Dorset Shire Hall. Image courtesy of Shire Hall historic courthouse museum.

‘Justice in the balance’: a new courthouse museum at Dorset Shire Hall

By Rose Wallis

New Series 2018 pp 22-25

In May 2018, Dorset’s Shire Hall in Dorchester reopened after a £2.9 million redevelopment as a new courthouse museum. Rose Wallis, Associate Director of the Regional History Centre, has worked on the project for two years as consultant historian and curator. Under the banner ‘justice in the balance’, the new museum promises to engage visitors with the history of crime, law, and punishment, and past and present efforts to achieve justice.

The view from the justices’ bench. Image courtesy of Shire Hall historic courthouse museum.

Completed in 1797, Shire Hall was the centre of law and government in Dorset for more than 200 years. It was built to replace the old county hall that that stood on the site, reported to be in a ‘ruinous state’ in 1795.[i] The new court, as John Hutchins, the county historian, described it was ‘very handsome, light, plain and simple…[it] will contain every convenience and accommodation which can be required’.[ii] The bi-annual Assizes were held there from its opening, trying the most serious cases, including capital crimes. Most famously, the court was responsible for the prosecution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834.[iii] From 1825, the county quarter sessions were also held at Shire Hall.[iv] As a result, the court became the seat of criminal-judicial authority and government administration in the county until its closure in 1955.[v]

The notion of weighing ideas in the balance encompasses the museum’s aim to present different perspectives on law, order and justice, not a particular line regarding what is better or worse. The new exhibition moves away from salacious and sensational narratives that emphasise ‘rough justice’. Presenting the changes in criminal justice over the period of Shire Hall’s lifetime as a progression from a barbaric, brutal system to a more rational and humane one – a ‘better’ one that resembles our current system – is both inaccurate and unhelpful. It does not help us understand why our antecedents relied on physical punishments, nor does it leave room to critically reflect on the way the law works now. It underestimates the important social function the courts played, and indeed, continue to play.

It is perhaps easy to forget that eighteenth and nineteenth century courts did not only deal with criminal prosecutions. The courts of quarter sessions were also the forum for appeals regarding poor relief, bastardy, settlement claims, and master-servant relations. They also maintained county services and infrastructure – roads, bridges, county gaols and asylums. The courts regulated and levied county rates, and controlled their expenditure.[vi] As both the criminal court and court of appeal it was a site of social contest. All sectors of society could access the courts to seek redress. 

The pivotal role played by the courts in Dorset county life, is exemplified in the opposition to the removal of all court sittings to the new Shire Hall at Dorchester. Before the Easter sessions 1825, the quarter sessions met in rotation, convening at Blandford, Sherborne, Shaftesbury, and Bridport. A resolution made in January 1825, agreed to remove proceedings to Dorchester alleviating the expense of travelling the sessions around the county.[vii] But the inhabitants of Sherborne protested the measure. In a petition to the county magistrates, they acknowledged the cost to the county rate in conveying prisoners and the records of the court to each sessions, but considered this expenditure ‘trifling when placed in competition with that which would be sustained by the Inhabitants at large’. ‘Prosecutions’, they argued, ‘may be dropped on account of the increased Expence and inconvenience’ of having to travel to Dorchester.[viii]

In addition to the difficulties prosecutors and their witnesses would face in taking time off work and finding lodgings in Dorchester to appear at the courts, the freeholders’ petition highlighted the ‘beneficial and moral effects’ of having sessions at other towns. Bringing the courts into these communities ensured ‘a far greater Number of the Lower Classes attend than would otherwise have had it in their power’. Witnessing the spectacle of the law in action, they argued, ‘may consequently have deterred many from the commission of Crime.’ Although the authors framed the petition in terms of the positive regulatory impact the courts had on the behaviour of the lower classes, we must remember that ordinary working people needed access to justice too. Indeed, they also expressed their concern via the petition. Amongst the more than 250 signatures we find a number of marks of illiterate inhabitants, members of those ‘lower classes’ who were not merely the recipients of legal sanctions, but who sought access to the courts and the redress it afforded them.[ix]

Although the Sherborne petition failed, the archives of the Dorset courts reveal the breadth of society that continued to pass through Shire Hall. Whilst the propertied classes retained positions of power as members of the grand jury (deciding which indictments proceeded to trial) and on the bench as the county judiciary, both the rich and poor filled the court appearing as prosecutors, witnesses, and defendants. Tradesmen, and eventually women (from 1919), sat on the trial jury, and the public gallery was crammed with interested spectators from every walk of life.[x]

The new museum at Shire Hall endeavours to encompass the breadth of the courts’ social function. Visitors can walk in the footsteps of some of the thousands of people involved in proceedings, following defendants from the cells up into the dock, and explore the courtroom and the experiences of judges, jurors, witnesses and prosecutors. These local stories are used to consider the operation of criminal justice, and how it changed, at a national level, and – it is hoped – will encourage visitors to reflect on the role of law in society now.

For more information visit:

[i] Dorset History Centre [DHC]: Q/S/M/1/11 Quarter Sessions Order Books, 6-8 Oct. 1795, f. 450.

[ii] J. Hutchins, ‘The History and Antiquities of Dorset’, c. 1803, cited in WDDC Shire Hall Conservation Management Plan, Feb. 2014, 15. 

[iii] The National Archives: ASSI 21/58 Western Circuit Assizes: Crown Minute Book, 1834-1837; Trades Union Congress, The Martyrs of Tolpuddle 1834-1934, (1934).

[iv] DHC: Q/S/M/1/15 Quarter Sessions Order Books, 11 Jan. 1825, f. 280.

[v] Dorset County Chronicle, 28 January 1955.

[vi] For the variety of business before the courts see DHC: Q/S/M/1 Quarter Sessions Order Books.

[vii] DHC: Q/S/M/1/15 Quarter Sessions Order Books, 11 Jan. 1825, f. 280.

[viii] DHC: D-SHC/KG/1258 Petition against the removal of Quarter Sessions from the freeholders and inhabitants of Sherborne, Dec. 1824

[ix] Ibid.

[x] DHC: Q/SR Quarter Sessions Rolls; Sex Disqualification Removal Act 9 &10 Geo. 5 c. 71, 23 Dec. 1919.

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