Shire Hall reveals its stories

ELIJAH Upjohn was 11 years old. He was probably what used to be called “a bad lot”, a streetwise urchin from rural Shaftesbury who might have been at home in Fagin’s gang. Charged with stealing a pair of trousers, he came to court in Dorchester.

In due course he followed his father as a transported convict to Australia. And what happened after that is part of one of the utterly fascinating stories revealed in the new Shire Hall museum, the home of the court where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried and sentenced to transportation.

This was the court where Martha Brown was tried for the murder of her reputedly unfaithful and brutal husband – the famous Birdsmoorgate murder. She was found guilty and became the last woman to be hung in public in Dorset – the teenage Thomas Hardy saw the execution. He never forgot the sight and years later wrote a haunting description of the black-clad figure swinging from the gallows – it is widely believed that this experience was part of the inspiration for his best-known novel, Tess Of The D’Urbevilles.

The stories of the Tolpuddle Martrys, Martha Brown, Elijah Upjohn and a serial offender called Daniel Jones (who appeared before the Dorchester magistrates 57 times!) are told in the four audio trails available to visitors to Shire Hall museum.

The tour includes the cells – these are the original, single cells, barely the size of a narrow single bed, with heavy doors and no natural light or ventilation beyond the spy hole and the little hatch through which food would be pushed. It is a grim thought to imagine the people (of all ages) awaiting trial or the convicts awaiting death or transportation, sitting in those claustrophobic little boxes, deprived of light or any sense of time. These were probably healthier than the old communal cells, but the isolation must have been oppressive and frightening.

The courtroom itself has a strong atmosphere – perhaps it is because we know that this was where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried. It is impossible to overstate its importance in the history of the struggle for better conditions for workers and the development of trade unions.

You stand in the dock, in the jury-box or in the public galleries and imagine how the gravitas of the bench and the lawyers in their robes would have intimidated a boy like Elijah, miles from his home, with no-one to speak for him, or Martha, the epitome of the abused wife, on trial for her life with the outcome almost a foregone conclusion.

The new museum also has a light and airy cafe, run in conjunction with Kingston Maurward College, serving a range of local food and refreshments.

Throughout the museum there are quotations designed to make the visitor think about law and justice, crime and punishment. There are spaces where children (and adults) are encouraged to add their own graffiti. There are concealed boxes with artefacts that tell their own stories, and there are even period hats and bonnets in the court-room to help visitors get in the Victorian spirit.

Shire Hall Museum was made possible thanks to a £1.5m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which was match- funded by West Dorset District Council.

An architectural gem in the county town, Shire Hall first opened in 1796-97. It was designed by Thomas Hardwick and stone from nearby Portland was used in the building.

It was the County Hall for Dorset and was a centre of law, order and government for more than 200 years. In 1955 the newly built county hall and crown court took over this role.

• The first Patrons of Shire Hall Museum are Caroline Montagu, the Countess of Sandwich, who lives at historic Mapperton House, and Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury. As President of the UK’s Supreme Court from 2012 until September 2017, Lord Neuberger was Britain’s most senior judge. He was called to the Bar in 1974, was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1987, was appointed a High Court Judge in 1996 and in 2004 was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal.

Lord Neuberger said: “I am honoured and pleased to have been invited to be patron of Dorchester’s Shire Hall Trust and am happy to help, support and promote the Trust and its aims.  The work that is being carried out to it will result in a historically significant and interesting monument, and the proposals to use and promote it are exciting. I was particularly taken by the court-room, and I do not think that that is solely because of my 45 years as a barrister and judge.”