Court in the act

Samantha Mayling judges for herself after a trip to the National Justice Museum in Nottingham.

In my days as a local newspaper reporter, I was a regular visitor to courts to witness the drama of trials.

I felt that sense of drama again as I toured the National Justice Museum, to see its court room and historic prison cells.

More than 40,000 visitors a year visit the Nottingham museum, which has more than 40,000 objects and archives – the UK’s largest collection relating to law, justice, crime and punishment.

You can follow in the footsteps of the Pankhursts, Oscar Wilde and Jeffrey Archer by standing in the dock from Bow Street magistrates’ court – or see how the Great Train Robbers hid from police, playing with Monopoly money.

The criminal court room was a working court up to 1986, and actors can recreate historic trials for school groups.

When the ‘criminal’ is found guilty, visitors can retrace their steps down into the cells of the former county gaol.

Grim reminders

There we could see grim reminders of historical punishments, such as the stocks, pillory, ducking stool, scold’s bridle and a gibbet – where grisly corpses of executed prisoners would hang, as a warning to others.

Built in 1800, each tiny bare cell would have housed three men, sleeping in hammocks (you’d need to keep off the floor as there was no privy). With nothing but bars on the window, you can only imagine how cold it was in the winter.

As we emerged from the gloom of the cell, we met one of the several character actors who bring the past to life: the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, who was the first woman to speak in Parliament.

Past the women’s cell (where there would be nine or 10 to a bed), we saw the fumigation chamber, then descended further to the dungeons and the oubliette – literally a place to forget condemned prisoners.

We headed outside to the men’s exercise yard and gallows to hear stories of executions, and view original graffiti scratched into the bricks by prisoners.

There are also displays about prisoners transported to Australia; the history of prison reform; and memorabilia, such as the entry about Ruth Ellis – the last woman to be hanged in Britain – in the log book of hangman Albert Pierrepoint.

It all makes you thankful to live in the 21stcentury – but do visit if you can, as it would be a crime to miss it.

The hard cell:

The museum hosts events throughout the year, such as a Christmas murder mystery party.

This year’s theme is ‘Who the Dickens killed Charles’, on selected dates in November and December.

Other events include gin-tasting, banquets, movie showings, ghost tours and ‘terror tours’ – and cakes in the café are highly recommended.

The museum’s education programme includes workshops about crime and punishment, and courtroom events, with activities linked to the curriculum.

The museum has a sister attraction, City of Caves, just five minutes away.

Visitors can explore the historic caves, and book actor-led tours or educational workshops.

Adults: £10.95
Under-18s: £7.95
Over-60s: £9.95

nationaljusticemuseum.org.uk