Behind the faded green doors of the Shire Hall an exciting and sympathetic transformation is taking place.

Up until a year ago the Shire Hall was opened periodically for people to visit the Old Crown Court where the well documented trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs was held in 1823.

When the Shire Hall reopens in March as an Historic Courthouse Museum, visitors will see the Old Crown Court as a part of the story of crime and punishment in Dorset.

 Lottery funding

The Grade I listed building built in 1797 and used as a court until 1955 has benefited from National Heritage Lottery funding of £1.5 million, which has been matched by West Dorset District Council.

old-crown-court-beforeThe majority of this money is being spent on stripping back this beautiful building, making the most of the light flooding in through the arched windows and showing off its Georgian symmetry (the courtroom  is pictured here prior to restoration).

Visitors will enter through the main doors, and to their left will be the reception area, which as well as selling tickets and giving information will house a shop selling books, and gifts ranging from pocket money souvenirs for children to higher-priced general gifts.

Above the shop is a mezzanine floor, which is a new addition. This will be a café serving locally sourced food freshly cooked on the premises, as well as hot and cold beverages, cakes and all sorts of delicious things.

The shop and café can be accessed without paying admission to the exhibits, and it is hoped the café will become a community hub for local people as well as an enjoyable experience for visitors.

The Shire Hall will be accessible for disabled people and be dementia friendly.

Visitors will be given a multimedia guide that will guide them round the exhibits, including the cells and courtroom.

 Five stories

There will be a choice of five stories to follow, for example the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a child who has stolen a pair of boots, and Elizabeth Martha Brown who was hung for murdering her husband. It is hoped that people will come back several times and follow different stories.

The stories will showcase crime, for example, towards women, children and towards the disabled. The experience is designed to make us think about how society was then compared with how it is now. Perhaps it will make us wonder about how our treatment of crime and punishment will be viewed in the future.

Visitors will pass through a contextual area showing the life story of the building set against a timeline of what was happening in Dorset and the wider world, for example the Swing Riots and the Corn Laws. It will be illustrated by objects from trade and industry.

For children there will be memory boxes, things to touch and clothes to try on, and items from rich and poor. This will lead into the former Cold War bunker where a short film about the development of the building will be showing.

Story in each cell

Each of the cells will be ‘inhabited’ by the story of a different case. The room where the Martyrs were held will be kept simple. The old table will be in the middle of the room over which there will be a ‘sound shower’ of a book by Martyrs’ leader George Loveless – Victims of Whiggery – which can only be heard by those by the table.

There will be opportunities for visitors to contemplate, making this a subtle and thoughtful space. The holding cell and possible drunk pit will be similar, with seating for visitors to stop and think about their use and how their users might have felt.

This will be followed by a section on law and order – some quite gruesome exhibits for example death masks, shackles and truncheons.

There will be court records, newspaper reports and objects bringing to life the existence of ordinary people and their experiences.

Grand Jury Room exhibition space

The former Grand Jury Room is to be an exhibition space. The building is being developed to National Museum Standards which will give the opportunity to seek loans from national museums. There will be the opportunity for community exhibitions, too – community engagement is important in this project.

The old council chamber is to be a learning area but will be a flexible space. It can be opened up by folding doors to link to the café, which means it could be hired out for events or used as a theatre or for films or weddings.

While the project endeavours to be a museum of crime and punishment, there will also be emphasis on the involvement of local people.

Ann-BrownLearning manager Anne Brown (pictured) is keen to hear from anyone who would like to become a volunteer to work in a variety of roles in the museum (see box, page 15).

There will be a programme of activities for all ages, all interests and all abilities and projects will be happening all year round to encourage people to keep coming back.

Send in your memories

Anne is also keen to gather any memories or stories you might have of Shire Hall. These will be put together by The Gramophones Theatre Company as a performance which will be held in Shire Hall in February 2018.

Did you work in Shire Hall when it was a court or council office? Do you have a family memory about Shire Hall or family history connected to it – whichever side of the law?!

If you have any stories about Shire Hall or would be interested in volunteering opportunities, please contact Anne Brown on 01305 252405 or email

Shire Hall will be a community resource and it is up to local people to become involved and influence its development.

The project will encourage people from the present to give a voice to forgotten people from the past, and release their stories from the archives to inform, amaze and entertain.

Jill Bryant

Comments are closed.