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Guided tours of the building are available upon request.
The Old Courthouse was originally a Police Court, which later became a Magistrates Court and is the oldest surviving, intact, Victorian Police Court in London.
Until it was opened in 1869, there was no regular place where a magistrate sat in Lambeth. The architect, Thomas Charles Sorby (1836-1924) was the Police Surveyor at the time and also designed two surviving police stations, one at Clerkenwell (formerly Kings Cross Police Station), and Rochester Row.
The building is situated at the administrative heart of Victorian Lambeth. It was built opposite the Kennington Lane Police Station, which was closed in 1932 and replaced with the current Police Section House in 1938, and is part of a community of buildings built in an asymmetrical Tudor Gothic style, comprising a former Fire Station, workhouse (where Charlie Chaplin is reputed to have stayed) and infirmary site, the former being in use until 1922.
The royal coat of arms and the date of construction, '18AD69', is set in the front elevation and on some of the hopper heads. Internally, it had a single court in which all cases were heard, and various offices leading off it. The former court room is of double-height with a lofty timber roof, suggestive of an upturned Viking ship, and above what was the magistrate's chair, is a timber canopy of impressive proportions. From the court, a door leads to an extensive two storey cell block, through a holding 'tank', where prisoners were held before appearing in the dock.
After it was replaced by the new Magistrates Court at Camberwell Green, the courthouse served as a maximum security court for special remands, and was seen regularly in the background of television news reports, following the arrest of suspected IRA terrorists. The cell walls and doors bear witness to this period, with the names of several well known members of the IRA still legible. Car bombers, terrorists, the Kray twins, and members of the gang who seized the Iranian Embassy all appeared here at the old Kennington Courthouse, and local people still remember the helicopters overhead and the marksmen on the roof. The building also provided the location for an episode of the TV series 'The Bill'.
In 1990, the court was finally closed and high security remands transferred to Arbour Square. The building remained empty for some five years and fell into disrepair. Eventually it was offered for sale and attracted some interest, most notably from Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who failed to get planning permission for her scheme to convert it into a project for homeless people. Proposals were put forward for its adaptation by Jamyang Buddhist Centre and also by the property developers Headland Weald who sought to convert the building into luxury apartments. The Victorian Society was reluctant to consider residential conversion and took the unusual step of supporting one applicant's application against another, while English Heritage made it a Grade II Listed Building in November 1993.
Conversion into Jamyang Buddhist Centre
The building eventually went to auction on November 1, 1995. At 2.15pm, when the auctioneer's hammer came down for the third and final time, it became Jamyang's new home.
With initially very limited funds, a team of volunteers and local people on youth training schemes moved in and set to work removing the bullet-proof glass and the lead floor lining from the court room, converting it into a spacious and airy Shrine Room in the heart of the building. Graffiti was removed from the prison cells and the Victorian glazed brickwork and oak doors restored to their previous splendour.
In the summer of 2000, the entire roof was renovated using traditional construction materials like lead and slates.
A magnificent nine foot high statue of Buddha was constructed where the Judge used to sit by Peter Griffin, a local sculptor trained by Tibetan exiles in India and Nepal. In May 1999 the statue was consecrated during a visit from The Dalai Lama. The background to the statue, known as the aura, depicts the symbols of Buddhism's 'Six Perfections', namely Generosity, Morality, Patience, Enthusiastic Perseverance, Concentration and Wisdom.
With advice from English Heritage, the Victorian Society and Lambeth's Conservation Officer the cells were converted into accommodation, the male & female prisoners' holding cells became offices.
Other facilities include a bookshop, and meeting/training room for local organisations. The second floor apartment was refurbished and is rented out in order to pay the mortgage interest on the original purchase.
The former Clerk's office has been converted into a food preparation and service area, and the high-security courtyard is now a pleasant walled garden where food and drinks may be enjoyed when served at teachings and during retreats. The Courtyard also houses a beautifully stone-carved Paranirvana Buddha statue made by Nick Durnham. The transformation from courthouse to Buddhist-based community centre is unique. As the building was designed for public use, it is proving exceptionally well-suited to its new purpose.