The tragedy that occurred in the crowd at the public execution of William Saville, on the steps of the Shire Hall on 8th August 1844, is one of the most notorious and shocking events in Nottingham’s history of crime and punishment, perhaps even more shocking than the murders Saville committed. On the 173rd anniversary of this event, Jonny Parker, a student on a placement from Nottingham Trent University, writes this blog about the crime, the execution, and the way the events of those few weeks made a lasting impression.
William Saville was born around the year 1815. Born into a life of poverty he never knew his Mother as she died when he was only two years old in 1817. As a result he was left in the care of his drunken, aggressive Father, Thomas Saville, who was hardly a suitable role model for William and his young siblings as they were regularly beaten and neglected. Due to the poor conditions in which he lived, William developed many health issues and was sent to Basford Workhouse in an attempt to cure his condition and it is at this time where his poor behaviour and aggressive tendencies first began to show. Reports from this time suggest that William was prone to extreme bouts of violence – a flaw in his character that would haunt him throughout his life.
After his time at Basford Workhouse, he found work as farm servant and then later a stocking weaver. However, his poor behaviour continued and was a definite black mark against his character – he was never going to fit the bill of the stereotypical “English gent”.
Things also began to progress in his personal life as he married Anne Ward in 1835. She was hardly considered desirable however as she was many years William’s senior, had only one eye and an illegitimate son from a previous affair. Nonetheless William married her anyway and had two children with her. Their marriage was far from idyllic as William constantly abused her even when she was pregnant as his problems with alcohol began to increase – it seems as though William had become the very monster that his Father had portrayed to him all those years previously. William also spent 3 months in prison in the year 1837 after stealing a coat and it was this period of imprisonment which Anne referred to as “the happiest time” in their marriage, highlighting the serious problems they had.
Reports suggest that William had a horrible nature as he would frequently lie and twist the truth to recreate himself as a successful figure in the eyes of others. He also abused the good nature of fellow citizens using them for his own personal gain, with some claiming that he was the type of character to “act like a friend whilst you were paying for drinks, but leave as soon as it was his turn to pay”.
This selfish nature in William bore its ugly head again after his release from prison as he convinced his wife that it was best for her and the children to enter a workhouse. This left him free in his own mind to pursue life as a single man.
Whilst his family toiled away in Nottingham Workhouse, William was working in a stocking weaver when a young lady by the name of Elizabeth Tate caught his eye. William began to court Elizabeth under the false pretence that he was single and wished to pursue a serious relationship with her. In the meantime, William was sending parcels of sugar, tea and money to his wife in an attempt to buy her silence and keep her from exposing the truth. However, the delivery of these parcels ceased after a few weeks and it is said that Anne threatened to tell Elizabeth the truth – something that William could not risk as he was planning on marrying and then immigrating with Elizabeth to America. Fearing exposure of his attempted bigamy, in May 1844, William suggested that Anne and their three children meet him in Colwick woods to get away from the harsh realities of workhouse life. Suspecting nothing bad, Anne and the children went along with William, however it was to prove fatal. Underneath the cover of a large tree, William used a razor blade to slit the throats of all four family members and then placed the blade in Anne’s hand in an attempt to frame Anne for the deaths.
Shortly after the murders, the crime became infamous not just within Nottingham but right across the country with claims that new of the crime was reported in newspapers as far afield as Carlisle. Such was the fame of the crime that the spot in which the murders took place in Colwick Woods become a popular tourist attraction with many going to collect souvenirs such as grass and bark from the tree close to the murders. The exact location was also changed to “Saville’s Spinney” which it remained for several years.
Unfortunately for William a young boy was playing truant from school and was actually sat high in the tree when the murders took place meaning he was a witness to the whole event. As such, William was subsequently apprehended and the boys eyewitness account along with Williams’ own self confession to a fellow prisoner, put the verdict beyond doubt – William Saville was to be hanged by the neck until dead for the murders of his wife and three children. Due to the sheer gravity of the evidence against William, it only took an 18 minute deliberation to reach the guilty verdict.
However it was the events that took place on the day of Williams’ execution on 8th August 1844 on the steps of the Shire Hall, modern day National Museum of Justice Museum, which has consigned this case to crime and punishment history. People turned up in there thousands to see the public execution of William Saville, highlighting the case’s rise to fame. Many even stayed through the previous night to make sure that they got a good position to view the hanging. Once the execution had taken place, the large and extremely dense crowd attempted to disperse, although, under pressure from all corners and cramped in to narrow streets, tragedy occurred. Somebody near the edge tripped and fell down the steep steps of Garners Hill, which nowadays are the steps next to the Contemporary Art Museum. This caused a mass collapse of people resulting in the deaths of twelve people and the injury of many more – including the death of 9 year old Thomas Easthorpe (the youngest person to die in the event) along with his 14 year old sister Mary.
After an extensive inquiry in to what happened, the Shire Hall did not accommodate another public execution for 16 years, showing that the execution of William Saville resulted in the way in which public executions were perceived in Nottingham.
The remains of William Saville lie within the courtyard of the current museum and it is said that the restless ghost of Saville still haunts the building to this very day.