Culture and heritage

Heritage of NSW

Evidence of the law: Excavations at Orange Court House

Original Dawson Court House of 1862. Photograph by Beaufoy Merlin 1872, courtesy of Holtermann Photographic Collection, Mitchell Library

The Central West town of Orange is to receive a major upgrade to its court facilities, on a site with 150 years of continuous legal history. Beneath the earth archaeologists have discovered fascinating evidence of the earlier phases of the justice system in Orange. Heritage Office Archaeologist, MacLaren North, examines the layers of law and order previously hidden from view.

The Orange Court House, designed by Colonial Architect James Barnet and constructed in 1883, sits prominently on a corner location in the centre of town, opposite Robertson Park. The impressive building is a fine example of late-Victorian court architecture, but it is in fact the fourth court on this site. Three buildings pre-dated it, all providing the different police and court facilities needed for Orange as it grew and changed from the earliest European settlement.

Locally produced drink bottle from the 1999 excavations. Photograph by Dana Mider.

Chinese coins from the 1999 excavations. Photograph by Dana Mider

Chinese coins from the 1999 excavations. Photograph by Dana Mider.

In the 1990s the NSW Attorney General's Department planned a major expansion to the existing court building, to keep pace with both the growing population of the area and the changing ways in which justice is administered. The planned extensions to the court required the complete redevelopment of the site immediately behind the 1883 building. Recognising the possibility for archaeological remains of earlier court structures, an archaeological excavation was undertaken in January and February last year.

With the proposed development of the site in the late 1990s, archaeological investigations were required by the "relics provisions" of the NSW Heritage Act. These provisions protect archaeological sites around NSW and require that such sites be investigated thoroughly by an archaeologist before they are destroyed. Archaeological work was required on the Orange Court House site as plans for the new extension included a substantial basement, which would destroy most traces of previous occupation of the site.

A team of archaeologists, labourers and local volunteers, led by consultant archaeologist Dana Mider, spent two months investigating the site. Evidence of the earlier buildings on the site was found, revealing much information about how law and order operated from the earliest days of Orange's settlement.

Orange's first court house coincided with its establishment as a town. In 1847, with only a handful of buildings and people in the area, it was decided to open a Court of Petty Sessions in Orange, to serve as the centre of justice for the surrounding area. A wooden slab police lock-up with cells was built on the site in 1848. This building also served as the court. The wooden building was replaced with a more substantial brick and bluestone building in 1849-50, the footings of which, as well as the cells, were discovered during the archaeological work.

The building was quickly outgrown by the changing population of the area, which dramatically expanded in the 1850s with the discovery of gold at nearby Ophir. Orange became a stopping point for those on their way to or from the goldfields. Discovery of gold also brought an increase in crime, and bushrangers began to operate in the area. The most famous of these, Ben Hall, was incarcerated at Orange before his trial in 1862.

While the lock-up was extended throughout the 1850s and 1860s, these facilities proved insufficient and the pressures of the gold rush and expanding population necessitated the construction of a new court. In 1861 a new complex of court buildings designed by Colonial Architect Alexander Dawson was erected on the site. This new complex incorporated the old lock-up and cells. The new court, however, had its own share of problems, especially in the quality of the construction, and in 1881 it was decided a completely new building was required.

James Barnet's new building was much larger and grander than its predecessors. The Dawson courtroom was demolished for Barnet's building and the other buildings were incorporated into an expanded prison complex. A grand, symmetrical building with a large central courtroom, Barnet's court is still in use today. Little else was built on the site after the Barnet court, except for a small Court Keeper's residence (designed by Government Architect Walter Vernon) built in 1910-11 and demolished in 1998.

While Dana Mider and the team of archaeologists expected that there would be extensive remains of the earlier uses of the site, the complexity and density of the archaeological remains was a surprise.

Substantial evidence of all phases of the site was found. The well-preserved footings of the 1849-50 police lockup and 8 cells were among the most significant finds. Portions of the 1861 Dawson court building and 1883 wooden stables were also discovered, as were a number of outbuildings and privies not otherwise known from the historic record. Conversely, a number of buildings mentioned in the historic records were not located by the archaeologists during their work.

The remains of the lockup and cells demonstrated the increased need for gaol space in Orange in the gold rush period. The lockup originally contained only two cells, but was expanded five times before its demolition. Artefacts recovered from the privies associated with the lockup provided an interesting insight into the lives of the prisoners and their gaolers.

Over 46,000 individual artefacts were recovered from the site and cleaned, recorded and analysed by the archaeologists. Bones from cuts of meat gave evidence of the prison diet - including a large number of cattle kneebones - and several intact metal slop buckets demonstrated the level of sanitary facilities available. A large amount of Chinese coinage was also found on the site, possibly evidence of the immigrant Chinese goldminers who passed through the area.

The archaeological work attracted a great deal of public attention, as it was the first event of its kind in downtown Orange. Regular guided tours were provided by the archaeologists and over 2500 visitors passed through the site during the excavations, including Heritage Council Chair, Mrs Hazel Hawke. This process helped raise the awareness of the Orange community of the very important parts of their local heritage which have been hidden from view.

Some of the archaeological remains are to be kept on the site and interpreted. After negotiations with the Attorney General's Department, the new building's basement has been redesigned and shifted south, allowing the remains of the 1849/50 lockup and cells to be retained in situ. A portion will be exposed for public interpretation in the lobby of the new building and the remainder conserved.

The Attorney General's Department engaged multimedia design firm, DesignMedia, to prepare an interactive computer display of the material from the site, the first archaeological site in Australia to receive this treatment. It will be donated to Orange City Council for public access and includes historic photos and plans, consultants' reports, video footage of the site and computer reconstructions of the different structures and phases of the site.

The Heritage Office would like to thank the following for assistance in preparing this article: the NSW Attorney General's Department, Dana Mider & the archaeological team and DesignMedia.

A new virtual site on the Orange Court House has been developed to enable users to investigate the Orange Court House site, including a personal guided tour of the excavation by archaeologist Dana Mider. Commissioned by the Attorney General's Department, this innovative site presents a wealth of material such as 3-D computer reconstructions of the original buildings, images, maps, records and photographic panoramas.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012