Dorchester is a relatively small town, so it’s surprising that it should have a prison, right near the centre. The prison closed in 2013, and to my knowledge, nothing has yet been done with the old building; not least because there are human remains buried somewhere within the grounds.
Before the prison, there was a medieval castle on the site, built in 1154. The prison was constructed far later and was typically Victorian, not least in its penchant for executing people on the premises. Dorchester’s most famous son, Thomas Hardy, once wrote of a hanging he witnessed – the execution of Elizabeth Martha Brown, the last woman to be hanged publicly in Dorset. He said that he’d felt ashamed to be there, and this experience no doubt influenced his writing of Tess’s hanging in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
The Ghosts of Prisoners Past
Unsurprisingly, there are a few ghost stories associated with the prison. Nearby, there’s a scenic little towpath, where (according to legend)), a felon once tripped and fell, after escaping the prison. The weight of his leg irons dragged him under the water and he drowned. Locals like to say that you can still hear his rattling chains on a dark night…
Icen way, one of the roads leading to the old prison, is also the scene of some ghostly goings on. In the darker winter months, people claim they can hear the sound of horses, dragging prisoners to the site of the executions. These poor souls were sentenced by the famous Judge Jeffreys, known by his more sinister nickname – the Hanging Judge.
The county museum used to be one of our favourite places to take the kids – not least because of its excellent dinosaur room (my sons used to love it!). For those of you unfamiliar with the place, it’s also a gorgeous building; think the Victorian elegance of the Natural History Museum, just in miniature.
This historic building also has its fair share of spooky tales. It hit the news a while back, thanks to a group of intrepid ghost-hunters, who took a photo of what they believe was the ghost of Judge Jeffreys, lurking around in the darkness. You can view it here. The same group also managed to spot a headless woman wandering the museum, which they believed to be Mary Anning (who discovered the ichthyosaurus and plesiosaur, don’t you know!).
Dorchester’s most prolific ghost is undoubtedly Judge Jeffreys, who seems to be linked with several buildings in the area. There’s a shopping arcade, where a few people have spotted the late judge, pacing up and down. The Judge Jeffreys Restaurant, which was used as a courtroom by the man himself, has also been the venue of a few sightings – though often people usually say they’ve spotted one of the victims of the judge’s sentences, rather than the Hanging Judge himself.
Dorchester – Spooky or Not?
I have to say, I never saw anything out of the ordinary when I was in Dorchester town. However, the house I lived in (on Monmouth Road) was slightly strange. When we moved in, I noted the house had a rather ‘watchful’ vibe; which didn’t bother me too much, but I’ll admit, it did feel odd at times.
I had a few suspicions, so started nosing through the old deeds to the house, to see who had lived there before us. One of the deeds stood out, not least because it was written in beautiful calligraphy (they really knew how to write up legal documents back then!). It claimed that one of the previous owners of the house used to also be editor of the local paper, and had written a book.
Me being a writer and everything, I immediately donned my research cap and headed to the local library to find the book in question. It was only a short tome, but revealed that the author had been a childhood friend of Thomas Hardy, who had lived just down the road. Yes, you can imagine my excitement at the thought that the late Hardy might have been inside my house, sipping tea in our kitchen, all those years ago!
Anyway – long story short, I photocopied some pages from the book, framed them, then put them on the wall back home, and voila, the strange watchful feeling stopped. In fact, the whole house felt far cheerier, which was quite strange. Except the same couldn’t be said for our guests. A few friends had slightly unnerving experiences with whispering in their ear, seeing shadows at night, and a few other odd goings on.
Do I conclude anything from this? No – but then, I never do! Nonetheless, I’d say that the house had a certain atmosphere, and I’d be fascinated to know what the present owners think of it…