Dorchester PrisonThursday, August 12th, 2010
History of Dorchester Prison
It is hard to believe now, but public executions were for centuries one of the most popular forms of entertainment in England, and Dorchester, as an assize town, certainly witnessed its fair share. Maumbury Rings had been used as the site for public executions for centuries and was still in use up to 1767. The present Dorchester Prison cost £18,000 to build and was completed in 1795. It was built on the site of the old medieval castle built in 1154 but disused from about 1290. The previous gaol was situated in High East Street. Prisoners were segregated by their sex and the type of conviction. The prison buildings are of a typical Victorian design with wings radiating from a central hub with galleried landings.
The National Archive holds prison records from 1782 to 1994.
Last Hanging at Dorchester
Elizabeth Martha Brown a grocer aged 45 and mother of two was the last woman to be hanged in public in Dorset and was executed outside Dorchester Prison in 1856. She was convicted of the murder of her second husband, John Brown, on July 22, the prosecution said she had attacked him with an axe after he had taken a whip to her.
Thomas Hardy, a young lad of 16 years and who later went on to become a world famous writer and poet was among the crowd of 3,000 or so who witnessed the hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown. He wrote 70 years later that he was ashamed to have been there and the hanging of Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) is undoubtedly inspired by his experience of watching Brown’s death.
James Seale was the last person to be hung at the gates of Dorchester prison on 10th August 1858. He was tried and found guilty of murder and his name went into the history books as the last man to be hanged in public in Dorset. The Victorian age could no longer tolerate public executions as entertainment.
The Prison Today
Dorchester prison is operated by Her Majesty’s Prison Service serving the Crown and Magistrates’ courts in Dorset and some in Somerset.
The prison receives adult males and young adult male prisoners direct from the Crown Courts at Dorchester, Poole and Bournemouth and associated magistrates’ courts. The Prison operates as a Level 4 establishment and the population is made up of roughly half convicted prisoners, and half remanded inmates. Whilst there prisoners can participate in new skills courses such as catering and industrial cleaning whilst the physical education department offers recognised qualifications for a variety of health and training programmes.
Improvements were made following the 2007 inspection report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons which had stated there were too many inmates, and too little investment in the prison buildings and facilities. Conditions improved to an extent, and the prison which has a capacity for 252 was awarded ‘Most Improved Prison for 2008′.
HM Dorchester Prison – Future under threat
Government cutbacks may threaten the future of Dorchester Prison, and BBC News for Dorset revealed in July that a confidential government report suggests the Prison may be closed down and a new facility built in south Dorset. Dorchester mayor and Dorchester North councillor Leslie Phillips said: “It is a big part of Dorchester, which is why I am finding it hard to believe they would consider closing it. The Ministry of Justice has said: “No decision has been made about prison closures.
When you are next in Dorchester, why not take the ‘Discover Dorchester walk route’ where the walls of the prison can be viewed from the riverside path next to the River Frome.