Shire Hall, Dorchester

Shire Hall is an 18th-century courthouse in Dorchester, Dorset. The building was the centre of law, order and government, and served as the county hall for Dorset until 1955. It has been Grade I listed since 1950.[1] In 2018, the hall opened as the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum.[2]

Shire Hall, Dorchester
Shire Hall, High West St, Dorchester - - 680103.jpg
LocationDorchester, Dorset
Coordinates50°42′55″N 2°26′21″W / 50.71537°N 2.439067°W / 50.71537; -2.439067Coordinates: 50°42′55″N 2°26′21″W / 50.71537°N 2.439067°W / 50.71537; -2.439067
ArchitectThomas Hardwick
Listed Building – Grade I
Designated8 May 1950
Reference no.1119069
Shire Hall, Dorchester is located in Dorset
Shire Hall, Dorchester
Location of Shire Hall, Dorchester in Dorset


The original shire hall was a structure which dated back to at least the 1630s but which had fallen into disrepair by 1769.[3] The new building, which was designed by British architect Thomas Hardwick, was constructed between 1796 and 1797.[3] Until the new building was completed, the court was based at the Antelope Hotel.[3] It had been in the Oak Room at the Antelope Hotel that, in the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion, Judge Jeffreys held the Bloody Assizes on 5 September 1685.[4][5]

One of the most famous trials held at the hall was that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834. The six Dorset agricultural labourers were arrested for swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, which they had formed to bargain for better wages. The rules of the society show it was clearly structured as a friendly society and operated as a trade-specific benefit society. On 18 March 1834, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced to penal transportation to Australia. The sentence sparked public outrage, resulting in a petition of 800,000 signatures demanding their release and a 100,000-strong demonstration in London. All were pardoned, on condition of good conduct, in March 1836, with the support of Lord John Russell, who had recently become home secretary.[6][7] There is a plaque on the front of Shire Hall that commemorates 150 years since the trial.[8]

English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy also served as a magistrate at Shire Hall. He had been made Justice of the Peace for the Borough of Dorchester from 1884, sitting in court on almost forty occasions from then to 1919.[9] Hardy's experience as a magistrate provided inspiration for his writing.[3]

Shire Hall was originally used as a facility for dispensing justice but, following the implementation of the Local Government Act 1888, which established county councils in every county, it also became the meeting place of Dorset County Council.[10] Shire Hall continued to operate in its original capacity until 1955, when the new county hall and crown court was opened.[11][3]

In June 2014, planning permission was granted to transform the Shire Hall into a new museum and visitor attraction.[12] The project received £1.5m of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2015, with West Dorset District Council pledging a further £1.1m.[13] Work commenced in 2016, while Christchurch-based company Pride Painting and Decorating Ltd began restoration work in March 2017.[14][15] The Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum opened to visitors on 1 May 2018.[2] The Duke of Gloucester unveiled a plaque, to celebrate the first anniversary of the opening of the museum, in May 2019.[16]


  1. ^ Historic England. "Shire Hall, Dorchester (1119069)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Narrow historic door at Dorchester's old crown court to be altered to allow disabled access". Dorset Echo. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e "The history of Shire Hall". 28 January 2016. Archived from the original on 7 April 2018. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  4. ^ "Judge Jeffreys". Discover Dorchester. Retrieved 6 December 2020.
  5. ^ "Judge Jeffreys' tunnel uncovered". Dorset Echo. 2 July 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2020.
  6. ^ Somerset, Merryn (18 March 2015). "18 March 1834: Tolpuddle Martyrs sentenced to transportation". Archived from the original on 13 July 2015. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  7. ^ Goldfarb, Michael (27 November 2010). "Political Marching: What's at risk? - BBC News". Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  8. ^ "Remembering the 'crimes' that changed history". Dorset Echo. 6 April 2018. Retrieved 13 August 2019.
  9. ^ "Thomas Hardy - Justice of the Peace". Colby Library Quarterly. 1 December 1977. Retrieved 13 August 2019.
  10. ^ "Local Government Act 1888". Retrieved 17 August 2019.
  11. ^ Bevins, Trevor. "Crown court closes". Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  12. ^ "Planning Application Details". Archived from the original on 15 January 2018. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  13. ^ "About the Shire Hall Project". 28 January 2016. Archived from the original on 16 January 2018. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  14. ^ Bevins, Trevor. "Hidden treasures uncovered as old court museum project takes shape". Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  15. ^ "Councillors of West Dorset District Council's strategy committee approved funding for the Shire Hall project (From Dorset Echo)". Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  16. ^ "HRH The Duke of Gloucester visits Shire Hall". The Business. 31 May 2019. Retrieved 14 November 2020.

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