August 7, 2016, by Kathryn Steenson

Mr William Saville’s Crime

William Saville (1815-1844) is not a resident that Nottingham, or any other city, would boast about. The child of a violent drunkard who grew up to become a murderer would have been little more than a footnote in Nottingham’s history had it not been for the terrible events at his execution.

Page from a printed pamphlet on the trial, listing the names of the juryThe whole story is told in the 1844 pamphlet “Some particulars of the life, trial, behaviour, and execution of William Saville, for the wilful murder of his wife and three children: with a full account of the fatal accident at the execution” (Ref: EMSC Not 3.H64 SAV). Much of it is taken from local newspaper reports and includes the trial report, a biography, Saville’s confession, a report of his execution and subsequent tragedy, and a list of the dead and wounded including some excerpts from the inquests.

As the pamphlet’s title makes clear, Saville was convicted of murdering his wife Ann (aged 38) and their children Harriet (7), Mary (5) and Thomas (3) on 21st May 1844.

Ann was not considered a ‘good’ catch. Ten years older than Saville and missing an eye, she had already had one illegitimate child by another man when she fell pregnant by Saville, who wasn’t held in high regard by the community either. Social pressure and the promise of a house from her relatives persuaded them to marry. From the outset Saville was an abusive tyrant. Ann reportedly said the happiest she had been during her marriage was when her husband was imprisoned for theft.

At the time of the murder, Ann and the children were in Nottingham Workhouse. Saville sent weekly parcels of tea and sugar, either as his way of supporting his family, or to buy Ann’s silence. He found employment as a stocking weaver and began a relationship with a young lady.

The jury believed that his often-expressed desire to marry her was sincere. That was his motive for luring his inconvenient family to Colwick Wood and slitting their throats with a razor, which he then placed in his wife’s hand to frame her.

The case was reported nationally and gripped the public imagination. Hundreds visited the site of the murders, rather gruesomely named by locals ‘Saville’s Spinney’, to take twigs and leaves as souvenirs.

Names, ages and injuries of people taken to the General Hospital after the crush

Court reports described him as 5 ft 6 inches tall with thinning dark hair and a sallow complexion. His calm demeanour did not befit a murderer, but the pamphlet thoroughly outlines the evidence against him: witnesses who saw all five heading to the woods; neighbours and colleagues who attested to his temper and dishonesty; and physicians who examined the bodies and testified that Ann could not be responsible for either the neck wounds or the bloody handprint on her clothing.

The jury convicted Saville after 18 minutes’ deliberation. He was sentenced to hang outside the Shire Hall on High Pavement at 8am on 7th August. Tens of thousands turned out to watch, but the larger than usual crowd did not alarm the authorities, who were used to public executions passing uneventfully (except for the condemned). This lackadaisical attitude to public safety was officially blamed for what happened by the inquest jury, who believed the authorities should have realised that a surge of people all trying to leave at once through the narrow streets was a crush waiting to happen.

It finally happened on that August morning, shortly after Saville was pronounced dead. The occupants of buildings along the route opened doors and windows to relieve the pressure on those crushed against walls and attempts were made to alert those at the back to slow down. People were trampled underfoot as the momentum pushed people along. As the head of the crowd entered the narrow steps of Garners Hill, leading to Narrow Marsh, someone slipped, and people started tumbling down the steps.

Garners Hill as of 2015 - steps at the side of Nottingham Contemporary

Garners Hill as of 2015

Twelve people died at the scene and several more succumbed to their injuries over the following weeks. Many more were hurt, suffering from crushing, bruising and broken bones. The youngest victim was 9-year old Thomas Easthorpe, killed alongside his older sister Mary. The oldest was a watchman aged 70, John Spinks, who lingered several days after having his thigh amputated.

The most striking fact is that the majority of the dead were barely into their teens. They had been given permission to go to the execution by their family or employers. In our modern society where audiences have to be at least 15 to see strong fictional violence in a film, it is shocking that a hanging was considered a suitable and fun entertainment for a 9-year old.

There were two other public executions in Nottingham before the practice was outlawed in 1868, both much more organised than Saville’s hanging. Were it not for the crush, Saville’s crime would have vanished from memory as much as it has from the physical landscape. Houses were built on Saville’s Spinney in the 20th century. The Shire Hall is now the Galleries of Justice Museum. Today the steps of Garners Hill, which run beside Nottingham Contemporary to a car park, are wide and well-maintained. There is nothing to indicate the events of 1844.

Posted in From the collectionsOn this day