Dorchester’s historic Old Crown Court – where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried in 1834 – looks set to become a major tourist attraction.
The town has won National Lottery funding which will allow detailed plans to be drawn up to transform the Grade I listed building in High West Street into a heritage centre.
The plans will pave the way for a further lottery bid of up to £1m to pay for the necessary work, while West Dorset District Council has also pledged £1m towards the project.
If the second-round lottery-funding bid next year is successful, the restored Old Crown Court and heritage centre could be open for visitors by spring 2016.
The centre will be run by Dorset County Museum, while there will be links with Kingston Maurward College, which is keen to use it as part of a heritage training scheme.
The Old Crown Court is situated inside Shire Hall on High West Street – part of West Dorset’s old council offices, before the move to the controversial new building on the Charles Street car park site.
The Shire Hall, which includes the Old Crown Court and cells, is famous for the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs – see feature on pages 14-15. Author Thomas Hardy also sat there as a magistrate. Time has stood still at the court, which appears today almost as it did in Georgian times.
When the project is finished, it will form part of a ‘Heritage Quarter’ in a pedestrianised High West Street, incorporating the County Museum, the Roman Town House and the Keep.
Robert Gould, Leader of West Dorset District Council, said: “I am thrilled that we have succeeded in winning this money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is on top of the £1million that the district council has pledged to make this exciting project a reality.
“The Shire Hall is a fascinating building with a unique and special history. Visitors will be able to tread in the footsteps of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and see the very same sights that would have greeted them.
“Thanks to this money and the hard work of everyone involved we should be able to make history come alive and create something Dorchester can be proud of.”
Part of HLF’s initial support includes development funding totalling £69,000. This will be used to develop detailed design plans and to get the project to the planning application stage. After this work is completed a second round funding application will be made to the Heritage Lottery Fund to apply for the full amount needed for the scheme.
Richard Bellamy, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund South West, said: “We are delighted to be able to support the development of this project. Shire Hall is one of Dorchester’s most important historic buildings and this project has the potential to open it fully to the public and explain its fascinating history in an exciting and vibrant way.”