In 1889 the first Surrey County Council needed to find a home. The Sessions House at Newington, near the Elephant and Castle, had been the home of the Surrey Court of Quarter Sessions for almost a century but south London had passed into the new County of London and no longer formed part of Surrey. The County Council considered a number of possible locations for its headquarters. These included the option of remaining in London, the focal point of the railway system and the city in which many of the members pursued their businesses and professions. Eventually the decision was taken to move into the administrative county and on 15 April 1890, after intense lobbying and amid keen local interest, Kingston was selected as the location of County Hall, defeating Guildford, Wimbledon, Epsom and Redhill.
The first site selected in St James’ Road, on the Kingston Hall estate, was found to be unsuitable. County Hall was therefore built on a two acre site on the Woodbines estate. It faced Grove Road (later renamed Penrhyn Road in honour of the first Chairman of the County Council) which was being improved by Kingston Borough as the main thoroughfare between central Kingston and Surbiton station.
The County Hall architect, Charles Henry Howell, also designed Brookwood and Cane Hill lunatic asylums. Higgs and Hill won the building contract with a price of 41,964.
County Hall was constructed between 1891 and 1893. On 3 June 1893 the Surrey Comet described the “palatial structure in Grove Road”. This covered the north-eastern part of the site and was the most imposing building in late-nineteenth century Kingston. The newspapers drew attention to the sculptures by Farmer and Brindley: Law and Liberty, Peace and Plenty, Justice and Mercy over the windows of the first floor grand hall; the arms of Guildford, Godalming, Reigate, Richmond and Kingston; the arms of the Earl of Lovelace, Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, in the southern gable of the facade, together with the royal arms on the western aspect; and the Four Seasons on the tower buttresses.
On 13 November 1893 County Hall was open from 2 to 5pm for viewing by invitation. A band played and the guests viewed every part of the building from the cells and heating chamber to the splendours of the great hall. The next day Surrey County Council met for the first time in County Hall.
In addition to Council Chambers and offices for various council officials, County Hall also originally housed a court, grand jury room, rooms for witnesses, jurors and barristers and, on the ground floor, prisoners’ cells. The court was later moved to a purpose built building alongside County Hall.
County Hall was originally built to house council and committee meetings, courts and a minimal administrative staff. As the County Council gained new duties and powers, staffing levels increased. By 1914 the County Council occupied five private houses near to County Hall and an office hired from Kingston Corporation. The outbreak of war halted a 1914 plan by the architect Henry Hare to extend County Hall southwards. BY 1927 there were 39 staff working in County Hall and 135 in converted houses in and around Penrhyn Road.
A new extension intended for 200 staff, designed by Vincent Harris, was opened by the Duke of Gloucester in 1930. By 1934 a further extension was needed, this was built and opened in 1938.
In 1944 a flying bomb demolished the Ashcombe block. War damage was repaired between 1945 and 1950, although shrapnel marks can still be seen in the stonework. The Ashcombe block was rebuilt in 1953. Further extensions were added in 1963 and 1982.
Images to left and right – County Hall 1944 bomb damage (SHC Ref CC37/12)
The building is now Grade II listed.
Adapted from Dr David Robinson’s “A Brief History of County Hall” (1993)