Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Dorset

ᵃᵈ  Stand in the dock, get held in the cells, and find out about the people who were brought to justice…or not in some cases!

Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum covers 200 years of local crime and serious legal drama from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the 1856 domestic abuse case that inspired Thomas Hardy to write ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. Well, we are in Thomas Hardy country after all!

Dorchester’s Shire Hall is worth visiting to discover the trials and tribulations of Dorset’s past, for a slice of cake (or more!) at the incredible cafe and for its interesting programme of upcoming events.

Dorchester is home to the beautiful Georgian building that housed the courthouse for over 200 years. Its use only changed in 1955 when the new court was built locally and this became the county council offices.

It’s the change that’s kept the inside so well preserved and it opened in 2018 for all to see!

We started our tour of the museum by picking up an audio guide and heading into the first room with a big video projection on one wall and a huge historic map on the other.

Audio Guide Goodness

I love the twist Shire Hall has put on the audio guide. While all the nuts and bolts of information is there it’s taken elements of the Harry Potter audio guides. Let me explain, the Warner Brothers guides add value with additional on screen images and extra information to discover at your own pace.

The Shire Hall audio guides combine this element with the choice to further bespoke and enhance your experience. At the start you’re asked which person from the courthouse’s history you’d like to follow and find out more throughout the exhibition.

You can pick from…

  • Elijah Upjohn, aged 11, on trial for theft
  • George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, aged 21-47, on trial for administering a secret oath
  • Elizabeth Martha Brown, aged 44, on trial for murder
  • Daniel Baker, aged 84, on trial for stealing a shirt

I went for Elizabeth and Henry picked the Tolpuddle Martyrs and we both agreed it gave us a different perspective on the museum and plenty to talk about inbetween audio clips and afterwards.

The Cells

Petty thieves and vagabonds eat your heart out, there’s serious scary vibes down in the cells.

The audio guide focused on different people that stayed in the cells and it was well balanced between scary and thought provoking.

Being able to stand in the cells brings home the conditions of the time and what people being held there would have gone through.

My favourite part was the ‘mystery pit’ – a cell that’s a glorified pit and the purpose is still not known. The museum has tags where you can make a guess at what the pit might have been used for and then hang it on the railings.

The suggestions from the public so far are hilarious, here are a few that tickled me…

“To chuck your brothers in!”
“For holding Mother in Laws!”
“For Brexiteers”

The Dock

There’s a bit of a reveal, so I won’t ruin it, but entering the actual court is really cool and just added further to the experience!

The court is much bigger than I thought and is painted in the traditional colour of the time – they’d just discovered how to colour paint from yellow and the in colour at the time was a which Farrow and Ball style grey!

There’s lots of great hats, which you can try on I may add, around the seating areas of the court.

It allows you, very simply, to see what kind of people sat where based on the type of hat. There were lots of descriptions explaining the context and for me it was a very accessible way to access the more serious courthouse facts. I really liked the inclusivity of it.

What’s more, as more people entered, they too tried on hats and started acting out mock trials with people they didn’t even know!

Keep an eye out for fantastic details too – in the back of the costume gowns were facts about how they came to be. I thought this was a really lovely touch.

Temporary Exhibitions

Upstairs there’s a space for temporary exhibitions at the museum. When we visited art students from Weymouth College had put on a display of art work championing creativity with roots in pop art the night before. They’d done some installations around the museum with black lights too and I saw some video on Instagram and it looked very interesting.

The Cafe

Shire Hall’s cafe is a real jewel in its crown and I swear I’d be in here all the time if I was local. The food was delicious, I mean just look at my smashed avocado bagel, with an egg and proper Dorset bacon – it was delicious!

Henry went for comfort food with a classic jacket, beans and cheese combo and then he topped things off with a ginormous toasted hot cross bun.

I had the peanut butter chocolate brownie – I was so impressed they were home made cakes and utterly indulgent, perfect when it’s hammering with rain outside and you’re looking for an afternoon treat.

You can even access the cafe for free, I would  definitely do this if I was popping back here for a day trip to see other things!

Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum

If you’re headed to Dorset, this would make for a good morning or afternoon activity, it’s not huge but there’s a lot to take in and we easily spent a couple of hours here without trying.

Also, it would certainly be worth keeping your eye on the ‘What’s On’ section as they have some interesting events programming coming up.

I loved experiencing the museum, it’s right in the centre of the town and I have to say I was seriously surprised. I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t sure if Shire Hall would be up my street.

A big thank you to the Shire Hall team for the invite to the museum – its collection is really thoughtful, very interactive and well preserved with some thoughtful twists bringing it all to life.

*Ad – gifted invite – all opinions are my own though, otherwise what’s the point?!

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