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The history of Shire Hall

Find out more about the fascinating story of this important building.

Shire Hall is a Grade I listed building in the heart of Dorchester, Dorset.

The courtroom inside is of national and international importance. It was the scene of the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834, a significant moment in the history of the trade union movement.

Later the writer Thomas Hardy served as a magistrate at the court, an experience which inspired some of his writing.

Time has stood still at Shire Hall, particularly inside the courtroom and cells, which are today almost as they were in Georgian times.

The court through time

Dorchester's original Shire Hall is first mentioned in 1638 when enlargements to the building, costing £60, were made.

At that time, the court only sat for a few weeks a year so the building was used for other things, including the storage of gun powder during the Civil War.

Shire Hall was also a workplace and in 1650 the poor were paid six pence a day to beat hemp in the jail room.

By 1769 the building had fallen into disrepair and the court moved to the Antelope Hotel, in what is now Antelope Walk.

Shire Hall was re-built in 1796-97 by architect Thomas Hardwick, and this is the building you can see today.

The court continued to be used until 1955.

Cases heard at the Old Crown Court included:

  • Martha Brown was found guilty of murdering her husband and in 1856 became the last woman to be hanged in Dorset. The prosecution said she had attacked him with an axe after he had taken a whip to her. Her execution was witnessed by Thomas Hardy and may have influenced his novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles
  • In 1870, 19-year-old William Samways was fined 10 shillings and imprisoned for seven days for the first offence of ringing a doorbell
  • David Jennings, a soldier stationed in Dorchester, became the last person to be hanged at the town's prison in 1941, after being found guilty of murdering an elderly tailor

Source: West Dorset District Council

The trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

The Old Crown Court and Cells inside Shire Hall is most famous for the trial of six Dorset farm labourers known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Trade unions were no longer illegal but were viewed with disfavour by many landlords. The men had formed a 'Friendly Society' and on 17 March 1834, they were brought into the court charged not with forming a union, but with swearing an illegal, secret oath.

They were found guilty and transported to Australia. Their plight caused national outrage and led to the birth of the trade union movement.

Find out more

You can read more about the history of the Shire Hall and Dorchester as a centre of justice by downloading the Old Crown Court visitor guide (pdf, 5Mb) (opens in a new window).

Follow the project team on Twitter (opens in a new window) for news and information about Shire Hall and its redevelopment.

  1. Outside Shire Hall
  1. Outside Shire Hall
  2. Inside courtroom
  3. Cell door


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