Although no visible evidence remains today, Newtown served as the County Seat of Bucks County from 1726 to 1812, before it was moved to Doylestown.
During this period, this rural community grew into a prosperous governmental center, leaving behind its origin as an essentially agricultural village.
Because much town and county business revolved around the courthouse trade, taverns and inns became staples in town.
In 1915, using plans and descriptions on file in Doylestown, as well as the remnants of the actual buildings, Thaddeus S. Kenderdine made a rough sketch of the county courthouse buildings as they stood in 1815 to provide a lasting memorial for the center of Bucks County justice from 1726 to 1812.
Colonial records indicate that the courts of Bucks County were moved from “Below the Falls” to Bristol in 1705, where they remained for 20 years before arriving in Newtown.
This movement of the county seat was on account of the population moving so far northward that the jurisdiction became lopsided. It must be remembered that Bucks, up to 1752, included a much larger territory, which was afterward divided into several counties reaching to the Kittatinny Mountains. So the seat of justice came, in 1726, 10 miles further up the river.
The tract of land on which the three main public buildings in Newtown were erected ran along Centre Avenue from State Street back to Court Street, with a large mansion on it (the house sits behind 35 S. State St.), and facing southward on part of the ancient village green (long since developed).
These grounds covered the area that is essentially now bounded by Athleta (corner of State Street and Centre Avenue) and the Old Library building located behind it on the corner of Centre Avenue and Court Street.
The grounds continued north including most of the land where the businesses are on west side of South State Street.
The original jail was found to be too small for the growing criminality of the county, naturally arising from the wild conditions of a backwoods community, so in 1745 another larger jail was erected. The new jail was directly west of the courthouse, with the gable end flush with the pavement of the main street (State Street).
To this day, some of the west wall can still be seen in front of the “Helig House” (now 35 South Salon, next to Athleta).
The two-story courthouse, built in 1726, was close to what was then called Second Street (now known as Court Street) and faced south. Made of stone and 30 feet by 28 feet in dimensions, the lower level housed the courtroom and the upper floor was for the grand and petit juries.
Nearly abutting, the stone treasury building, with walls up to two feet thick and covered with a 12-inch brick arch, was well suited to serve as a powder magazine at times during the Revolutionary War. While it was intended to be both fire- and burglarproof, the last attribute failed, for most certainly “thieves did break in and steal,” to the sore loss of the county.
The treasury building was moved in 1796 to 40 S. State St. (now the Trust Offices of the First National Bank), where it was occupied by county officers until 1812.
The county’s lower end citizens, who had reluctantly consented to the removal of the county seat to Newtown, became anxious about keeping it there, in light of efforts by the upper end citizens to have it moved still further up-county. They advocated for new buildings in Newtown to hold the seat of justice there, which further excited the people in the upper townships.
At one of the meetings held for the moving of the courts further to the northwest, it was resolved “that the roads through Newtown were so unpopular as never to support enough taverns for people attending court.” So, under such pressure the removal came.
Considering its “Friendly” environments in different directions (a reference to the many Quakers in the area), Newtown was a rough place surely in those “good old times,” when there was a drinking resort for each 10 houses — and not a church until 1815 within its actual limits.
The best neighboring religious influences would be hard pressed to penetrate such a place. But, with the removal of the county seat to Doylestown in 1812 and the incoming afterwards of different places of religious worship, Newtown, in time, redeemed itself.
Brian Rounsavill compiled this column exclusively from excerpts from “When Newtown was the County Seat. Being an Account of Newtown’s County Buildings, Inns, Streets, etc. Between 1726 and 1813. Including Scenes and Incidents in the Long-Ago Years” by Thaddeus S. Kenderdine, 1915.
“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.