Booklet lifts lid on Sherborne's colourful criminal tales
Memories of Sherborne’s criminal history have been compiled in a new pamphlet.
Stories of the town’s most intriguing court cases are now available to read in the booklet, entitled Recollections of Sherborne Court between 1923 and 1975.
John Spencer, aged 76, of Rimpton, a former clerk to the justices at the court, was prompted to produce the text after it closed its doors in 2010 – it remains unused to this day.
The work contains the memories of his former colleague Leslie Biss, who gave him the notes.
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Mr Spencer said: “When I joined as a clerk I got on well with Leslie and he made me feel extremely welcome.
“Later, he handed me his recollections of his time there and I was always looking for some way of sharing them with the public.”
Mr Biss, who passed away in 2005, aged 87, worked with Mr Spencer as a deputy clerk.
Mr Spencer, who served a large area of west Dorset and retired in the 1990s, said: “I think it is a real shame that the court has closed.
“It was part of a general centralisation of courts across the country.
“It coincided with a decline in workload and also has a lot to do with the economy. But in Dorset it has had a particular effect.
“The burden of cost has been passed from the court service on to the public. It means that lawyers, defendants, witnesses and everyone involved in a case have to travel much further. I think it also means there is a certain amount of local knowledge lost also.”
Cases that may have been heard previously at Sherborne court would now most probably take place at Weymouth Magistrates’ Court.
Mr Spencer, a member of Sherborne Historical Society and a steward at Sherborne Museum, said the court’s rich history should be made available for a wider audience.
He said: “I worked closely with Leslie’s daughter to organise his notes, but the publication is entirely my own project.
“I think the content carries historical importance for the town and I feel Leslie’s personal experience adds to the interest of these cases.
“It does give an interesting account of the work of the court, its background in Sherborne and the work of the magistrates.”
In his text, Mr Biss draws attention to his involvement with the notorious Charlotte Bryant murder trial of 1936.
Scotland Yard investigated the case which attracted national interest and was covered by the Western Gazette.
Mr Biss calls it “one of the most outstanding cases to come before Sherborne Court”.
Mr Biss was called to arrange for a magistrate to issue a search warrant to police for Coombe Farm, occupied by Mr and Mrs Bryant.
Mr Biss said the court heard Mr Bryant had been admitted to the Yeatman Hospital and when he died a post mortem found strong traces of arsenic in his body. Despite legal experts expressing doubt as to Mrs Bryant’s guilt, more than 30 witnesses gave evidence, which Mr Biss was required to write out in long hand.
Mrs Bryant was found guilty and hanged at Exeter Prison on July 15, 1936.
She is thought to be one of the last women to be hanged for murder in the UK.
The text is available to buy at Sherborne’s bookshops, the TIC and Sherborne Museum, at £2 per copy.