Monday 17 June 2019

Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum - Dorchester - Review

One of Dorset's newest attractions is the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse in Dorchester. It opened in May 2018 however it's roots go way back to the 18th Century when it served as an actual courthouse.

Bringing over 200 years of justice and injustice to life, Shire Hall promises a fun and interactive experience for all ages.

We are always keen to visit new places with the children but I have to say, I wasn't sure how suitable the museum would be for my two, aged 6 and 2. More on that later but let's just say I was pleasantly surprised!

Shire Hall is located at the top of the High Street in Dorchester (nearest parking is Top 'O The Town) and is open daily from 10-5am.

On arrival at the museum, there is the option of doing an audio tour or for younger visitors, there is a hands-on iPad app which was a big hit with Elliot! If you do choose the iPad tour then you'll need to give your credit card to the staff as a deposit but it's literally locked in a box so is very safe.

As we made our way into the museum, Elliot began to explore the app and it was a fantastic resource. It was easy to use and really held his attention. There were maps of each room, mystery boxes to find, lots of information plus games!

It's easy to forget how old the building is when you are stood in the front entrance/shop as it's so bright and modern. But as you head further into the museum and towards the cells, the temperature seems to drop a little, everything gets a little darker and you really start to get a feel of the history of the place!

One of the rooms has a large screen and a film on loop which gives a bit more information about the history of the courthouse, including the Tolpuddle Martyrs, one of the most famous trials held here. Elliot said he found this room creepy so he was keen to move on!

We then moved onto the cells which were my favourite part of the museum - it was crazy to think who might have passed through here all those years ago and what their crimes might have been. It was quite eerie down there too!   The cells were a lot smaller than I thought they would be and it was fascinating to see all the graffiti that had been left on the walls.

One of the cells had a chalk wall so visitors can leave their own marks, this proved popular with Elliot and Erin!

 Just round the corner from the cells, there was a wall featuring many different mug shots and the crimes committed - these ranged from stealing bread to arson. We were amazed to see one of the prisoners was just 7 years old - Elliot is 6 and he couldn't quite get his head around the fact that someone his age could do something so bad and end up in court!

One of the most intriguing things we spotted was a cell that was a little different from the others. The original floor had been removed and there was a low pit that could be reached by stairs. There were lots of ideas as to what the cell was for but the museum still doesn't know!

The next cell was a lot larger than the others and it was where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were held before their trial. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of 6 farm labourers from Dorset who were convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of a friendly society - a forerunner to a trade union.

It was extremely interesting to read about this case - I had heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs but didn't really know the story behind them. It's fascinating to think that their case paved the way for the creation of trade unions and the protection of employees rights - something that is as important as ever in 2019.

The final room to see was the courtroom and as we ascended the narrow staircase up from the cells, it was hard not to think about all those who had climbed those stairs to their fates. It gave me goosebumps thinking about it!

You might think the courtroom would be a bit boring for younger visitors but this is not the case at all.  Dotted all around the room are hats and dressing up props so children (and grown-up ones!) can immerse themselves into the characters. Elliot thoroughly enjoyed transforming into the judge with the coat and the wig!

After we had explored the courtroom (and tried on every hat several times over!) we took a look at the exhibition room. The museum has lots of events on throughout the year so it's worth checking the website but we were lucky enough to see the Tolpuddle Martyrs Remixed Exhibition.

Featuring art by Jason Wilsher Mills, the exhibition brings the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to life using augmented reality elements which can be seen using smartphones or iPad. Elliot loved this part! It was a really unique exhibition by a very talented artist.

Our final stop was the cafe which is a lovely bright area serving a variety of sandwiches, daily-changing lunches and amazing looking cakes. My husband went for a stew which smelt delicious, I had a chicken and bacon toastie (very nice!) and the kids were very happy with their lunchboxes which included a choice of sandwiches, crisps, fruit, drink and a penguin.

We had a really fun day out at the museum and it was a real surprise to find somewhere so child-friendly! The iPad tour for children was a fantastic resource and really enhanced our visit.

The museum offers lots of activites in school holidays such as slime making and storytelling so I think we will definitely be making a return trip! (It's worth noting that ticket prices include an annual pass which is brilliant value)

For more information and ticket prices, visit the Shire Hall Courthouse Website

*Disclaimer - We were provided with complimentary entry and lunch for the purpose of this honest review.  

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