By Terry Hughes
As we entered the new millennium, public sentiment about downtown Welland was waning and the overall municipal feeling was the city was in need of an uplift. A group that later was called Partners For Community Pride had been working on some strategies to change that feeling. A focus on getting people downtown required the teaming of city hall and the downtown merchants to close East Main Street from the bridge and Cross Street to traffic, cleaning the street and having some merchandise placed on the sidewalks for people to see and purchase. Thanks to Cindy Forster, the city placed city equipment and fire trucks on Cross Street so that people and their children could get a close-up look at where their tax dollars were going to work.
But one area of attraction that had never been available for tours was the court house. Having had a private tour as a teacher from Gordon School, the lack of opportunity for the public to see and hear about this facility was baffling. After making some enquiries as how to make this happen we learned that the building was leased to the province and we needed to negotiate with them. That required some legal help so George Banks, the city solicitor, went to bat for us and it was not until two weeks before the big day that word came that we could use the facility….but with conditions!
Security was the main concern so the auxiliary police volunteered to help. Management of the crowds that we expected was a second issue and who would help us with conducting the tours was also considered. Thanks to the Welland Historical Society that goal was achieved. Dividing the tours to stations at which each guide had a script to use and explain what was happening was also needed. The accompanying diagram shows how the flow of the tour evolved. Fortunately, most of this preparation was in place so that the day when tours were to start we were ready! The other shows rules in place for the visitors.
Additional help would come in the following years. Joe Mocsan and L.A.C.A.C (Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee) joined us in the building while Diane Grenier from city council had her ponies available for children to ride across from the courthouse. The Arts And Culture people joined in with activities in Merritt Park and night time music and dancing occurred at the Market Square.
But the response to the court house tour was AWESOME!
HOW OUR COURT SYSTEM OPERATED
In Canada the criminal courts are based on the British model. While we see the operation of courts in the U.S. and each state has their own model, our system is far more formal. As you enter the main court room the audience is seated at the back of the room. The front of the room has a coat of arms with a picture of the Queen just behind the magistrate’s bench. Officers of the court and the lawyers are dressed in garb and based on rank can only approach the bench to speak to the presiding magistrate. The accused is placed in the prisoner box and if required can be restrained with a steel ring in the floor of the box. During the proceedings, the utmost quiet is required or you can be removed from the court room. The jury sits on the right and lawyers are not allowed to communicate with their client during the proceedings. Witnesses are not allowed in the court room until they testify and leave immediately afterwards.
Unfortunately, because of security reasons, we were declined access to photograph and show the beautiful restoration that was done. The total cost of restoration for the exterior as well as the interior and addition of extra court rooms and security features was eleven million dollars. Based on what the visitors saw, they felt the facility was worth it! This building was rated as in the top ten facilities in the province at the time it was reopened.
The jail portion of the county building held seventy-two prisoners….twelve women and sixty men. Each prisoner was confined to a five by seven foot cell that you could not stand up in and without heat or light. Natural light came from outside windows and a few light bulbs hung from the ceiling in the hallway running parallel to the cells. Heat came from a radiator along the corridor wall. Toilet facilities were provided at the end of the corridor opposite the last cell without walls for privacy. If you gave the jail staff any trouble you were given that jail cell opposite the toilet as a reward. Food was prepared in kitchens located at the opposite end of the corridor. Those prisoners who were the worst offenders had to eat in their cells.
At the time of restoration, the decision was made to leave the jail cells and their facilities in their present state. At the time of its closing in 1973 that portion of the facility had served one hundred and eleven years and was declared unfit for habitation. The jail was a multi-floored building with cells assigned to prisoners based on the offence with which you were charged. The greater the offence, the lower the cell placement you’d be housed……a very cold and damp place! The top level was for women prisoners and painted pink.
(Captions: Top left, Side view of the court house, 2015 file photo by Joe Barkovich); Bottom left, Frontal view, supplied photo courtesy Welland Historical Museum; Exterior plaque, file photo by Joe Barkovich.)
Next column: Capital punishment at the courthouse and some jailhouse trivia.
(Terry Hughes is a Wellander who is passionate about heritage, history and model railroading. His opinion column, Heritage Lives, appears on the blog once or twice monthly.)