The Old Crown Court & Judge Jeffreys

The Old Crown Court and Cells is most famous for the part it played in the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs - six farm labourers who were 'accused' of swearing a secret oath,  as part of a friendly society, to protect their decreasing wages in 1834.


Found guilty, they were transported to Australia as their punishment, but the national outrage that followed led the way for the Trade Union movement and their actions are still remembered today with an annual festival.The men received a pardon in 1835.


Dorchester Old Crown Court.

The court was built in 1796 during the reign of King George III but a court had stood on the site previously.


Judge George Jeffreys was born in 1648.  

When he was 33, he became Lord Chief Justice of England and a privvy counsellor, later becoming Lord Chancellor.  In 1683, he became Baron Jeffreys of Wem.

In 1685, Judge Jeffreys came to Dorchester and lodged at 6 High West Street Dorchester, (now the  restaurant, Judge Jeffreys).


In Dorset a total of seventy-four people were executed, one hundred and seventy five were transported and twenty nine were pardoned. Executions were carried out in towns and villages close to Dorchester.


The Assizes started at Winchester on 25th August 1685. There were five judges - Baron Montagu, Baron Wright, Justice Wythens, Justice Levinz and Sir Henry Polexfen, led by Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys. It was here that the trial of Dame Alice Lyle took place. From Winchester they proceeded to Dorchester and on to Taunton before finishing up at Wells on 23rd September. More than 1400 prisoners were dealt with and although most were sentenced to death about 300 only were hanged or hanged, drawn and quartered. Some 600 were transported to the West Indies .

They were supporters of the Duke of Monmouth who had unsuccessfully attempted a rebellion after the death of his father, King Charles II. The throne had gone to the Duke's uncle, the Catholic King James II, rather than the illegitimate Duke. Judge Jeffrey's verdict came to be known as the 'bloody assize' - an assize were courts originally initiated by King Henry II (1154-1189), where he would send judges all over the country to preside over local cases.


"Jeffreys, made all the West an Aceldama; some places quite depopulated and nothing to be seen in 'em but forsaken walls, unlucky gibbets and ghostly carcases".

The trees were loaden almost as thick with quarters as leaves; the houses and steeples covered as close with heads as at other times with crows or ravens. Nothing could be liker hell than all those parts; nothing so like the devil as he. Caldrons hizzing, carkases boyling, pitch and tar sparkling and glowing, blood and limbs boyling and tearing and mangling, and he the great director of all;

(Source: Helm, pp. 189-190)


In 1688 when James II fled the country, Judge Jeffreys was placed in the Tower of London for his own safety, where he died, aged 44, as the result of kidney disease.


On a visit to the Old Crown Court and Cells you will experience 200 years of gruesome crime and punishment in a setting little changed over the years.  You can stand in the dock and sit in the dimly lit cells where prisoners waited for their appearance before the judge.


The last person to be sentenced to hang in the court was in 1941 - David Jennings was a soldier based in Dorchester and was found guilty of murder, and the building was last used as a court in 1955.

The building is now the offices of West Dorset District Council.


Opening times:-


The court room only is open to the public for free from 10am-noon and 2pm-4pm Monday to Friday (excluding bank holidays).

The court and cells are open from 16 July - 7 September, 2pm - 4.15pm Monday to Friday (excluding bank holidays).  

Tours are guided by Blue Badge Guides and cost £2 for adults. Accompanied children under 16 are free.



judge jeffries

Judge Jeffreys

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Inside the Courtroom

The Cells which were directly

underneath the main Courtroom