At the weekend, I went on the trail of the "Hanging Judge" at a historic former courthouse in Dorchester with other members of the public who were attending a ghost hunting
event hosted by Most Haunted Experience (MHE).
It was a windy Friday night when I ventured into Shire Hall on High West Street in the Dorset town. Having chosen not to look up any details about the location before my visit, I was quite surprised by how much was packed in to the 18th-century building.
A hall has stood on the land in some form as far back as at least the 1640s, but the building that we see today opened in 1797 and became the centre of law, order and local government for Dorset until the 1950s. In 2018, the building opened as the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum.
The building not only consists of a large courtroom, but also a maze of cells and dark corridors below street level, giving you a real feel for what it was actually like to be convicted and sentenced here more than 200 years ago.
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Although there's only a handful of cells below the courtroom, these small, cold and very dark stone rooms have quite the story to tell. It is within the confines of these incredibly atmospheric rooms that the accused would have awaited trial. Locked away scared and uncertain, they could have been waiting for mere hours to face judgement or could be forced to wait several days to find out their fate.
These cells still echo with the fear of those life-or-death waits, which could have been the final hours of the accused's lives. If found guilty they risked being sentenced to death in the courtrooms above, if they were lucky they might have just been transported to Australia.
With so much fear, misery, incarceration and death linked to this building, it's no surprise that it has a bit of a haunted reputation. To try to track down the ghosts of Shire Hall, I joined MHE and their guests for a paranormal
Despite its dark past and sinister atmosphere, surprisingly the building doesn't have any well-known resident spooks, or many ghost stories attached to it.
In 2010, paranormal investigators claim to have captured an image showing the ghostly figure of Judge Jeffreys in one of the corridors. Known as the "Hanging Judge," Jeffreys does have strong links to the town. A little further along High West Street you will find his old lodgings, however the current courthouse was built more than a hundred years after his death.
In the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion, Jeffreys held the Bloody Assizes in the town, however at this time the courts were based in the Oak Room at the nearby Antelope Hotel. Perhaps the infamous Bloody Judge did visit a former courthouse that stood on the site of the present day one.
During recent renovations in 2018, workmen reported that their tools were moving around and being found in obscure places. To test the possibility of a paranormal explanation, they placed several objects on a table in an old cell and marked their outlines with chalk. They locked up the building and left the experiment overnight, the next day they found their tools had indeed moved despite the building being completely empty.
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There were about 30 guests at the event. After being split into two teams, we began our ghost hunt in the former courtroom, a grand, tiered wooden room with an imposing judge's chair taking pride of place at the front of the room.
With its wooden floors, wooden benches and even a rickety wooden staircase that was once used to move the accused between the dock and the cells below, there were a lot of surfaces that a friendly ghost might choose to knock on, perhaps even communicate with us using one knock to indicate "no" and two knocks for "yes".
However, there wasn't so much as a creaking floorboard during my time in the courtroom. It proved to be quite a calm room and gave me no reason to think it was haunted, although sometimes one night at a location isn't long enough to get the full picture. Any ghost hunter
will know that some nights a room can be very active, but the next it can be as dead as the spirits they'd set out to find.
In the second half of the night, we focussed our attention on the cells and corridors below ground, starting off in the Tolpuddle cell. This dark, windowless, stone room gets its name from one of the most famous trials held at the courthouse, that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834.
Six labourers from the nearby village of Tolpuddle took an oath and formed a union to protest against the lowering of agricultural wages. They were arrested under an obscure law which prohibited the swearing of secret oaths and were sentenced to penal transportation to Australia. The trial sparked a public backlash and they were later pardoned.
I found myself in the cell where the martyrs were held during their trial. A large table along one wall of the cell was apparently the actual table they would have sat around, but during my time in the cell the table was surrounded by ten ghost hunters. The group were using a Ouija board in an attempt to contact any lingering spirits in the cell. They were getting some interesting responses, but soon found that the whole table was vibrating and even lifted up at one end.
It was a real honour to have free run of such an interesting and historic building and get to explore it by torch light. The ghost hunt itself wasn't as active as some others I've been on, but every night is different and you can never guarantee activity.
Thanks to all the MHE team for hosting us, and for all the other guests for being good sports and making it such a fun night. If you'd like to book your own ghost hunt with Most Haunted Experience, you can find more information at mosthauntedexperience.com