1769-1771”

I do not know whether one can conclude from this that James’s contribution to its design was considerably greater than that of his brother, if he had any involvement at all. In any case, the large structure has a magnificent presence in amongst the smaller and often older buildings amongst which it stands.

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