Dorchester's Shire Hall Tolpuddle trial building plans

Shire Hall Image copyright Google
Image caption Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy was a magistrate at the court for 15 years

Plans to transform a Grade I-listed court building in Dorset into a tourist attraction have taken a "significant" step forward.

Dorchester's Shire Hall was the scene of the Tolpuddle Martyrs trial - a significant moment in the history of the trade union movement.

The old courts and cells are set to be transformed into a visitor centre charting their history.

West Dorset District Council has recommended the plans for approval.

The six Tolpuddle Martyrs were agricultural labourers who formed a "friendly society" - a forerunner to a trade union - and swore an illegal oath to protect their falling wages in 1834.

They were sentenced to seven years' transportation to an Australian penal colony.

However, outrage about their punishment caused protests across England and after four years they were pardoned and returned home.

Image caption The visitor centre is expected to include live performance as well as the usual audio and video guides.

Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy was also magistrate at the court for 15 years.

The proposals for the building, on High West Street, still need further funding, and the agreement of the Secretary of State.

John Russell, chairman of the Shire Hall Trust, said "This is now a significant opportunity to make it into a serious visitor attraction."

He said the revamped building would also contribute to the "cultural quarter" of Dorchester, which he said also included the Keep Military Museum and Dorset History Centre.

The project was initially awarded £69,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and £100,000 from West Dorset District Council.

The trust is expected to bid for £1.1m of HLF funding this summer which, if successful, will be match-funded by the district council.

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