Exploring Dorset’s Criminal Justice Past at the Shire Hall Historic Courtroom Museum, Dorchester

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I visited the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum back in September when I was on my solo tour of the South West. I had researched the museum online and was excited to find out more about the history of justice and visiting the courtroom…

Welcome to Shire Hall

The courthouse museum is located in the centre of Dorchester in Dorset and is easy to find. There is plenty of parking available in the town centre and the imposing building facade really draws you in for sure.

I didn’t know before I arrived, but I had unintentionally chosen to visit on a Sunday where the museum was open to the public for free, otherwise known as the museums busiest day ever! I think it was part of the local archaeological celebration week or something, meaning it was rather busy and there was a queue to enter. The staff did well to ensure they didn’t let too many people enter at once, so it wasn’t too cramped.

Step Back in Time

The museum aims to share stories of people who experienced the justice system in Dorset from days gone by. With lots of history and stories to tell visitors are treated to an insight into what the criminal justice and injustice system meant to people through the ages. It’s probably one of the only chances people can see what prison cells from the ate 18th century looked like and experience what it feels like to walk into a courtroom!

Upon entering the museum a thought-provoking video introduces you to the courtroom and details its history and refurbishment. I found this useful to orientate myself to what I would be exploring and liked hearing it’s really interesting facts.

I found it interesting to learn that Shire Hall was once a real-life courthouse from 1797 to 1955 where it tried many prisoners. Apparently, there was a certain domestic abuse case in 1986 which led Thomas Hardy to write his famous work ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. If you’re a history buff or simply interested in finding out more about Shire Hall then a more detailed history can be found on the museum’s website.

I really enjoyed looking at the informative exhibits detailing 200 years of justice and injustice to life. There are displays showing people who were tried at the court with explanations of their crimes and punishments– quite different to our criminal justice system today as you can imagine!

Down into the Cells

Inside the museum, there’s a chance to peek into the cells and imagine what it was like to be a prisoner detained here – cold, damp and rather depressing I think! You can take a closer look at some of the inscriptions left by former prisoners too! I can’t imagine this was a very nice place for criminals to await their fate before they faced the dock!

It’s crazy to think that both adults and children would have been detained and tried here, sometimes for what would seem like the smallest of petty crimes these days.

Up into the Courtroom

After exploring both the Victorian and Georgian cells and seeing what it would have been like to be detained at Shire Hall, visitors can follow in the footsteps of previous prisoners recreating their climb up into the courtroom dock. The courtroom is set out fully with the docks, witness stand and seats for the jury and public gallery.

The courtroom is complete with judge’s seat which includes a judge’s wig and magistrates gowns. You can even try these on should you really wish to get into character! I saw lots of children (and adults!) doing this and having lots of fun.

There are lots of old-fashioned hats with accompanying information placed around the courtroom detailing who would have worn the hats and other information about the courtroom.

Under each hat on the hat stands there are little mirrors, so you can check out how you look in the different hat styles! If it hadn’t been as busy I’m sure there might have been some silly selfies of me included in this post! Thinking back I’m glad it was busy to save my embarrassment!

Apparently, the courtroom has been recently refurbished and is now a clean, grey colour. Take a look at the Shore Hall Instagram page to get a sneak peek of what to expect!

I personally have never been into a courtroom before but have seen many on TV and in films and so it was really interesting to wander around it and experience what it would feel like to be at a real court case.

Normally, when the museum isn’t open to the public for free, included in the entry price is an audio guide which you can listen to as you walk around the exhibits. Unfortunately, as it was so busy they weren’t being used on the day I visited which was a shame as I’m a bit of geek and love a good audio guide! I have seen many reviews on TripAdvisor which sing the praises of the audio guides and state they really add to the experience. Apparently, you can follow four interesting criminal cases including selecting the character of a past prisoner to hear their experience of sentencing at Shire Hall. If I return in the future I will definitely make sure I use the audio guide to find out more about cases held at Shire Hall and to get into the stories of the prisoners a bit more.

Some Lunch and Shopping

After leaving the courtroom (luckily I wasn’t on trial for any naughtiness!) I visited the Shire Hall Café for some lunch. I enjoyed a tasty brie and cranberry panini which came with salad and crisps. It was really tasty and well-priced. There were lots of hot and cold food and drink options on offer and some very yummy looking cakes too!

Before leaving I made sure to pop into the gift shop for a look around. There were lots of interesting items including pretty jewellery, Dorset gifts, stationary souvenirs and local food and drink items. Entrance to both the gift shop and café are free so you can pop in there for some shopping or lunch without having to pay to go round the museum should you have already been before.

Additional Visitor Information

Entry to the museum costs £8.50 for adults and £4.40 for children. There’s also concessionary prices and a family ticket available for £20. All tickets include a free audio guide and allow you to free return visits for a year. The museum is open every day 10am – 5pm and has a spacious café and well-stocked gift shop too. Access information and details on groups bookings can also be found online. Check out the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum’s Twitter page for additional information and tweets from the courtroom!

There are various events and activities which happen throughout the year. With half term and Halloween coming up there’s a host of events coming up to thrill the little ones including scary face painting, slime making and spooky storytelling! After Halloween, there are some exciting looking Christmas events planned including Christmas wreath making and the chance to visit  Judge Santa! Aside from festive events the museum also hosts regular behind the scenes tours, workshops and talks. For more information be sure to check out the what’s on page on the Shire Hall website and their Facebook page.

Final Thoughts

The Shire Hall Historic Courtroom Museum is a family fun attraction, suitable for all ages. I enjoyed having a look round the cells and exploring the courtroom. There’s lots of interesting information and a great video to get you orientated for your visit. It’s a great wet weather venue and I think with the added extra of an audio guide is a well-priced attraction. I only wish hadn’t visited on such a busy day as I think it meant I felt a little rushed around and couldn’t see all the displays, as well as I, would have liked. This is not the fault of Shire Hall though and I think it’s good that local people get the chance to visit attractions in their hometowns. I’ll just have to make sure I use this excuse to visit Dorchester and the museum again sometime soon!

55 Responses

  1. This looks amazing. Both I and my children would be so intrigued visiting here. I love finding out stories behind the characters from the past and how different life was then

  2. What an interesting place. This looks like something I would have been all over when I was younger as I loved all things criminal / prison related.

  3. Looks like such an interesting place to visit. I live in the South West of England so maybe one day I’ll have a chance to travel up and visit 🙂 My mum especially loves visiting places like this with a lot of history.

  4. I have been to Dorchester quite a few times but never knew about this museum. I will definitely check it out next time I’m in town, as it’s just 20 miles from where I live.

  5. Wow this actually looks like such a fun place. I’m studying law at the moment so I would defo love to visit.

  6. This looks like such an interesting (and slightly uncomfortable) museum. I love visiting places like this when I travel.

  7. Wow, such a detailed post that would be so helpful to plan a great trip to Courtroom Museum. Loving the pictures so much.

  8. I also like to visit historically significant places and it is amazing when you are enjoying visits in such great places in your solo trip. It is one of the most wonderful experince for me to have such great virtual tour of the museum through your eyes.

  9. I enjoy the museums that allow spectator interaction. There is just something about being able to touch history. Thanks for sharing this was very interesting.

  10. Really never feel the punishment fits the crime, so harsh. The stories are so dark. 9 months hard labour for theft. People must have been desperate to steal with those sentences.

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