Court in the act

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Justice was thin on the ground in Victorian times, as Gillian Thomas discovers in a reconstruction of a notorious murder case.

Charlotte Dymond was 17, an illegitimate girl from Boscastle in north Cornwall. Matthew Weeks was a 23-year-old who walked with a limp. Both worked as servants on a remote moorland farm at Davidstow. In April 1844, Charlotte was murdered on desolate Bodmin Moor. Matthew was hanged for the crime. But did he really do it?

Now visitors to Bodmin's Shire Hall are invited to make up their own minds at the Courtroom Experience in the newly-refurbished Victorian building, which, until recently, housed the county court.

Sitting as the jury in Court Room 1, where Matthew was sentenced to death, they watch a 45-minute reconstruction of his trial. At the time, the case proved highly controversial because Matthew was convicted solely on circumstantial evidence. Ever since, doubts have lingered that he was not the real murderer but the victim of a hasty cover-up.

Schoolchildren who have taken part in the reconstruction since it opened last year have invariably found it a vivid but disturbing lesson in the workings of the Victorian legal system.

The clerk of the court ushers visitors in to the benches of the former public gallery. The lights are then dimmed and the trial is played out by realistic-looking animated models.

An effort is made to be as authentic as possible. The proceedings are presided over by a judge in wig and red robes, and two barristers present the evidence. Several witnesses are called. Matthew stands silently in the dock: prisoners (as defendants were called at that time) were not allowed to speak in their own defence.

To help the audience follow the evidence, a newspaper reporter acts as a narrator by commenting on crucial points. There are also "flashbacks" shown in black and white on a screen, creating an atmospheric picture of the locations. For instance, the audience see images of Matthew and Charlotte leaving the farm together, followed by shots of the lonely moors with a shadowy figure in the distance. While the audience could not tell who this was, two of the witnesses claimed to be in no doubt. Even at a quarter of a mile awa, another said he could tell the person had a limp. Suspicions of a conspiracy are further aroused when the police witness points out that Charlotte's death certificate stated - even before the trial - that the cause of death was "murder by Matthew Weeks".

However, there is no doubt about where Charlotte's body was found. An eight-foot tall granite monument, erected shortly afterwards, still marks the spot beside Roughtor Ford. It is unlikely that Charlotte had friends or relatives who could afford such a monument, so how did it get there? Matthew's name has been included as the murderer. Was someone determined to fix his "guilt" firmly in the public mind?

Back in 1844, long before the term "miscarriage of justice" was recognised, the jury of the day was unanimous in its verdict. However, when the clerk invited the audience to cast our votes by pressing buttons by our seats, we decided overwhelmingly that the case against Matthew had not been proved.

Stephanie Meads, the heritage education officer for North Cornwall, says that schools find visits relevant to several areas of the curriculum. "Citizenship, Victorian history and creative writing are the most obvious ones. We also hope that the trial will encourage children's interest in the whole Bodmin area as most of the buildings and locations involved can still be seen."

Afterwards, the clerk led us down into the cramped holding cells below the court which, just as in Matthew's day, are dingy and smelly. Displays explain that the convicts faced a notorious treadmill at Bodmin gaol, transportation to Australia or death on the gallows.

Sadly, however cautious modern juries are about apportioning guilt in a case of murder, it can't help the unfortunate Matthew, who faced the ultimate sanction.

The Courtroom Experience Shire Hall, Mount Folly, Bodmin, Cornwall PL31 2DQ. Tel: 01208 7661674159. The Courtroom Experience, hourly 11am-3pm, Monday to Saturday. Children pound;1. Email: A teaching pack on the Victorian legal systemis planned. Schools are also being invited to use the refurbished Court Room 2 for their own mock trials and debates. Education officer: Stephanie Meads. Tel: 01208 265631.

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