Museums tell stories of region’s wicked past

Four museums are swapping objects to tell stories of the region’s wicked past – from grim and gruesome to strange and shocking!

‘Wicked Wessex’ is the theme of the latest objects tour by Wessex Museums – a partnership made up of Dorset County Museum, Poole Museum, The Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum. Each has chosen an item from its collection which best fits the theme.

Due to the Dorset County Museum closure for redevelopment, the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Dorchester is being used as an alternative venue to display the Wicked Wessex objects.

The object that has gone on display at the Shire Hall is the Bellarmine Jug, on loan from Wiltshire Museum.

Jugs decorated with a bearded head, known as bellarmines, were common in the 1600s for carrying beer and wine. But they also had another use – as ‘witch bottles’ to ward off evil curses. People who suspected they were bewitched would fill the jugs or bottle with human hair, fingernails and sometimes blood or urine! And bury it underneath their floor or hearthstone, or hide it in the walls of the house. This jug was left at Wiltshire Museum in 2010 by a mystery donor. Thankfully, it didn’t have any gruesome contents! The magic only lasted while a witch bottle was sealed. Luckily this one wasn’t broken when discovered by a labourer digging a road near Bath.

On the Thursday 4 April, from 1pm at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum there will be a chance to hear a 15 min lunchtime talk ‘Folklore meets Science’ where Camilla King from Dorset County Museum and Chemical Analyst, Tony Edmonds will explore the mysterious world of Bellarmine witch jars, but from two very different angles. Camilla will look at the folklore and beliefs that drove people to create these strange objects and Tony will talk about how we can use science to find out more about them. For more information about this event visit our website at

The Bellarmine Jug will be on display until 6 April at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum. So if you don’t get a chance to see it then it will reappear at Poole Museum on the 20 July where it will be on display until 6 July 2019.

Wicked Wessex Tour Programme

19 January – 6 April 2019
Dorset County Museum (via Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum *) – Bellarmine jug
Poole Museum – Martyrs Maquette
The Salisbury Museum – Cat-o’-nine-tails
Wiltshire Museum – Scold’s bridle

20 April – 6 July 2019
Dorset County Museum (via Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum *) – Scold’s bridle
Poole Museum – Bellarmine jug
The Salisbury Museum – Martyrs Maquette
Wiltshire Museum – Cat-o’-nine-tails

20 July – 5 October 2019
Dorset County Museum (via Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum *) – Cat-o’-nine-tails
Poole Museum – Scold’s bridle
The Salisbury Museum – Bellarmine jug
Wiltshire Museum – Martyrs Maquette

Wicked Wessex loan object from the Dorset County Museum

The object to go on tour from the Dorset County Museum’s collection is the Maquette for the Martyrs.

This is a miniature version of a memorial to the Dorset Martyrs, situated on the South Walks in Dorchester. The full-size statues, which had recently been given Grade II listed status by Historic England, stand at the very place where hundreds of people died on Dorchester’s town gallows. The sculptures were created by Dame Elisabeth Frink in memory of the Catholics who were hanged in the 16th and 17th centuries because of their religion.

Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum said “This is a unique opportunity to see this important piece of art, which led to the installation of a public sculpture in Dorchester, by one of the country’s famous artist and sculptor who lived and worked in Dorset. It would seem fitting to display the maquette in a venue which has seen nearly over two hundred years of justice, injustice, crime and punishment and we are very grateful for Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum for their support in hosting this tour by the Wessex Museums Partnership.”