A ‘LEGENDARY’ tunnel has been uncovered underneath a Dorchester shopping street.
The passageway used by the notorious Judge Jeffreys, who instilled widespread fear during the Bloody Assizes of 1685, has been rediscovered underneath Antelope Walk.
The street may be more known now for its range of independent shops and cafes, but they hide a dark past characterised by the notoriously bloodthirsty judge.
Caretaker Terry McGrath was tipped off by his predecessor Bob Clewett about the tunnel, said to be wide enough for three judges to walk side by side, that ran from Judge Jeffreys’ lodgings in High West Street to the Oak Room tea rooms the site where he held his brutal court more than 300 years ago.
Terry, who has a keen interest in archaeology, said: “This is the legendary tunnel where three judges could walk shoulder to shoulder.”
The network of tunnels is also believed to connect to the town’s famous Old Crown Court and cells, which are due to be redeveloped as a major tourist attraction.
Town councillor David Taylor said it was amazing to realise how much history was just underneath shoppers’ feet and said it added to the unique character of Antelope Walk.
The walk dates back to Roman times and the courtyard was the location for the old Roman mint.
Cllr Taylor said: “Antelope Walk is a key part of the history and heritage of Dorchester going back to the Roman period and before.”
He added that he would like to see the tunnels opened up to give public access and celebrate another intriguing piece of Dorchester’s rich and sometimes dark history.
Cllr Taylor said: “I would love to see the whole thing opened up, it could be like the famous tunnels of Exeter that are a huge tourist attraction. It could benefit the whole of Dorchester and be another exciting experience that this county town offers.”
He said it also showed the importance of paying respect to the archaeology beneath the town when developing sites in other part of the town centre.
Cllr Taylor said: “It’s all having empathy for the historical strata that has been left behind. Dorchester is famous for the fact that no stone is upturned without something of historical importance being connected with it.”
GEORGE Jeffreys, First Baron of Wem and Lord Chief Justice, became famous for the ruthless streak he displayed during the Bloody Assizes that followed the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685.
The Duke of Monmouth was executed after a failed attempt to overthrow the king and a series of trials were held across Winchester, Salisbury, Dorchester, Taunton and Wells to send a message to supporters of the rebels.
In Dorchester Judge Jeffreys held court in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel, which is now the Oak Room Tea Rooms.
A total of 302 cases were heard with 74 of the accused executed, 175 transported, nine fined or whipped and 54 discharged.
Some contemporaneous accounts attribute the judge’s blood thirsty and merciless approach to the fact he was suffering from gall or kidney stones at the time. Following the Bloody Assizes Judge Jeffreys was made Lord Chancellor in recognition of his ‘many eminent and faithful services to the crown’.
However, after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when King James II fled to France, Jeffreys also attempted to escape but was captured in a pub after he was recognised by a survivor of the judicial system. He was taken to the Tower of London where he died on April 16, 1689 from kidney disease at the age of 44.
The ghost of Judge Jeffreys is now said to haunt the Antelope courtyard.