The Old Hall is the finest building in the Inn, and, indeed, is one of the finest buildings in London. It is small but beautifully proportioned and executed.
A tablet on the outside of the north wall records that the hall was built “in the fifth year of King Henry VII”. Henry VII came to the throne in 1485, and so the hall is a building that was erected before Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World. It replaced a previous hall that had fallen into decay.
The other Inns also had ancient halls, but the oldest (Gray's Inn Hall, sadly destroyed in the war of 1939-45, and since rebuilt) was completed some 70 years later. In what is now called the Old Hall, benchers, barristers and students of the Inn were eating, drinking, debating and holding their revels 130 years before the Mayflower left Plymouth on its historic voyage. It was here that Sir Thomas More, who joined the Inn in 1496, lived much of his professional life. The hall as he knew it was smaller than it is now, for in 1624 it was enlarged by adding the southern bay, with its two bay windows; and the wooden screen inside the new bay was probably made to the design of Inigo Jones.
Changes in the Old Hall
Towards the end of the 18th century, deplorable changes were made in the Old Hall. The most unfortunate of these was that the fine open timbers which supported the roof were concealed by the construction of a curved ceiling of heavy plaster, as may be seen in the Pugin and Rowlandson print published in 1808. In time, the weight of the plaster, coupled with some of the other changes, threatened the stability of the walls; and in 1924 the hall was in danger of collapse.
Over the next three years the Inn's own workmen, under the direction of Sir John Simpson, the Inn's architect, lovingly dismantled the hall, timber by timber, stone by stone, brick by brick. The warped timbers, over five centuries old and as hard as iron, were gradually straightened, and everything that was still serviceable was then replaced as it had been before the changes of the 18th century; to this day some of the numbers that were marked on the stones to ensure their correct replacement may still be seen.
On November 22, 1928, Queen Mary discharged the duty that, through illness, George V was prevented from performing, and re-opened the restored hall. In 1977 the exterior of the hall was cleaned, and the stone work further restored.
The Old Hall as a Court
In addition to discharging the functions of the dining hall of the Inn, the Old Hall was also regularly used as a court of justice. This first occurred in 1717, when the Master of the Rolls sat there during the rebuilding of his court on the east side of Chancery Lane, on a site now forming part of the Public Record Office.
After the new Rolls Court had been completed in 1724, the Old Hall again came into use when Lord Talbot, the Lord Chancellor, sat there in 1733 ; and from 1737 onwards it was in regular use as the High Court of Chancery out of term time.
During the four legal terms of the year, which for centuries were each of some three to five weeks duration, the Lord Chancellor normally sat in the Court of Chancery which occupied the south-west corner of Westminster Hall, so that the Old Hall was then available for dining and other purposes.
The most famous use of the Old Hall as a court is fictional. The opening scene of Bleak House is set here.
“London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather……Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city……And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery;”
and before him is the great cause, never to be understood, of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Yet the last and most lamentable scene of that case was set not in the Old Hall but in the Court of Chancery in Westminster Hall.
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