It was May Day, International Workers’ Day – a very appropriate day to open the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum because the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried and sentenced here.
There was an air of anticipation as we waited for the blue doors to open and admit us to Dorchester’s newest attraction.
The first person in the queue, Gail Aldwin, was given vouchers for free coffee for a year in the café. The next 99 people received free coffee on the day.
Gail, from Dorchester had waited from 7am on a chair outside in the sunshine. She is a crime writer and will be giving crime-writing workshops at Shire Hall in the autumn.
She said: “I live on Glyde Path Road and I’m a writer so I thought it would be a unique experience to come down and watch the world go by for a couple of hours. I think it’s really exciting. It will be an asset to the town and it’s great to have an opportunity to think about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their experiences.”
The new museum is not just about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, although their story is important. The exhibition also celebrates social justice and looks at the history of protest both in Dorset and in the wider world. Its restoration was made possible thanks to a £1.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, match-funded by West Dorset District Council.
One of the first exhibitions will be about protest, including the US Civil Rights Movement and Dorset’s history of protest. The local history part was researched and designed by young people in Dorset, working with Shire Hall staff and the Dorset History Centre.
Anita Pegorini, from Dorchester was visiting with her daughter Marie Chappell. Anita said: “It was so interesting. It’s an added attraction for the town.” Marie said: “Having this open, they have added to the history of Dorchester.”
Terry May from Dorchester thought the museum was “brilliant and eye-opening”. Janet Stopforth, also of Dorchester, said she was “very impressed” and added ”I would not like to have been kept in those cells”.
This new attraction is going to be a great asset to Dorchester. It has something to interest all ages. Tactile exhibits for children will spark their interest in history and bring it to life for them. As well as being a museum it is hoped the facilities will become a community hub. The café is run by Kingston Maurward and serves drinks and snacks.
The museum is open every day from 10am to 5pm. Entry is £8.50 for adults, £4.50 for children and £20 for a family. For more information visit www.shirehalldorset.org.