• Elizabeth Martha Brown was the last woman to be publicly executed in Dorset in 1856.
  • Charlotte Bryant was the last woman to be sentenced to death in Dorset in 1936.
  • Violet Van der Elst was a social activist and campaigner who fought for the abolition of capital punishment.

Abbie King, Director of Shire Hall said: “Everyone at Shire Hall Museum is proud to launch Raising Voices: Women and the Justice System. We believe that everyone’s story has a right to be told and heard, which is why we’ve created this series.

“Throughout history, and even still today, the voices and experiences of women are not listened to. When they were alive, the voices of Elizabeth Martha Brown, Charlotte Bryant and Violet Van Der Elst’s were not listened to. Violet as she fought for the rights of others, and Martha and Charlotte as they pleaded for their lives.

“As such, when curating Raising Voices, it was extremely important to us that the voices of these women were used to tell their stories. Extracts from Violet’s book, Charlotte’s letters and Martha’s final confession will feature in the series, alongside modern and contemporary sources.”

New interpretation throughout the Museum will explore women’s experiences and roles within the criminal justice system. Visitors will also have the opportunity to reflect on the factors that influenced what happened to them and if similar influences still exist today.

Laura Gardner, Curator at Shire Hall Museum, said: “Women were generally under-represented in the criminal justice system as both prosecutors and perpetrators. When they did commit crime, their gender and society’s expectations of women was a significant influence on how they were treated.

“This exhibition features three women whose stories offer the opportunity to explore women’s experiences of the criminal justice system in the 19th and early 20th century. Two were tried and convicted at Shire Hall, one fought tirelessly for the abolition of capital punishment. Their stories also give our visitors the opportunity to reflect on factors that not only shaped attitudes in the past, but are still evident in
the present.”

Raising Voices: Women and the Justice System is supported by Porter Dodson Solicitors & Advisors.

Richard Baker, Head of the Family Law Team said: “We’re delighted to be sponsoring Raising Voices at the Shire Hall historic courthouse. Over the years, women have suffered miscarriages of justice for many reasons, and as a profession sworn to uphold the law, supporting the Raising Voices series is a perfect marriage.

“We are especially pleased to be sponsoring the talk on 8th March, which highlights the case of Martha Brown, who was tried for the murder of her husband and was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorchester.”

As part of Raising Voices, Shire Hall Museum is hosting a series of talks from local historians and academics. Dr Rose Wallis will discuss the broader legal and cultural significance of the case of Elizabeth Martha Brown and its resonance today. Dr Jane Healey will consider how women who committed crime were judged to have breached two sets of law; criminal law, set down by the courts, and the law of nature. Local historian, Brian Bates, will provide an insight into the incredible life of Violet Van Der Elst.

Raising Voices: Women and the Justice System opens on Tuesday 8th March 2022. For more information, please visit shirehalldorset.org/raising-voices/