Dorset Council has received an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in recognition of its re-use of the grade 1 listed building.
The former West Dorset District Council offices on Dorchester High Street have been converted into a museum for workers’ rights and social justice. The building was built in 1879 by Thomas Hardwicke and contains a near-perfect Georgian court which hosted the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834.
Originally the Shire Hall was the court house for Dorset where the Western Circuit judge would visit to sit at the Assizes, and local magistrates would sit at quarter sessions. Much of the original building’s upper stories had been substantially changed after the second world war when it was taken over by the then Rural District Council which subsequently became West Dorset District Council.
The RIBA judges were particularly taken with the stark court which visitors (and previously prisoners to be tried) access via stairs to the dock in the centre of the courtroom, going from the dark, dingy windowless low-ceilinged cells beneath to a glaring light, airy court surrounded by jury and audience.
Part of the painstaking research for the project included carefully stripping back layers of paint in the courthouse to discover the original colour (a cold stony white) and to paint it as it would have appeared to judge, jury, audience and defendant in the early 19th century.
Cllr Tony Ferrari, Dorset Council portfolio holder for Finance, Commercial and Assets, said:
“Dorset has had an important role in the evolution of the UK’s Criminal Justice system and our workers’ rights. This museum presents a fantastic opportunity to record some of that involvement and allows us to celebrate the part the people of Dorset made to the UK’s constitution”.