Our Museum is now open, bringing over two centuries of justice history to life.
Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum uncovers moving and important stories of everyday people’s interactions with the justice system since the late 18th century. It shows how the law affects all of us, and how we can also affect the law. The Museum makes this extraordinary building and these fascinating stories available and enjoyable for all.
From interactive galleries to the immersive cells and courtroom, Shire Hall offers something for everyone, from all backgrounds and of all ages.
Behind Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum lies the Shire Hall (Dorchester) Trust, an independent charity created to protect and share this rich building and its history.
We are an ambitious, forward-thinking institution with amazing stories to tell. Our mission is to create a place that engages visitors with the history of justice and injustice in Dorset, which inspires people to make a difference to society, politics, and justice for all.
Shire Hall’s history
Shire Hall was Dorset’s courthouse from 1797 until 1955. Through that time, it saw everything from the 1834 trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the 1856 domestic abuse case that inspired Thomas Hardy to write ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, to victims of mesmerism, child perpetrators and American GIs tried during the Second World War.
Alongside its human history lies Shire Hall’s intrinsic architectural value, as one of the best-preserved buildings of its kind. This is recognised in its Grade I listed status, awarded in 1950. It was designed by architect Thomas Hardwick. As well as being a well-known architect in his own right, Hardwick was also the architectural tutor of the artist J.M.W. Turner, before advising him to focus on his painting instead.
After ending its life as a court in 1955, Shire Hall was used as offices for West Dorset District Council (previously the Rural District Council), thus preserving the Georgian architecture for future generations.
Shire Hall and the TUC
There is a fascinating element of Shire Hall’s history that relates to the Trades Union Congress: in recognition of the importance of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ trial that took place here in 1834, the TUC took ownership of part of the building for 12 years in the 20th century.
In 1956, after Shire Hall had ceased to be used as a courthouse, the TUC created a charitable trust, which bought the courtroom and cells from the Rural District Council for £4,000. The trustees were: Harold Tewson (TUC General Secretary, 1946–60); Harold Collison (General Secretary, National Union Agricultural Workers, 1953–60) and Frank Cousins (General Secretary, Transport & General Workers Union,1955–69).
In 1968, the TUC decided to return their part of the building to the ownership of the Council, with this covenant:
‘The Council hereby covenant with the Trustees [to] keep [the courtroom] open for public inspection at all reasonable hours in the day-time on weekdays.’
Since then, the TUC and numerous union members have come to visit the courtroom where the infamous trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs took place.
Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum is managed by the Shire Hall (Dorchester) Trust, a Charitable Incorporated Organisation, registered charity number 1163252. Our polices, developed to guide the running of the Trust and the Museum, are available on request.