Tenders for a supreme courthouse were called in 1847 and a design was prepared by the colonial engineer, Edward Charles Frome, or more likely his successor Richard Lambeth. R.G. Bowen’s tender was accepted and work started late in 1847.
The contractor soon encountered difficulties and delays due to deviations from the original design and the problem of obtaining enough large blocks of stone that early in the settlement’s history. Bowen asked to substitute stuccoed brickwork but he was held to his contract and it appears he obtained the stone from several quarries, including one at Beaumont that opened in about 1838. Other building stones that may have contributed to the impressive facade include Mitcham, Finniss River or Stirling sandstones.
The contractor’s problems did not end there. By mid-1850 when the building was nearly finished, the government’s lease on the Queen’s Theatre expired and officials forcibly occupied the unfinished courthouse. There was public outrage at this act.
The South Australian Gazette and Mining Journal of July 4, 1850, stormed: “Things are really coming to a pretty pass amongst us, when under the express sanction of the government a most daring and unwarrantable outrage upon the local rights of the subject is perpetuated by those whose business and duty it is to uphold the supremacy of the law at all hazards and under every provocation ... An attempt is made to thrust the poor government officials into unfinished, damp and half-painted rooms, and when the contractor legally resists the intrusion until guaranteed against consequences which might lead to ruin to himself, the windows are smashed, the doors broken open, that justice might be duly installed, and a lesson of public order and respect for the law read to the citizens!”
This criticism would seem well founded, but judges Cooper and Crawford took up residence nevertheless.
The chief justice's weak voice was at once cause for further complaint about the new facilities. The Adelaide Times of July 13, 1850 observed: “The vast height of the hall, the large globular skylight that surmounts it, and the extensive subterranean vault leading to the dock seem all combined to deprive the voice of any speaker of any particle of distinctiveness.” For his part, the “Second judge” (Crawford) criticised the placing of the Bench, the lack of jury rooms, toilets, robing rooms and the smoking fireplaces in the judges chambers.
These problems were rectified and the building was properly finished in 1851. However, it was never completed to the satisfaction of their lordships, who increased in number to three by1859. Several changes were made in response to their complaints, including the construction of a public gallery (which is still in place), although the structure was externally unchanged.
The Supreme Court was at that time one of the most impressive and substantial public buildings in Adelaide, dominating the surrounding partly vacant town acres and an empty, treeless Victoria Square. In August 1851 the ceremonial first session opening of South Australia’s first Legislative Council was held at the new court rather than in its own confined Council Chamber.
The judges themselves remained dissatisfied. They asked to be transferred to the new Local and Insolvency Courts’ building across King William Street (see Supreme Court), and the roles of the two buildings were swapped in 1873. The new building, also facing Victoria Square, has been the Supreme Court ever since.
In 1891 the Local and Insolvency Courts changed places with the Police Court, which was behind the new Supreme Court building (see Local Court, King William Street). The original Supreme Court was adapted to become a “City Watch House and Police Court combined”, later renamed the Magistrates Court.
The building gives some idea of the social and legal changes of the 20th century that brought expansion in police responsibilities, and other court functions such as the Licensing Court,. Between the 1920s and the 1960s major changes almost completely altered the interior, while additions more than trebled its size. In 1921 the large central section of the present building complex was attached to the rear of the original building. The two-storey extension included accommodation for the state’s newly appointed women police. In 1933-34 a further large extension was the three-storey section with an entrance to King William Street. Both extensions were designed by the architect-in-chief’s department, then under the direction of Alfred Edward Simpson, who was appointed in 1920. In the 1950s a two-storey shop abutting the 1934 section, dating from, about 1900, was bought and adapted for courts use.
Both the exterior and the interior fittings and furnishings of the 1920s and 1930s sections are largely original, but very little remains of the 1850 building. The most significant feature is the original court room, with its skylight, canopy and public gallery (since enclosed).