Georgian murder trial is brought to life at castle's historic courtroom
PUBLISHED: 15:29 10 July 2017 | UPDATED: 15:43 10 July 2017
ARCHANT EASTERN DAILY PRESS (01603) 772434
It was an age when the bumps on a person's head were used in judgement of their character and a jury's whim was a matter of life or death.
And now a group of A-Level law students have had the chance to see how justice was carried out in Georgian times in an authentic setting.
About 45 students from Dereham Sixth Form College and Paston College filled Norwich Castle’s Shirehall courtroom for a re-enactment of the 1829 trial of John Stratford, who went onto become the first man executed on the roof of what was then the new city gaol.
Costumed actors from Springboard East brought to life the trial of Stratford, who was found guilty of lacing dumplings with arsenic to murder a former friend.
Rebecca Holland, 17, from Dereham, said she enjoyed the show. She said: “It showed how different the criminal justice system was back then, and the lack of evidence that they had compared to now. It was really well acted.”
Classmate Finley Spetch, 17, said: “The evidence was all circumstantial and not based on forensics.
“It would have been horrible if you were coming into the dock and you knew how you were going to be treated, just because of your class.”
This is the first time the castle has hosted an educational event for A-Level law students, run in partnership with Norfolk County Council and paid for by £20,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The students also learned how lawmakers once judged criminality by skull measurements - known as phrenology - and how prisoners were put to death at the castle, which went on until 1867.
Colly Mudie, Norwich Museum Service’s learning manager, said: “We had this magnificent courtroom and we wanted to find a way to bring it to life, and to interpret the history of what went on here.”
Robert Rickard, the council’s advisor for 14-19 development, said: “This is a way of bringing a subject to life for the students and allowing them to see it from a different perspective.
“Hopefully they all found it inspiring and useful, and we look forward to staging more events like this in the future.”
The re-enactment is part of a series of series of 15 in an ‘All Rise for the Shirehall’ theatre project which started in March.
A place of judgement
While the Shirehall has the look and feel of a 19th century courtroom, it was used for trials right up until 1988.
Sited just off Market Avenue, prisoners of old descended from the castle gaol around a tightly-wound staircase and along an eerie underground tunnel to get to the place of judgement.
There, judges donned a black cap and condemned many a poor soul with the words: “You will be taken to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
It was the venue for Norfolk’s biggest trials, with other hearings taking place at a court in Norwich’s Guildhall. The Shirehall was reopened as a learning and performance space in 2013 after a £75,000 facelift.
Plans are now being made to re-enact the trials of Norwich suffragettes in 2018, to mark the 100th anniversary of the first women to get the vote in the UK thanks to the Representation of the People Act.